Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday easily defeated a vote of no-confidence taken by the opposition over his handling of a deadly ethnic conflict in Manipur, and in a two-hour speech dismissed the move as a vain attempt to "defame India".
More than 180 people have been killed, many hundreds more wounded and tens of thousands rendered homeless since May in Manipur, but Modi failed to publicly address the violence until last month.
The no-confidence vote, moved by a new, Congress-led opposition alliance called "INDIA", was easily defeated as expected, with opposition lawmakers walking out of the legislature in protest even before the motion was put to vote.
Critics said Modi's refusal to address in public the ethnic conflict in a state ruled by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reinforced perceptions that, in domestic matters, the interests his party and Hindu nationalist constituency come first.
"They love to defame India, they have no faith in the people of India, in the abilities of India," Modi said in his 130-minute speech which was laced with nationalism and rhetorical flourishes.
"They have tried in vain to break the self-confidence of Indians with this no-confidence vote," he said, speaking in Hindi. BJP lawmakers thumped their desks in approval and often cheered him by shouting "Modi, Modi".
In what was effectively an election speech at the end of a three-day debate in parliament, Modi listed the achievements of his nine years in power and trashed the record of his rivals.
The focus of the attacks was Congress, seen as the biggest threat to Modi's BJP.
The stand-off has raised the political temperature eight months before national elections are due in the world's largest democracy - and one of its fastest growing economies - due in April-May 2024. Surveys show Modi remains highly popular and is widely expected to win a third term.
"PEACE EFFORTS IN MANIPUR"
On Wednesday, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi ripped into Modi's handling of Manipur, saying his government had divided the state, broken it and burnt it.
Opposition lawmakers frequently shouted "Manipur, Manipur" as Modi spoke on Thursday, seeking to get him to talk about it.
Gandhi entered parliament after Modi was about 75 minutes into his speech and the entire opposition walked out about 15 minutes later.
A Congress statement said the INDIA alliance walked out as Modi was "being evasive about and denying justice to Manipur besides ignoring all other pressing issues facing the country".
Modi spoke about Manipur after the opposition walk-out.
"The way in which efforts are being made, there will soon be peace in Manipur," he said.
"I also want to appeal to the people of Manipur, the country is with you, this house is with you, we will all join hands and find a solution to this challenge," Modi said.
"Let us walk together, not use Manipur for political games ... understand their pain and find a solution."
Modi's interior minister Amit Shah on Wednesday blamed the unrest in Myanmar for the ethnic conflict in neighbouring Manipur and urged both sides in the dispute to resolve it through dialogue.
Gilles Verniers, senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said the no-confidence vote was more about opposition parties “flexing muscles” and showing that they can work in unison than hurting Modi politically.
“This inspires confidence for them because they are managing to put some points across on important political issues despite an adversarial parliament,” he said. (Reuters)