‘Shart e saliqa hai har ek amr mein,
Aeb bhi karne ko hunar chahiye’
Mir Taqi Mir
(There is a condition: you need skill,
Even doing the bad thing well)

The no confidence debate in Parliament was the Opposition’s plan B. Since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi obstinately refused to make a statement on the three month long violence in Manipur, the opposition set up a debate as a frame within which it could slot Manipur.

In other words, Manipur would be a square on the chessboard and speakers on both sides of the aisle would have all the 64 squares to amble or sprint on in the course of the debate.

The strategy provided PM Modi with the opportunity to tease and taunt the opposition, to strut all over the board for 90 minutes of his 120 minutes speech without as much as mentioning Manipur. Only when an exasperated Opposition walked out and the Prime Minister saw the last few opposition members sulking out that he swiftly switched to Manipur.

It was like a prank: ‘I shall starve you of my voice on Manipur. Only when I see the backs of you will I give the House my take on the North East.’

In the latter part of his speech, as in the earlier one, he proceeded to joust with the Congress and I.N.D.I.A., alternately. He extracted a giggle for his take on I.N.D.I.A. as “two ‘I’ inserted in NDA.” The ‘I’, he suggested, stood for the all important Ego.

The second ‘I’ presumably stood for Indira Gandhi who became the prime target as he turned his attention to Manipur. On March 5 1966, according to Modi, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered aerial bombardment of Manipur. He did not spare Jawaharlal Nehru either.

What was Nehru to be blamed for? Well, during the 1962 debacle with China in a radio broadcast Nehru said his heart went out to the people of Assam. Not a word about the North East.

When Modi had a formidable list of Congress misdeeds in his bag he started trotting them out, one by one. What followed sent something like this: “Modi: Who ordered airstrikes on Manipur?” Treasury benches in chorus: “Congress!”

PM Modi did this serially, his Members of Parliament picking up the cue like they had been in the drill for years. I doubt if Lok Sabha had ever witnessed such a circus. And the performance was only for the TV cameras. The opposition had walked out by now.

PM Modi’s control on his flock is breathtaking.

Opposite this brigade, in perfect lock step, was the nascent I.N.D.I.A. alliance, the glue still fresh between the crevices.

PM Modi almost gave notice that he will do his best to disrupt the new alliance. A simple ploy to keep the alliance unsettled is to project the 2024 general elections as a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest. The allies will be scared stiff at this projection and some may even jump off.

It is a disruptive issue to be raised at this stage of the proceedings. That is why it suits the Prime Minister’s election machinery of which a large section of the media has chosen to be a part, to play Modi and RG as principal combatants in the 2024 electoral Kurukshetra.

There persists, nevertheless, a coterie of the impatient who privately believe this projection is valid. Why not, they ask, after the new image RG has acquired? Which new image?

Well, RG’s image has received a considerable boost after the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Also the smooth functioning of Malikarjun Kharge as party President and RG as one team is laudable.

Descendants of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist party are now in the new alliance. They were reminded by Modi of Lohia’s sharp criticism of Nehru, including the latter’s neglect of the North East.

This is just a foretaste of the assaults on the alliance which will become sharper as campaigning picks up. In many ways PM Modi’s response to the debate was his first 2024 election speech. The slogan for the campaign was clear as daylight: give me a third term and I guarantee that “we shall be the world’s third greatest economy.”

There are minefields I.N.D.I.A. has to go through before it welds into a stable front. One example of a mine which could impede progress is the Congress’s equation with, say, TRS (now Bharat Rashtra Samithi). Pundits had earlier placed Congress at Number 3 in the race. The real tussle was between TRS and the BJP.

More recently punters are changing their bets. The closest contest could be between TRS and the Congress. How will these swords be placed in the same scabbard? Contradictions are strewn all over the turf which straddles I.N.D.I.A.

In the three day debate, why did RG choose to make an appearance on the second day when a large number of TV watchers did not expect him to? There was great expectation on the first day.

What was the advice from the media team, assuming that the party has one? By switching his slot to the second day, RG, Congress and I.N.D.I.A. lost hundreds of thousands of viewers.

There are two broad questions being asked of his performance. Does he have the making of a statesman of gravitas who marshals his facts and develops the architecture of his presentation in a forum like Parliament?

The other is: Has he outgrown his somewhat boyish demeanour? Let us face it, with considerable brevity he was able to pin Modi down with sharp questions. Why have you neither visited Manipur nor spoken on the state which has been burning for three months? And, why are you trailing, with a matchbox in hand, the kerosene (communalism) you have sprinkled across the country? Ofcourse, PM Modi said nothing.

Sadly, there was no one in the opposition ranks or on the treasury benches who could ask RG and his cohorts “Why have you not visited Haryana which has been on fire since July 31 – it is barely an hour’s drive from New Delhi?”