The Vajpayee government lost the day on April 17, 1999, only to dramatically return to power a few months later. But that is another story.
The tense morning began with BSP promising then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee that its MPs would support the government. It was around 10.45 am. A short while later, MPs began to file into the House and assuming their seats.
The tension and the buzz were palpable. There was an electric undercurrent as government managers anxiously trawled the aisles, eyes darting from one side to another. The House was soon called to order and the debate began to wind up. It was time for BSP leader Mayawati to speak. She rose and without much ado said that she would be opposing the government. A babble broke out at BSP MPs Arif Khan and Akbar Ahmed applauded and the numbers began to go against the government.
The final honours were done by Saifuddin Soz who defied his party, the National Conference, to vote against the government and Orissa chief minister Giridhar Gamang also pressing the no button. Despite having been CM for a couple of months, Gamang was yet to resign from the Lok Sabha and used his dubious privilege to vote against the Vajpayee government. Gamang has been somewhat shy to take credit for his act but Soz has shown no such inhibition. Soz thereafter saw himself as a cause celebre in having brought down a “communal” government.
There were other significant aspects to the dramatic vote. The government’s chief trouble shooter Pramod Mahajan had tired hard to chase down every vote on offer, but the nature of the highly polarised House made it difficult to scrape the numbers. PWP’s Ramsheth Thakur defied all the persuasion by government managers. It was down to the wire on the morning and Mahajan lost a couple of crucial turns of the dice.
The mood in the Prime Minister’s Office in Parliament in the aftermath of the defeat was predictably glum. A close aide of then home minister L K Advani came in to ask for a couple of telephone numbers. Some BJP supporters tried to collar Mahajan and accuse him of letting down the party. To others, the ill-omened government, always at the mercy of the mercurial AIADMK chief J Jayalalitha had met a predictable end. When the one vote difference did show up on the Lok Sabha’s screens that afternoon, the House was briefly stunned into silence before the Opposition’s whoops of delight broke out.
In the PM’s seat, Vajpayee took one look at the results and raised his hand to his forehead in a mock salute. There was no denying the digital numbers flashing overhead. But his effort to stay stoic gave away when late Vijayaraje Scindhia, mother of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, broke down in the PM’s office in the Parliament building. Even as Vajpayee comforted her, he had trouble staying calm himself.