When politics made veteran statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee cry

In 1998, BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Centre, but AIADMK pulled out in the last minute, causing the government to collapse.
When politics made veteran statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee cry
When politics made veteran statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee cry
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The BJP came out tops in the election (1996), winning 161 seats. This was more than the 140 seats secured by the Congress. Strangely, however, it polled a lower percentage of votes (at 20 per cent) than the Congress (which polled 28 per cent of the votes). This meant that the Congress vote base was spread wider and that of the BJP was more concentrated, which allowed it to secure more seats with a lower percentage of votes. President Shankar Dayal Sharma called upon the leader of the BJP, that is Atal, to form the government.

This was even though the party had won far less than the 272 halfway mark in the House of 543 MPs. Atal accepted the offer from the president and became the first BJP prime minister of the country on 16 May 1996.

However, at the end of thirteen days, Atal realized that he could not cobble together a majority, what with the left and the Congress joining forces to keep the BJP out of power. Only the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and Samata Party had agreed to go with the BJP. Atal announced on the floor of the Lok Sabha that he would resign, and in a speech that was telecast nationally on Doordarshan, he made a strong plea. This was the first time that a political speech was being telecast on television to an audience across the country, which sat riveted before the television. Atal, in his poignant speech, harped on the politics of negativism and reactionary politics: ‘That is politics to stop us at any cost by making untouchables of us—this is not healthy politics.’

He also argued that ‘I have been accused that I am craving for power and my acts are as a result of my craving for power. If people have given my party the highest number of seats, should I shy away from staking a claim for power? Should I run away from the battlefield to betray the confidence reposed by the people in making us the single largest party?’

Atal also answered the charge that his party should not have tried to form the government since the BJP got only a minority of votes. He pointed out that the first-past-the-post Westminster system that was followed in the country counted only the seats that a party won and not the percentage of votes polled. By implication, the BJP could not be blamed for jumping in to try and form a government.

That day the BJP stood isolated and failed to hold on to the government, but Atal’s powerful speech did not fail to stir a large number of people who watched him speak emotionally. This certainly had a positive impact on the prospects of the party in future polls, which was visible two years from then. For the record, Atal’s thirteen-day government was succeeded by a broad left-of-centre alliance, led by the then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which took office in June 1996. The government lasted till the third week of April 1997 with tension between the coalition partners and the Congress, on whose support the government depended, pulling it down. Two days later, I.K. Gujral, who had, many years ago, been a close associate of Indira Gandhi’s, came at the head of the same alliance. The government led by Gujral lasted a few months before falling.

There were fresh elections in March 1998 and the BJP again emerged as the party with the most number of MPs. It won 182 seats and polled 25 per cent of the votes cast, increasing both its tally of seats as well as votes polled. Atal himself had again contested from Lucknow and won by a massive majority, polling 57 per cent of the votes. In the contest involving fourteen candidates, at second place was Muzaffar Ali of the Samajwadi Party. This time many other parties were willing to do business with the BJP. Besides its old allies, the TDP of Andhra Pradesh, the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, and the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha joined the National Democratic Alliance government. The combination was basically an anti-Congress front because all the parties that joined were regional parties that had the Congress as their main opposition in their states. Thus, Atal Bihari Vajpayee again became the prime minister on 19 March 1998 with a thin majority. This government was to last for thirteen months.

The government this time fell after the AIADMK withdrew its support. AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa had a whole range of demands that the Atal government was unable to fulfil.

Among these was the dismissal of the DMK government that ruled Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa had been arraigned in a major corruption case and desperately wanted the state government out. She had supported the Atal government for this unstated reason.

After the AIADMK withdrew support, Atal and his allies made a herculean effort to rescue the government but, in a match down to the wire, it lost the no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by just a single vote. On 17 April 1999, the government got 269 votes in its favour while 270 votes went against. On the morning of that day, Atal spoke to BSP chief Mayawati, who promised to support the government. However, when Mayawati stood up to address the Lok Sabha, she announced that her party would vote against the government. Saifuddin Soz of the National Conference defied his party bosses and went against the government, and Congressman Giridhar Gamang, who had not resigned his membership of the Lok Sabha in spite of being the chief minister of Odisha for the last few months, voted against the government.

Atal was heartbroken after the government fell and the scene was described by his advisor Sudheendra Kulkarni. Writing in the India Today thirty-fifth anniversary issue, in November 2011, Kulkarni disclosed, ‘I remember how heartbroken Atalji was that day. After the vote, he emerged out of the Lok Sabha and walked ever so slowly to his office in room number ten of the Parliament House. As soon as he entered the room which was already filled with his senior colleagues, he broke down. “Hum keval ek vote se haare, keval ek vote,” he said, tears running down his face.’

‘He felt betrayed, not only in 1998 but also in 1996 after his government fell. In view of his wide contacts across the political spectrum, Atal had felt that he would get support,’ says senior journalist Kumar Ketkar. ‘I had never seen Mr Vajpayee so dejected ever before. It was that [sic] he was sure he would continue to be the prime minister but had failed to [sic].’

(Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons by Kingshuk Nag. You can buy the book here.)

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