I was, rather I still am, a huge admirer of Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ji. In fact, he is one of the very few politicians who I really hold in high esteem. I liked everything about him – the way he spoke, the way he smiled, even the long pauses he used to have between his lines, and of course his poetry. His poem “हार नहीं मानूंगा, रार नहीं ठानूंगा, काल के कपाल पर लिखता मिटाता हूँ, गीत नया गाता हूँ” still echoes my mind. Had the term ‘भक्त’ been coined at that time, I would have been among the most proud bhakts of Vajpayee Ji.
My respect for Vajpayee Ji never faded. I still remember the dream I had of him on the intervening night of December 31st and January 1st, 2018. In fact, till date, he is the only politician to have appeared in my dream. In my dream I saw that Vajpayee Ji has visited our place. While I touched his feet, I felt a non-verbal communication happening between us about the worrying state of affairs of the country. His reassuring hand over my shoulder conveyed that everything would be fine soon.
Nothing of that sort however was to happen and the result of the next year’s General Elections greatly disappointed me. How could people do that? I kept asking myself and my perturbed mind just didn’t let me sleep properly for the next couple of days.
* * * * * * * * * *
Back to Vajpayee Ji’s eventful second term as Prime Minister, India conducted underground nuclear tests at Pokhran (Rajasthan) within two months of his taking office on 11th and 13th of May, 1998. Obviously, Indian scientists were all prepared long back for these tests and were just waiting for Government’s nod, which apparently never came from the previous government. It was like a low hanging fruit which the Vajpayee government managed to pluck and his popularity soared like anything. The stories of how Indian government managed to dodge the eyes of US satellites to conduct the tests were the talk of the town.
However, within three weeks of Pokhran-II, our neighboring country Pakistan also conducted nuclear tests on May 28th and 30th, 1998. US imposed economic and military sanctions against both the countries. But people were generally too proud and happy to be bothered about the consequences of the sanctions imposed. Still there were some people who were not affected by the general euphoria and nationalistic pride generated by the nuclear tests and questioned the worthiness of becoming a non-nuclear State. In India, people also questioned the timing of the tests and saw this whole exercise as an effort to gain political mileage by the ruling political party.
Arundhati Roy, the first ever Indian author to have won the prestigious Booker Prize for her work “God of Small Things” in the year 1997, went a bit ahead and declared herself an “Independent Mobile Republic” saying – “If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag.” I recall having expressed my annoyance over her razor-sharp reaction to the nuclear tests, through my letter to editor (August 1998) in the Pioneer. Today when I see the contents of my said letter, I just laugh at my stupidity. I can’t reproduce even a small part of the said letter here – so full of nonsense it was. Today, I just want to remember Ms Roy’s beautiful smile on her glowing face while she was signing copies of her work “The God of Small Things” at a Book Fair in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, where I had seen her first.
* * * * * * * * * *
Despite the soaring popularity of the government at the Centre, BJP lost the Assembly Elections of 1998 in the Capital. Madan Lal Khurana Government which came to power in 1993 with 49 seats out of the total 70 seats was doing well in Delhi. However, Khurana had to resign in February 1996 when his named cropped up in Jain Hawala Diary case.
Back then I remember nobody questioned his integrity and a general impression was that he would be reinstated back as Chief Minister as soon as his name is cleared from the case. This, however, did not happen and the party continued with his successor Sahib Singh Verma even after the designated trial court quashed the chargesheet filed against Madan Lal Khurana and others in the 65-Crore hawala scam. This caused split within the party’s State unit resulting in weakening of the government and its grasp over Delhiites. Soaring prices of onion proved to be the last straw for the voters and an anti-incumbency wave against the government started to surge.
Finally, the party leadership forced to replace Sahib Singh Verma with Sushma Swaraj who emerged as the consensus candidate, barely two months before the next Assembly Elections. Sushma Swaraj did her bit to put the things back on track by setting up fair price shops, but the damage was already done and the BJP reduced to mere 15 seats in the Assembly Elections of 1998. A mere rise in the price of onion could cost a government its seat was just inconceivable to anyone who supported the BJP government. It has been long 25 years now and the BJP is yet to return to power in Delhi.
* * * * * * * * * *
On 30th December 1998, a huge controversy was triggered when the Naval Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was served with marching orders by the Defence Minister George Fernandes allegedly for “deliberate defiance of the government” on the part of the Naval Chief.
The Opposition demanded for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the matter asking for dismissal of George Fernandes and reinstatement of the Naval Chief, which was turned down by the Vajpayee Government. This led to withdrawal of support by NDA’s coalition partner AIADMK, which was already posing all sorts of trouble to the NDA Government right from its formation) forcing the Vajpayee Government to take the floor test in April 1999.
Here, I would like to mention a very unfortunate incident that took place in Odisha three months prior to this, i.e., on 23rd January 1999 wherein an Australian Christian Missionary Graham Staines along with his two sons Philip and Timothy, aged about 10 and 6 years old respectively, was burnt to death by Bajrang Dal activists in Kendujhar District of Odisha. In the wake of this brutal mob lynching over allegations of ‘forced conversion’ by the Christian Missionaries, the then Chief Minister of Odisha Janaki Ballabh Patnaik had to resign and was replaced by Giridhar Gomang, who was an MP from Koraput Lok Sabha constituency.
Giridhar Gomang is the very person whose vote proved crucial as the coalition government lost the no-confidence motion by just one vote. The BJP ruled NDA secured 269 votes while the opposition got 270. The decision to participate in the voting was left to Giridhar Gamang’s conscience, who had already taken over as the Chief Minister of Odisha. It was widely believed that had Giridhar Gamang abstained from voting, the Lok Sabha Speaker GMC Balayogi would have used his vote to tilt the outcome of the no-confidence motion in favour of the Government.
Vajpayee did lose the Confidence Motion, but his brief stint of 13 months laid the foundation for his return as Prime Minister for the third time and serve the country for a full five-year term.