Suspense after one-vote thriller
Stunned business holds breath on budget
Morning call rings out Atal
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New Delhi, April 17: 
As night fell after the stunning one-vote defeat of the Vajpayee government, there was no sign that an alternative would be born at dawn.

Amid the sweets, dancing on the streets of party workers and the queue of cars that jammed Janpath, the Congress kept its allies as well as opponents guessing by simply authorising Sonia Gandhi to lead a minority government with outside support.

The Congress Working Committee met at the Akbar Road headquarters six hours after Mayavati led the Vajpayee government on a merry dance to disaster in one of the most sensational turnarounds in Parliament?s history. Last night, she had declared she would abstain. This noon, she and her four colleagues voted against the trust motion along with Saifuddin Soz, who strayed from the National Conference.

Thirteen months of uncertainty ended with promise of more. The Congress betrayed its discomfiture at the nature of the disparate forces at its disposal by saying it would not stake claim, but would instead await the President?s call.

The only concession it made to certainty was a promise to take a quick decision on the budget. The dominant view at the CWC was to pass Yashwant Sinha?s budget. Sonia Gandhi has formed a committee to decide the budget?s fate.

The President is certain to ask for letters of support from the allies before allowing the Congress to form a government. Outgoing Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee, who drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan with L.K. Advani to submit his resignation, demanded that the President should seek written commitment from all partners, as had been done when he formed the government.

The two leaders felt the President should also ensure that the total number in the coalition ranks should be more than 270.

Fuming at the volte face by the BSP and Soz, the BJP said the government?s effective strength was also 270, including the vote of Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi. It also raised doubts about the Congress? ability to form an alternative.

Although the result today showed 269 for and 270 against the trust motion, three votes, which would have gone in favour of the Opposition, were not cast. A Rashtriya Janata Dal MP is abroad for treatment, a CPI woman member stayed away for mysterious reasons and Jayalalitha?s trusted ADMK lieutenant S.R. Muthiah made the cardinal mistake of not finding out if his electronically-cast vote had registered.

But even a majority of 273 to 269 is far too slender for the Congress to feel confident. After fooling the BJP, Mayavati has already started talking about voting against the next government. The Tamil Maanila Congress has declared it would oppose any formation that includes the ADMK. And, Subramanian Swamy, one of the architects of Vajpayee?s fall, signalled his interest in the finance minister?s job which he was denied by the BJP.

It?s pay-off time for the Congress.

What it was distributing instead were rasgullas from Bengali Sweet House, served for the first time to the CWC since Sonia Gandhi took over. But the meeting had to face up to the bitter prospect of having to resolve the contradiction between avoiding snap polls and forming a government that will be intrinsically unstable.

??We have to be extremely careful about the composition of a new government. We must remember that the margin was one in the Lok Sabha today,?? a CWC member said.

Signalling that the Congress was ready for reconciliation, the committee authorised Sonia Gandhi to head the government, but, at the same time, it said the party should be ready to share power with the Samajwadi Party and the ADMK. It was clear that the Congress had yet to chalk out the contours of an alternative.

Even if the Congress does draw up a blueprint, there is no word from Sonia Gandhi on whether she is willing to accept the Prime Minister?s job. ??The whole party and our allies want her to lead the nation but a lot will depend on her,?? a CWC member said. ??If she does not accept it, we will force her to do so,?? added another leader.

Leader of the Opposition Sharad Pawar and spokesman Arjun Singh said she will be the obvious choice for Prime Minister. ??It is her legitimate and natural right,?? Pawar said.

The Congress is in no hurryto work out the composition of an alternative as it wants all non-BJP groups to agree to its terms. ??We will not make the first move. First, let the third force leaders hammer out some ground rules,?? an AICC functionary said.

Though nothing has been decided yet, the presence of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP would be a problem for the Congress. Its only hope lies in orchestrating a dismantling game in Kalyan Singh?s backyard in Lucknow.

The Congress may have to bring Mulayam Singh and Mayavati to the negotiating table to strike a deal on Uttar Pradesh. But there was no indication from either Mulayam Singh or Mayavati on how they plan to get along in the same coalition.

It will be easy for the Left to overcome the discordant note being struck by two smaller partners like Forward Bloc and the RSP which do not want to extend support to a Congress-led government. The Left has already offered support and would not interfere in government formation.

The Congress, along with a section of the Left, is floating an idea where Sonia Gandhi forms a small Cabinet with Congress ministers.The decision to expand the ministry can be taken after a vote of confidence.

But the Congress? clashes with the CPI and CPM may begin once it tries to push through its liberal economic agenda. Sonia Gandhi will meet Jyoti Basu who arrived in the capital today.    

April 17: 
Industry and the markets were shellshocked by the defeat of the Vajpayee government today and their biggest worry was over the fate of Yashwant Sinha?s budget that many believe contains the druidic potion to revive the sputtering economy.

Soon after Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi announced the result of the vote, stocks were battered by a wave of panic selling that sent the the 30-scrip sensitive index of the Bombay Stock Exchange plunging by 246 points ? the fifth largest fall in the sensex on a single day ? to 3326.98 points.

The foreign exchange market was closed, but analysts said they expected the rupee to hit a new eight-month reef at 42.80-85 to the dollar when trading resumes on Monday.

Balayogi has convened an all-party meeting on Monday to devise a way to pass the finance Bill and head off the fearsome prospect of a fiscal gridlock.

He said the meeting would discuss not only the finance Bill, but other pending legislation also.

Industry could, however, draw comfort from the fact that the dominant view at the Congress Working Committee meeting late tonight was that Yashwant Sinha?s budget ought to be passed in its present shape, if possible as early as Monday.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi constituted a three-member committee, consisting of Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, to decide on the fate of the Union budget.

These leaders met and examined three possibilities: passing Yashwant?s budget after an all-party meet convened by the Lok Sabha Speaker, adopting Yashwant?s budget and passing it after the formation of the new government and lastly, presenting a new budget before May 14.

A Congress delegation will meet the President on Sunday to articulate the party?s point of view on the budget.

Industry is equally concerned about the stand that the new government will adopt on a raft of pending legislation relating to patents, insurance and money laundering.

But an even bigger concern is the stability of the new regime. ?Industry does not like political uncertainty. Overcoming the current phase of political uncertainty is essential to revive investor confidence in the stock market. If the new government wishes to introduce amendments to the budget, it should do so at the earliest,? said Tarun Das, director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Bajaj Auto chairman Rahul Bajaj said: ?The country has seen four governments in the past three years, which has prevented long-term economic and industrial policies from being implemented. It cannot afford any more political uncertainty. I hope the new government will pass the budget without any further delay and that partisanship will not delay the passage of important Bills pending in Parliament,? he added.

Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham) president K.P. Singh said there should be a moratorium on raking up issues that divide political parties and, in the process, impede economic progress.

Most felt that it had become almost imperative to hammer out an all-party consensus on economic issues so that the economy could be insulated from the fickleness of politics.

Bullion traders appeared to be the only segment in the market who seemed to be unconcerned about the turmoil in Delhi.

Said M.L. Damani, president of the Bombay Bullion Association: ?Gold will not lose its lustre because of the change in government. The fluctuations in the prices of precious metals is guided by the international markets in London, Chicago and Zurich.?    

New Delhi, April 17: 
They were all asleep at dusk today. Having rung down the curtains on the BJP government, Congress leaders would not take calls in the evening.

But no one was surprised. After a long night through which they fought silently and successfully, Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, M.L. Fotedar, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kamal Nath, P.J. Kurien, Ajit Jogi, Girija Vyas and R.D. Pradhan had earned their right to be fast asleep at 6 pm.

Sonia Gandhi, however, was wide awake and preparing for the working committee meeting scheduled at 8 pm.

It was a night of long knives and the blades the Congress unsheathed were far sharper than those of the BJP. Pramod Mahajan, one of the BJP?s key strategists, admitted that even early this morning the government had no inkling of what was coming.

In the end, it was Mayavati ki maya which made the difference between victory and defeat. After announcing late last night that her party would abstain from voting, Mayavati today cast her lot with the Opposition.

Pawar claimed a conversation between Mayavati and Sonia Gandhi this morning clinched the issue. ?Operation Win-Over BSP? had gone into high gear at 10.30 pm yesterday, soon after Mayavati announced her party?s decision in the Lok Sabha.

Arjun Singh immediately got in touch with BSP chief Kanshi Ram in Patna. At 7 am today, a bleary-eyed Ajit Jogi was at Mayavati?s Humayun Road residence to prepare ground for the phone conversation with Sonia Gandhi. Though the call lasted only five minutes, it sealed the fate of the Vajpayee government.

The Congress ? which was accused of not being active enough in wooing prospective allies ? had swung into action around 9 pm, after the initial panic caused by Om Prakash Chautala?s turnaround and the DMK?s confirmation of support to the government.

Sonia Gandhi instructed trusted lieutenants to pull out all stops to dislodge the government. ?It is a matter of prestige now for the party,? she told them.

Sonia Gandhi was up till midnight and retired only after hearing P. Chidambaram announce in Parliament that the Tamil Maanila Congress would vote against the government. The Opposition was still short of the magic number but hopes had been kindled all over again.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh and Sharad Pawar tried hard to break the Samata Party but could not get the fifth MP, necessary for the split to be legal. AICC general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad weaned away fellow Kashmiri Saifuddin Soz, who defied his party?s diktat and voted against the government.

Azad?s talent for winning over fence-sitters was acknowledged even by parliamentary affairs minister P.R. Kumaramangalam, one of the BJP?s numbers managers. He told Vajpayee at the banquet for the Qatari Emir last week that he would rustle up the numbers for the government, provided his ?guru? Azad did not enter the scene.

When Azad was parliamentary affairs minister in the Narasimha Rao Cabinet, Kumaramangalam was his deputy.

But the most valuable catch for the Opposition was the BSP, which has five MPs. The Congress had been in touch with Mayavati for the past three days, without the BJP getting wind of it.

Mayavati today claimed she had deliberately ?misled? the BJP in Parliament yesterday to prevent it from ?horsetrading? and had ?taken revenge? for the way the party treated her in Uttar Pradesh. She added that her decision to vote against the government had nothing to do with the Congress. Mayavati denied having met Sonia Gandhi today though Pawar insisted there was a meeting.

Yet it is unlikely that the BSP would have helped the Opposition without first striking a deal. Since the party is concerned chiefly with Uttar Pradesh, the Kalyan Singh government?s fate is under a cloud.

There were other factors which might have propelled Mayavati to take the step she did. The BSP was never satisfied with its performance in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls. Kanshi Ram had declared only two days ago that the party wanted fresh elections.

The party?s two Muslim MPs, Akbar Dumpy Ahmed and Arif Mohammed, had also been mounting pressure on the leadership not to bail out the BJP government. The Congress had worked on them.

When the Speaker announced the result, Congressmen were jubilant. Through the afternoon and evening, all roads led to 10 Janpath. Sonia Gandhi, who was glued to the television, personally telephoned Jayalalitha, Mayavati, H.S. Surjeet, Moopanar and others.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Not much change in day temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 35.9?C (normal)
Minimum 25.3?C (2?C above normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 92%
Minimum 55%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunset: 5.54 pm
Sunrise: 5.17 am

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