Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emotional speech in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday was a throwback to an era of parliamentary politics when it was not unusual for political opponents to praise each other. He credited four outgoing Opposition leaders, including Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad, for giving him suggestions and sharing insights. He also heaped praise on their work ethic.
Modi tearfully acknowledgement Azad’s compassionate response to a 2006 terror attack in Jammu & Kashmir that left tourists from Gujarat dead. The reference was seen to embody late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s description of conciliatory politics allowing room for “matbhed [difference of opinion]” but not “manbhed [personal differences]” and also Parliament’s tradition of balancing fiery speeches with courteousness.
Modi, who led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to massive wins in the 2014 and 2019 national elections, does not shy away from attacking his opponents in bitterly fought elections. But he has on several occasion showered praise on them as well.
In his first speech to both Houses of Parliament in 2014, Modi said he welcomes criticism from the Opposition as it would ensure that the government does not succumb to arrogance. “Without your support, my mandate is incomplete. So, I will seek your support and guidance as we proceed,” he said.
He also sought cooperation from the Opposition, saying, “… Let’s work together in the first four years and do politics in the last year.”
A year later, on the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, he praised all previous governments including India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for their contribution to nation building. “No one can say that the earlier governments have not done anything for this country,” he said.
A similar suggestion of conciliation and cooperation was the highlight of his speech when he returned to power in 2019 with a majority of 303 in the Lok Sabha. Setting aside the acrimony of the election campaign, Modi reached out to India’s minorities, saying “sabka vishwas [everyone’s trust]” has been added to his slogan of “sabka saath, sabka vikas [development for all]”. “We stand for those who trusted us and also those whose trust we have to win over.”
Over the years, Modi has taken to complimenting opponents to break impasse or send the message that he is not impervious to alliances or unreceptive to the Opposition. This has come even as the BJP has been accused by the Opposition of pushing ahead with legislation on the strength of numbers instead of following the due process as was the case in the farm bills, which were not referred to a select committee.
The Opposition also sees a design in the selective praise of leaders. They read political subtext in the praise, which they feel is aimed at exposing the schism in other parties. The reference to G-23 (the Congress leaders who had written to Sonia Gandhi for the need to bring about changes in the party’s functioning) while praising Azad is cited as a case in point.
Most recently, while speaking during the discussion on the motion of thanks on the President’s address, which also included a discussion on the ongoing farmers’ agitation, Modi thanked former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda for his contribution to the discussion on farm reforms. “He [Gowda] has a strong association with the agriculture sector,” Modi said.
In the same speech, Modi also praised Azad for his oratory. He said that parliamentarians should learn from Azad how to communicate without resorting to uncivil language. It came when Parliament witnessed daily disruption as the Opposition rallied against farm reforms.
Modi has also praised former Union minister Sharad Pawar more than once. In 2015, In Pawar’s pocket borough of Baramati, where he inaugurated an agricultural technology centre, Modi said, “I keep talking with Pawar at least twice or thrice a month and we exchange notes on various issues faced by the country. We need to use Pawar’s more than five decades [of] experience in public life.”
He said that whenever projects related to Gujarat hit a roadblock during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule when he was the state chief minister, he turned to Pawar to help him sort out issues with the central government.
Speaking on the occasion of the 250th session of the Rajya Sabha, Modi appreciated Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
“These parties have wonderfully adhered to Parliamentary norms. They have never ventured into the Well. Yet, they have made their point very effectively. Much can be learnt from these practices,” he said.
While the BJP defends heaping of praise as a parliamentary etiquette, political pundits and Modi critics attribute motives to it. For instance, Modi’s words of appreciation for Pawar came ahead of the latter’s meeting with Sonia Gandhi for a discussion about a prospective alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. The BJP, despite being the single largest party, failed to form the government in the state after its long-term ally, the Shiva Sena, left the alliance over differences related to power sharing.
Similarly, Modi overtures towards the BJD were read as a signal of an incipient alliance between the two parties.
Ahead of the 2019 election, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav also praised Modi in the Lok Sabha and said he wanted to see him return as Prime Minister.