The BJP sneaked ahead of the Congress in the neck-to-neck battle for numbers in the confidence vote. The margin could be narrow, though the threat to the Vajpayee government had receded tonight.
Mayavati?s announcement in the Lok Sabha late this evening that she was abstaining sealed the fate of the Opposition exercise. The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), which kept the Opposition on tenterhooks throughout the day, announced late tonight in the House it would vote against the government.
The three-member TMC?s stand pushes up the Opposition?s strength to 267. If the Opposition manages to get the vote of the lone undecided MP ? Kalpnath Rai ? it can match the BJP-led coalition?s professed tally of 268. But in the event of a tie, the Speaker could bail out the government through his casting vote.
But the BJP is not out of the woods yet. It may not be a majority government any more and will always be vulnerable whenever crucial money Bills are put to vote. It will be held to ransom by the likes of Mayavati and will have to learn to live with new compromises with new Jayalalithas.
The Congress? last hopes lay with amenable, disgruntled MPs in a few of the ruling coalition?s allies. But the BJP insisted it was on the verge of turning the tables on Jayalalitha and the drama she unfolded more than 10 days ago.
After the DMK confirmed the support of its six MPs and Om Prakash Chautala did a somersault with his four-member Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the BJP camp had a lead of four this afternoon. Congress-ADMK hopes then hinged on the role of the two undecided entities, the five-member BSP and the TMC.
Though the TMC turned its back on the government, the BSP decided to abstain, dealing a body blow to the Opposition.
There were imponderables like the growing dissidence within the Samata Party, which the Congress had been ambitious of exploiting with the help of Rai, one of the dissenters who had come out in the open. Rai alleged in Parliament today that his family was being threatened to ensure his vote. The allegation sparked a furore, including a strong denial by Samata leader and railway minister Nitish Kumar.
But the Congress objective made little headway, because Rai was alone in his war against the Samata leadership. Other dissidents like Prabhunath Singh, Shakuni Chowdhury and Abdul Ghafoor appeared to have fallen in line. A lonely Rai was debating late tonight after meeting Jayalalitha whether to cast his lot with the Opposition and risk disqualification.
The Congress was jolted into action by the DMK decision and the Chautala turnaround. The party?s announcement of the decision to form an alternative coalition government with Sonia Gandhi as leader came rather late in the day.
By that time, the BJP ? which had assembled its trouble-shooters in Delhi ? had completed all the hard bargaining with success.
True, the Congress had to hold back its cards to try and ease out the contradictions of having to keep the door open for strongly opposing forces like the DMK and the ADMK. But the delay in spelling out the readiness to form an alternative arrangement was an expensive one, leaving the field open for the BJP to tie up one loose end after another.
A desperate Congress tried to maintain contact with soft targets, including MPs from the Akali Dal and Biju Janata Dal, through Sharad Pawar and Kamal Nath. But with less than a day left for the vote, it was more of a last-ditch effort.
On the other hand, the BJP had flown in the wilier of its politicians from state capitals for help.
Former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat participated in the negotiations, as did Pramod Mahajan?s brother-in-law and Maharashtra deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde.
Kalyan Singh was around, but his presence was more to ensure that the leadership does not hand over his government to BSP?s Mayavati on a platter.
The BJP fell back on its ally, the Akali Dal, to broker a deal with Chautala. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal came over to Delhi and it was at his residence that Chautala announced the reversal of his earlier decision. Devi Lal?s son, who had congratulated Jayalalitha only on Wednesday for following his example and daring to leave the coalition, was singing a different tune.
He said since the shape of the alternative was nowhere in sight, he was giving the BJP another chance. ?The Congress is trying to come back to power. We do not want to push the country from the frying pan to the fire,? he said. Chautala said Kalyan Singh and Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel had spoken to him. Sources said former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was also instrumental in effecting the turnaround.
However, Chautala hinted to the Opposition that he may change his mind if a farmer was considered for the Prime Minister?s post. He had walked out of the ruling coalition a few days before the budget in mid-February, claiming farmers? causes were ignored.
Chautala is himself not an MP and it is more than apparent the BJP, with the Akali Dal, had poached on his territory with a degree of success. Some of his four MPs were willing to jilt him and Chautala did not want to risk a split by siding with the Opposition.
DMK leader Murasoli Maran dealt a near-fatal blow to the Opposition in the afternoon. He congratulated Vajpayee for a fresh lease of life, now that he had exorcised the ?ghost??. He did not name Jayalalitha, but said he pitied the Congress because the ?ghost? would haunt the party now.
Maran concluded by announcing his party?s decision to vote against the ?mother of corruption??. It appeared the BJP had worked hard at achieving this alliance with the DMK. Even the now low-profile Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu?s help was sought in convincing Karunanidhi to change sides.
The TMC remained a divided lot through the day. Its leader, G.K. Moopanar, went over to 10 Janpath and discussed ways out of the impasse. The TMC was finding it difficult to desert its trusted friend, the DMK, and Moopanar told Sonia Gandhi that it would be able to lend support only if Jayalalitha was kept out of the alliance.
But the Congress could not make an immediate commitment. Later, the TMC decided to stay with the Opposition, but made it clear if an alternative configuration emerged, its concerns will have to be addressed.
The key factor which helped the BJP in the end was its ability to accept the sentiments of regional parties and the very idea of running a coalition government with greater ease than the Congress.
While the Congress took time to emerge from a debate on straying from its policy as laid down in the Panchmarhi declaration, the BJP banked on trusted allies.