What the defeat in Rajya Sabha means: Modi, Amit Shah are losing control of the agenda

Has Narendra Modi lost the plot? The stinging rebuke he received in the Rajya Sabha yesterday (3 March), where a Left-sponsored amendment to the motion of thanks to the President's speech was carried by a thumping 118-57 majority, should be his final wake-up call.

The fact that this political embarrassment was caused in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is hopelessly outnumbered, is not material. What matters is the underlying message: from now on the opposition may end up setting the agenda, not the government, unless the latter figures out a way to reverse this.

If even the President's speech is going to be annotated by the opposition, no government legislation is safe. While the Land Acquisition Bill is DOA, one cannot presume even the insurance and coal bills will pass muster. The opposition has smelt blood. It will go for the jugular the next time if Modi does not watch out.

The Modi government has united opposition parties. PTI Image

The Modi government has united opposition parties. PTI Image

The reality that the government has so far been unable to acknowledge, forget digest, is that the opposition's motivation to defeat Modi is stronger - much stronger - than the NDA's motivation to get things done. Modi's NDA allies cannot any longer be counted on to back the government for they see greater benefit in cutting the BJP down to size than in doing positive work.

Why is this happening?

Simple: the BJP's growing political ambitions and Modi's ability to grow the base is scaring the daylights out of every opposition party – including the party's key allies.

This is why the Trinamool Congress actually supported a Left-sponsored amendment to the vote of thanks - something unthinkable earlier. This is why Nitish Kumar swallowed his pride to kowtow to Lalu Prasad, his sworn enemy.

Modi has to draw lessons from this story of the dog who was chasing a deer on behalf of his master. The dog lost the chase and the prey escaped. When the master asked his dog why he could not run faster, the dog replied that he was running for his master’s food, while the deer was running for his life. Or words to that effect.

The moral of the story: someone who is fighting for his life will fight harder than someone who is fighting for someone else's interests. Right now, the opposition is fighting for its political life, while Modi's allies are fighting for the government's credibility - which is less important to them than their own political relevance.

All allies - including potential allies in some states - know that the BJP can grow only at their expense, and this is why they are plotting the BJP's downfall.

Consider the Shiv Sena, the BJP longest-serving ally. It got a bloody nose in the October assembly polls at the BJP’s hands, and, to make matters worse, Amit Shah tried giving the Sena the cold-shoulder till the BJP realised there could be no government without the Sena. Little wonder, the Sena now sees the BJP as a bigger enemy than Congress or NCP or even the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is going after the Sena's core Marathi manoos base. The Sena will do everything to scuttle Modi's initiatives, including the Land Bill.

Or consider the Akalis, another long-term BJP ally. The Punjab assembly has just passed a resolution opposing the Land Bill. It will oppose other things in future. The Akalis face an existential threat to their future from the Aam Aadmi Party - which has gained traction in Punjab, as a recent opinion poll shows - and a future threat from the BJP, which too can grow better without the Akalis. The Akali Dal is desperately seeking emotive issues to ensure its political survival - and this can come only by asserting itself with the BJP.

The same goes for Telugu Desam or potential allies outside the NDA - like the AIADMK or the BJD. They all fear the BJP’s potential to grow in their home bases, as do the Trinamool Congress or the JD(U).

Given this solid antagonism, the situation is fast slipping out of the BJP's hands. The party thus has to read the writing on the wall before it is too late.

First, the Land Bill will have to be sacrificed or mauled badly in the interest of getting some of the other bills passed.

Second, fantasies about passing legislation through a joint session of parliament – however real they may have seemed in May 2014 - have to be given up for the simple reason that even the BJP's allies are not going to be easy to convince on any law. They will have to be cajoled, lured, threatened or bludgeoned to back the government’s bills.

Third, NDA-2 will find itself as hobbled as UPA-3 in its ability to pass sensible legislation. Only bad and populist ideas will pass muster unless Modi reformulates his political strategy.

Fourth, Modi has to realise that growing the party will come at the expense of governance and his legislative agenda. This is not to say he should not grow his party - that would be suicidal - but the governance strategy has to be separated from the party agenda.

Fifth, Modi has to reset his failing agenda and reassess strategy quickly for effectiveness. This means curtailing and reorienting his legislative or governance ambitions to focus on areas he can directly influence. Everything else will require a huge amount of political capital investment at a time when the government’s honeymoon period has ended.

Modi needs to have a three-point to-do list. This is what it may look like.

Top of his list should be the 80:20 rule. He should focus most of his efforts on doing the things that the executive can fully control, and in which a Lok Sabha majority itself will be enough. This means a focus on budgets, money bills, and executive action, not controversial legislation that needs wider consensus.

The second point on his to-do list should be to start setting his long-term agenda for the 2019 elections. He has to select his themes for 2019 now, and this theme can only be federalism. For example, he should personally campaign for the creation of more states and the deletion of the concurrent list where both centre and states can legislate. He should make states an offer they can't refuse: he must take the centre out of many crucial areas of legislation, giving states full control, including land-related legislation. He should seek the abolition of the Land Acquisition Act rather than try and amend it. Let states set their own land laws. This would set the agenda where states will have to take the responsibility for what they claim to want. Right now they can pretend they want tougher land acquisition laws when they actually want the opposite.

The third on the to-do list should be to push smaller pieces of legislation that are not contentious or politically difficult. Even here, he has to allow the opposition to tinker with his bills, and abandon bills where the opposition amendments can only make things worse. In other words, Modi's legislative agenda must be unobtrusive and clever to get through the occasional cracks in opposition unity.

Over the last three months, Modi and Amit Shah have clearly lost the plot and have allowed the opposition to set the agenda. If Modi wants to be more than just a single-term Prime Minister, he has to reset the agenda and take control. Amit Shah must be given a different brief to grow the party. What worked till the J&K elections will not work any more.

Updated Date: Mar 04, 2015 19:13 PM

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