How Effective Has the No-Confidence Motion Been in Holding the Ruling Party Accountable?

A reading list examining the efficacy of the vote of no-confidence in parliamentary politics.

 

The Congress–Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in Karnataka has been in a lurch since 18 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) resigned. All parties cloistered off MLAs in various resorts prior to Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s floor test on 18 July. Will the motion for confidence result in a change in government in Karnataka? Political analysts have speculated that the floor-test will end with a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government being installed in Karnataka. 

In July 2018, the BJP government at the centre was also subjected to a vote of no-confidence. Fifteen years after the previous vote of no-confidence in Parliament, on 20 July 2018, Rahul Gandhi had called for a floor-test against the ruling government for discriminating against minorities. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to answer for a number of issues that Gandhi raised, the Modi government won the motion of no-confidence by a large margin. 

Given the nature of coalition politics in India, votes of no-confidence have occurred every-now-and-then since independence. A vote of no-confidence signifies a political crisis. While these motions serve to complicate the political discourse and allows the opposition to register their dissent, does the motion help to address the crisis? 

In this reading list, we look at the history of no-confidence motions in India to answer that question. 

1) The Era of Congress Dominance

Jawaharlal Nehru faced the first vote of no-confidence in India in 1963, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 when his popularity along with that of the Congress began to fall. The charges levelled in 1963 by Acharya J B Kripalani were largely concerned with Nehru’s foreign policy, though he did also mention the stagnation of the agricultural economy. However, owing to the absolute majority that the Congress held in the Lok Sabha, the motion could not seriously challenge Nehru’s position.

A decade later, EPW correspondent M R relayed the proceedings within Parliament when Indira Gandhi faced a no-confidence motion in 1973, just before Lenoid Brezhnev’s visit. Though the charges against Indira Gandhi were articulated by Jyotirmoy Bosu of the CPI–M, Bosu was not supported by his party, which was of the opinion that the Indian government was being embarrassed on the eve of Brezhnev’s visit. In a debate that lasted for 11 hours, Bosu levelled bold allegations, saying, “Mrs Gandhi is the fountainhead of all corruption.” M R listed some of the charges that Bosu brought against the ruling government, such as the failure to implement land reforms and to institute ceilings on the ownership of urban property, the prospect of multi-national companies operating on a larger scale, the failure to curb black money, etc. Bosu was supported by all other members of the Opposition, with Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Jan Sangh claiming that the nation had lost confidence in the government. Indira Gandhi and the Congress were not concerned by these proceedings in Parliament, wrote M R, given the overwhelming majority she enjoyed.  

“The Ministerial intervention — by Y B Chavan and Jagjivan Ram — aimed to turn the tables on the Opposition, made out as if the no-confidence motion was against others and not against the Government, Even the Prime Minister's speech 'attempted that. The Government had the majority and it could not care less about all the charges of corruption; these charges were repeatedly denounced and brushed aside as 'character-assassination' and 'mud-slinging'. Listening to these speeches the inescapable impression was that the Government regarded the Opposition as a total redundancy, with no legitimacy in the context of the massive majority it enjoyed. … The Government evidently did not feel obliged to answer any of the specific questions. The people were behind Indira Gandhi and history would vindicate her. That was surely enough to silence critics and to restore sunshine to those trafficking in public credulity. The Congress benches cheered repeatedly when the Prime Minister spoke; their reflexes have been trained, in Pavlovian manner.”

That Indira Gandhi faced as many as 12 motions of no-confidence while in office between 1966 and 1977 shows that the Opposition was concerned about her growing authoritarian tendencies. However, as M R noted, the Opposition failed to ask difficult questions concerning the erosion of democracy. For instance, in 1973, while trying to hold Indira Gandhi accountable, the Opposition did not ask for the state of emergency to be removed. 

An article titled "Unending Emergency" that appeared in EPW’s on 8 December 1973 echoed M R’s concern that “the Opposition which denounced the misuse of power and suppression of democratic rights did not feel it necessary either to demand the end to the continued state of emergency”.  External threats, in the form of China and Pakistan, were cited as explanations for the continued state of emergency, though the article suggests that the need for a prolonged state of emergency had passed.

“It could be due to cynical callousness or just out of a sense of helplessness that no one thought it necessary, in the course of the debate on the no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, to demand the end of the state of emergency, now two years old. The state of emergency was proclaimed the day the India-Pakistan war began early in December 1971. But when the demand to end the state of emergency was raised, there was a ready-made answer — the threat from Pakistan was a continuing one and only alter durable peace had been achieved in the subcontinent could the government think of revoking the state of emergency.”

2) Post Emergency

The Janata Party came to power in 1977 with Morarji Desai at the helm, riding the anti-Congress tide in the aftermath of the Emergency. The party was a conglomerate of several smaller Opposition parties and the Congress (O), who had united against Indira Gandhi’s government. Consequently, they did not necessarily form a seamless and cogent political entity. Often accused of ad hoc politics, in 1979, Desai was subjected to a motion of no-confidence in Parliament. The charges that were built-up against him accused his government of falling into the same authoritarian patterns that had existed during the Emergency that the Janata Party had come together to fight against. Contrary to previous instances of votes of no-confidence however, members of Desai’s own party seemed to have lost confidence in Desai, as per an article titled "Larger Crisis" that appeared in EPW in 1979.

“The no-confidence motion moved by the Congress on the opening day of the monsoon session of Parliament has been accompanied by many resignations from the Janata Parliamentary Party. The motion was admitted on Monday; and by Wednesday, the party had lost its majority in Parliament. The Prime Minister has continued to speak confidently of riding the crisis and surviving the no-confidence motion, but few Janata leaders appear so optimistic; and barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, the Desai government will be out of office next week. The decisive contribution to the fall of the government is being made not by the Opposition, but by dissident elements within the Janata party itself.”

3) Buying Confidence

After a three-year interlude when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she faced three more motions of no-confidence. In September 1982, when yet another no-confidence motion was passed in Parliament, Romesh Thapar described in great detail the alarming nature of the political crisis that the country had been plunged into. In his analysis, the several other problems that the country was facing – be they economic or social – were symptomatic of this deeper political crisis. So, although the Opposition mustered up a motion of no-confidence against Indira Gandhi, Thapar writes suggestively that she may have been able to skirt the issue by buying up parts of a fragmented opposition, thereby dividing them effectively.

“There is a story doing the rounds about the last no-confidence motion in Parliament. It is worth recording. The original move to launch such a motion took place when Indira Gandhi was in the throes of her preparation for the US visit. When she heard that it was a united Opposition move, she made it clear to the CPI(M) bigwigs that there would be no monies for Jyoti Basu in Bengal if his party had no confidence in her! Very soon, it is said, P Ramamurthy was moving around the leaderships of the Opposition parties suggesting that maybe it would be better to take up the no-confidence motion at the end of the session. He was at his eloquent and persuasive best. The lazy Opposition, far from being obsessive about Indira Gandhi as is alleged by Indira Gandhi herself, readily agreed. Soon after the vital funds were released to the West Bengal government. Jyoti Basu went one step further. He paid the Prime Minister several compliments.”

4) Coalition Politics

A rather odd situation presented itself in 1993, when Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao found himself facing a vote of no-confidence after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. As an article titled "Some Headway" noted in July 1993, the Left Front and the Janata Dal were joined by the BJP in criticising Narasimha Rao’s minority government for failing to contain communal forces within the country following the dispute at Ayodhya. Though Rao managed to win the vote with a small margin, the article illustrates how the constitutional provision can be manipulated by the Opposition in a bid for power.

“It was, on the face of it, ludicrous for the BJP to support a motion expressing lack of confidence in the government for, among other grounds, specifically "its compromising attitude to communal forces resulting in failure to tackle the threat to the secular basis of the Constitution arising out of the Ayodhya dispute and its aftermath" and "not bringing to book those responsible for the demolition of the mosque structure at Ayodhya". It supported the motion, moved by the CPI(M), not only out of the calculation that the possible defeat of the government might hasten mid-term elections in which it claims to be confident of significantly improving its strength in parliament if not of actually winning an outright majority. The BJP needed the no-confidence motion to break the logjam in the Congress(I) after the demolition of the Babri masjid in December last and the communal, mostly anti-Muslim, violence sparked by it which has compelled prime minister Narasimha Rao, who had till then followed a more or less explicit strategy of tilting to the BJP to ensure the continuance of his minority government, to strike anti-BJP postures and, most important of all, dismiss the four BJP state governments formed after the last elections.”

Eventually, when the BJP came to power in 1996 led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he had to resign in 13 days for losing the confidence of the Lok Sabha, which by then was constituted by representatives from various regional parties. Vajpayee had to face another vote of no-confidence in August 2003, for appointing George Fernandes as the defence minister. Vajpayee won with a large margin of 312 to 186 votes. Describing coalition politics as a “game of horse-trading and striking mutually convenient deals”, Sumanta Banerjee assessed the debate in Parliament as redundant with both the Congress and the BJP engaging in whataboutery.

“At the end of it all, when we muse over the debate – both inside and outside parliament – we are left in a chamber of mirrors. The 1984 massacre of Sikhs under the Congress regime found its reflection in the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat under the BJP regime; the ritualistic scene of ‘shilanyas’ presided over by the Rajiv Gandhi government in Ayodhya in 1989 reproduced itself in the more horrifying and devastating image of the BJP-led demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 (presided over again by another Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao); the Tehelka exposures mimicked the Bofors scandal. The roles of the dramatis personae in all these plays enacted by the two rivals are relieved by no examples of morality and self-respect.”

 

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