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March 28, 1998

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Vajpayee wins vote, 274-261

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George Iype in New Delhi

The nine-day old Atal Bihari Vajpayee government won the crucial vote of confidence with a clear majority of 13 votes on Saturday.

After two days of heated debate on the confidence motion moved by Prime Minister Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government emerged victorious in the numbers game, 274-261.

After a voice vote was taken, the Opposition demanded a division. As the electronic voting machine was not used, Speaker G M C Balayogi ordered voting slips to be distributed to the members at 2000 hours. An agonising hour later, Vajpayee finally received the parliamentary sanction that had eluded him 22 months ago.

The crucial support for the BJP came from the Telugu Desam Party, which instead of abstaining during the trust motion, finally decided to support and vote for the Vajpayee government.

Throughout the day in Parliament, the 11 TDP MPs waited patiently for an order from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP president Nara Chandrababu Naidu on the question of whether they should vote in favour of the government or abstain.

Finally, Naidu, who maintained all week that the TDP would abstain from voting during the confidence motion, formalised his tie-up with the BJP by deciding to endorse Vajpayee's tenure in power.

The TDP leadership in Hyderabad faxed the party's resolution supporting the BJP government to its MPs in New Delhi by 1500 hours. Former Union minister and TDP MP Y Yerran Naidu then stood up in the House to announce his party's support to the Vajapyee government.

"Public sentiments during the election have been in favour of the formation of a BJP government. The BJP has also won a substantial vote share during the election," he said.

The debate on Saturday, marked by occasional acrimonious exchanges, went on for eight hours.

Replying to the two day debate in a speech that lacked the fire and the passion that marked his outgoing address on May 27, 1996, the prime minister denied that there was a hidden agenda between the BJP and its allies. "There is only one agenda," he said, "and that is the national agenda. The agenda is transparent and open to all. My government is committed to it."

Vajpayee said the agenda had been prepared in consultation with all the BJP's allies and therefore all contentious issues had not been included in it. Certain issues had been left out by his government in its national agenda, he added, as it was committed to rule by consensus.

The prime minister made it clear that there was no hidden agenda of governance adopted by his government and there was no ''remote control.''

Vajpayee said there were no attempts by anyone to run his government from behind the scenes and said he was not a person who could be remote guided and controlled.

''No one can impose decisions on me and I don't like that too,'' the prime minister said, while obliquely referring to allegations by members that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh is the remote control of the BJP-led government.

The prime minister also refuted the charge that there are two centres of power in the new government -- Vajpayee and Home Minister Lal Kishinchand Advani. He said attempts were being made to draw a wedge between Advani and him, but declared all such attempts would prove abortive.

"As long as I am the prime minister and my government is there, the agenda will not be diluted,'' he categorically asserted.

He had a dig at the Congress while countering that party's allegation that his government was being ''remote controlled'' by the RSS. Without naming Sonia Gandhi, he observed that it is ''good'' if the remote control is applied to them, and ''bad in our case." He made it clear that even though the BJP leadership has consultations with the RSS, "the latter's decisions are not imposed on us."

The prime minister said many members of the Janata Party too held the view that India must have an atom bomb for its security. But when the government was formed, the nuclear option was not included in its programme as some partners were against it. He said the Janata Party government -- which he served as external affairs minister -- did not last long not because of its programmes but for some other reasons.

Refuting the charges levelled by many members about the BJP's post-poll alliance with many groups in order to form the government, Vajpayee said it had been done only when his party thought it was in a position to form the government. "It is not a new thing," he said. "The United Front government and the Janata Party government emerged in the same fashion."

The prime minister said his government would continue to develop friendly relations with India's neighbours. When he had been leader of the Opposition, Vajpayee said he had urged Pakistan to set aside the contentious Kashmir issue for the time being and establish economic relations between the two countries.

Referring to a circular issued by a secretary in the government that the BJP manifesto would be the guiding factor for the Vajpayee government, the prime minister clarified it was ''unnecessary and wrong.''

''The concerned secretary too might have been misled in thinking that our manifesto is the guideline of the government as you (Sharad Pawar) have been misled,'' he added.

The circular has been ''withdrawn,'' he said.

The prime minister defended the decision to appoint a commission to review the Constitution. He said 50 years of the Constitution was a good occasion to have a critical look at it.

Vajpayee said the Constitution and electoral rules approved the election of a candidate even if only a small percentage of voters, say 15 per cent, took part in the voting. "There are countries like France which conducted elections in two turns to ensure that more than 50 per cent of the voters took part in the polling. But the two-turn election was costlier," he added.

The prime minister referred to former Speaker Purno A Sangma's criticism on the lack of governmental commitment to spend money on education. "My government," Vajpayee promised, "will ensure that the promised six per cent of GDP will be really spent on education."

Those who put forward spirited arguments from the Congress and the United Front opposing the confidence motion included Laloo Prasad Yadav, P Shiv Shankar, S Jaipal Reddy, Chandra Shekhar, T R Baalu and Sangma.

Calling Vajpayee "a great political engineer" and "a great political mathematician" in the best speech of the day, Sangma said the Vajpayee government's national agenda is an "Utopian document."

With the Vajpayee government winning the confidence vote, four months of political instability seems to have ended.

But many believe the real acid test for the prime minister has just begun -- his main task will be to manage a disparate group of 18 regional and smaller parties.

The BJP's biggest regional partner is J Jayalalitha's 18-member AIADMK, followed by the 12-member Samata Party and the 12-member TDP.

BJP leaders said on Saturday that the prime minister will expand his Cabinet in the second week of April. The TDP, which is now negotiating three Cabinet berths with the BJP, is expected to join the Vajpayee government.

The government's immediate assignment will be to present a reform-friendly Budget in June.

Despite Vajpayee winning the trust vote, doubts remain about the longevity of the BJP-led government.

According to Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy, who did not vote on Saturday despite being a BJP ally, "the Vajpayee government will have no problems with allies like us. We now feel the BJP government will have to fear the RSS more than us in the coming days.

Additional reportage: UNI

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