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The beginning of the end

The date: 16 November 1997. The nation was abuzz with rumours that the Congress was about to withdraw its support to the government on that day itself. However the rumours remained rumours.

Sita Ram Kesri came over for lunch. He was happy (or so it seemed) after meeting Sonia Gandhi. According to the political grapevine, she had pressurised him to let my government fall. In the beginning he was reluctant to talk about this touchy matter, but later told me that “she was very emotional” during their meeting…

My tenure as Prime Minister, it seemed, was getting to be full of media-created situations. Hardly would one story have died out that another would erupt. [Editor] Vinod Mehta gave me a copy of Outlook, which provided details about the LTTE and its links with Indian political parties (mainly the DMK) but included an item (totally false and malicious) that I had offered a sop to Justice M.C. Jain in the form of the high commissionership to the UK. Such an item could cause more friction with the Congress, especially now that Sonia Gandhi was making her presence felt…

All the same, it seemed to me that the beginning of the end of my government was in sight. The Congress, which I felt was suffering from a death wish, had by then been captured by “anti-Kesri forces,” which would do anything to politically humiliate him… They vociferously demanded the ouster of the DMK ministers from the government…

Till the evening of 18 November, Kesri believed that he could quieten the rising crescendo of protests against him… By the evening, the crescendo picked up more momentum, and Kesri seemed to have lost his grip over the party. When I spoke to him around midnight over the telephone, he wanted to know if I could think of dissolving the Lok Sabha and going in for a mid-term poll. I replied that I could do so “if you were to give me timely notice.” He then said “naturally, when I write to you.” …

Earlier the same evening, I had attended a dinner hosted by Natwar Singh (a former Indian Foreign Service member and a former Union minister of state) for the Asia Conference delegates. Sonia Gandhi, among others, was present there. She was looking very happy and relaxed. Intelligence reports revealed that the crowds at her door were larger than on previous occasions. Undoubtedly, she was now emerging as the leader…

On November 21, 1997, as on the previous day, the Congress did not let both Houses function by blocking proceedings and loudly demanding the dismissal of the DMK ministers… The temperamental Mamata Banerjee (whose actions were as unpredictable as her moods) had moved a motion of no confidence against the government… That day, rumours were rife that a Sharad Pawar-led group had crossed over to the BJP. But that was not the case. Later, I learnt that he was unable to muster the required number of backers from the Congress.

Jyoti Basu telephoned me from Calcutta, asking me to forestall any crisis by dissolving the House. I explained to him the constitutional difficulties involved in such a process…

I spoke to Kesri late in the night (on November 21) over the telephone. Despite the fact that he had virtually lost his leadership role, he told me that he was trying “to redeem the party that was bound to be wiped out in the event of a poll.” He was making attempts to claw his way back to the top. He told me that even the leading industrial houses, which contributed to the coffers of the political parties, did not want elections then…

I personally handed over my resignation letter to President K.R. Narayanan in his private chamber in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Prior to submitting my resignation, I had participated in a dinner that the President had hosted. While sitting next to him at the dinner table, I had whispered to him that I was carrying my resignation letter with me. The scene in the President’s private chamber was charged with emotion… The letter was brief and conveyed to the President that “I could not accept the demand of the Congress party to throw out the DMK…” I signed my letter of resignation which had been typed in my personal office at 7, Race Course Road, with a Mont Blanc pen that I borrowed from Naryanan.

***

On April 17, 1999, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, which had managed to complete one year in office, lost its majority in Parliament by just one vote and the question of a successor government arose. I, along with Ram Vilas Paswan, came under a lot of pressure from the BJP and its allies to reconsider my decision and in the interest of the nation lend support to the NDA...

While I did not want to see the country go through another election, it was extremely difficult for me to support the BJP, a party whose ideology I had opposed all my life…

At this juncture, Harkishan Singh Surjeet came up with the name of Sonia Gandhi and persuaded her to make a bid to form the next government. Sonia came over to my residence on 20 April 1999 for a cup of coffee… I told her very frankly that while I would support her candidature for prime ministership, she would be let down by her friends in the Left at the last moment. I added that she was being naïve if she thought that Surjeet was seriously backing her. In fact, their “hidden” horse was Jyoti Basu who had been convinced by Surjeet to enter the fray for the top post in case of a deadlock.

On April 21, 1999, after Sonia Gandhi met President K.R. Narayanan to formally stake her claim to form the next government, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had been professing to support her, suddenly did a volte-face and the announced to the media that “his party would not be supporting the Congress”. The next morning, Mulayam Singh’s party floated the name of Jyoti Basu and the Left hurriedly endorsed it. It was at this juncture that Sonia Gandhi decided to call a spade a spade and refused support to the “Third Front”.

Later, in passing, she once asked me how I had correctly guessed the course of events, to which I replied: “I have spent 50 years of my life in politics with the likes of Surjeet and certain things you learn only through experience.”

Here I must reveal that in the subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha in September-October 1999, Sonia Gandhi was gracious enough to offer me a Congress ticket for contesting the polls. In case I did not wish to contest, she told me that she could back my entry to the Rajya Sabha. However, I decided that having held the position of the Prime Minister of India, I must refrain from switching parties and call it a day gracefully.

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