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Friday, September 17, 2021

Rear View: And she didn’t have 272

Sonia was unable to attract allies, cobble together the numbers to form government. Vajpayee’s stint as caretaker prime minister sealed the outcome of the next election.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: June 15, 2015 12:50:26 am
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi, Congress, indian express columns, inder malhotra column, inder malhotra indian express, indian express news Sonia Gandhi was, of course, the first to go. (Source: Express photo by C R Sasikumar)

With Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruminating ruefully over the fall of his government for want of just one vote, the Congress party’s hopes of quickly forming an alternative government headed by Sonia Gandhi rose fast. The wily and pragmatic patriarch of the CPM, Harkishan Singh Surjit, had quietly conveyed to 10 Janpath that the Left Front would back a Sonia-led government without joining it. Lalu Prasad, the supremo of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, though under trial for the massive fodder scam, was even more supportive. Self-styled Machiavellis in the coterie surrounding the Congress president were convinced that all other “secular parties” would take the same stand because they wanted to get rid of the “communal BJP” for good. For her part, Sonia Gandhi was not yet familiar with the complexities and intricacies of Indian politics, or of the deviousness of politicians. So she relied on her advisors, among whom Arjun Singh was the principal strategist. Soon enough, he told the media that any numeral deficiency would be made up by “migratory birds”. In other words, the Congress had no compunction about admitting that it would not hesitate to bring about defections from the BJP camp. Until then, the party’s boast had been that Rajiv Gandhi was the only prime minister to get the anti-defection law passed to end the chronic curse of “politics without principles”.

It was in this atmosphere that President K.R. Narayanan fixed a date for all those staking a claim to form a government to meet him and explain how they would muster a majority. Sonia Gandhi was, of course, the first to go. After talking to the president, she announced in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan that she had told the president that she did not have a majority at that precise moment but had “advised him that within two days, we will have 272 (the majority mark in the Lok Sabha) with more coming in”. This was her big blunder. There was no way she could make good her claim. Not a single “migratory bird” had flown into the Congress coop. Sonia’s credibility plummeted and her “dream started turning into a nightmare”.

Her counsellors had foolishly forgotten that however secular the regional parties, each one of them had made it crystal clear that they were equally opposed to both the BJP and the Congress. Remarkably, they never made any bones about this even when they ruled at the Centre (1996-98) first under the leadership of H.D. Deve Gowda and then of I.K. Gujral. Even though their government was totally dependent on the Congress’s support “from outside”, it went on advertising its equidistance from the two mainstream parties. It is also a measure of the Indian style of politics that the Congress pulled the plug on both Gowda and Gujral, which is how the BJP and its allies had come to power in the first place.

While the Congress party’s desperate, last-minute efforts to gather support were still on, it was Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party with 17 members in the Lok Sabha, almost all of them from Uttar Pradesh, who put an end to the charade. He declared that the Congress could not be allowed to rule alone. It must either include other parties in the new government or support from outside a secular government formed by others. He was not alone. Others joined him. At this juncture, those determined to keep the BJP out of power came up with a reasonably viable idea. They said that the new government should be headed by West Bengal’s highly respected Marxist chief minister, Jyoti Basu, every inch a bhadralok (gentleman). But this was unacceptable to the Congress leadership, still firm on riding the Pachmarhi high horse. Ironically, there was even stronger resistance to this idea in Basu’s own party, the CPM, which felt that it was wrong for a Marxist to even join a “bourgeois government”, leave alone lead it. Basu was later to call this doctrinaire inflexibility a “historic blunder”. Incidentally, Basu ruled West Bengal continuously for a quarter of a century.

By this time, Narayanan had decided to ask Vajpayee to stay on as a caretaker prime minister until the next election. For this, Sonia Gandhi was much blamed. Critics said she had started with the objective of dislodging the BJP’s defeated government but succeeded only in foisting a fresh election on the country — the third in three years — and thus gave the Vajpayee government an extension for a relatively protracted interregnum because fresh elections could not be held during the monsoon. The Election Commission therefore scheduled them for September-October. Who knows, many said, what might happen during this long period with the BJP still at the helm, even
if as a caretaker? Their apprehensions were to prove right.

In February 1999, when his party was still in power legitimately, Prime Minister Vajpayee took a bus ride to Lahore for a summit meeting with Nawaz Sharif, then, as now, prime minister of Pakistan. Like so many other India-Pakistan summits, before and after, it produced nothing except the high-sounding Lahore Declaration. In early May, it was discovered that Sharif’s hand-picked army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, had been infiltrating soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry into the strategic heights of Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir. This was obvious negligence of national security by us. However, when the Kargil War began, it was gallantly won by India. This war, which needs to be discussed separately — followed by Musharraf’s coup against Sharif — contributed materially to the stronger mandate the BJP and its allies got in the September poll.

Vajpayee, who was conferred the Bharat Ratna recently, has several claims to a prominent place in modern Indian history. The best of these is that he is the first non-Congress PM to rule the country for six continuous years.

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