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July 16, 2008
There is a different kind of buzz in and around Parliament when a trust vote is sought. Speeches are rehearsed and MPs are rounded up well in advance to ensure there is a full house because every vote is vital.

Who would know this better than the Bharatiya Janata Party, which lost the trust vote by a single vote in April 1999, after being in power for 13 months. Of course, the party had faced a similar heartbreak before -- when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee resigned after just 13 days in May 1996, even before a trust vote because he knew he could not garner support in Parliament.

As Dr Singh battles to save his government, Ram Naik, a five time MP and petroleum minister in the Vajpayee government, gives readers an insight into what actually happens inside the Lok Sabha on the day of a trust vote. A conversation with Archana Masih.

Your government lost the trust vote by just one vote in 1999. I am sure nobody in your party expected to lose by a-skin-of-the-teeth margin?

That is true.

When Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence...

Was it a shock?

Actually, we had thought we will win, but some MPs did not vote. To us it was unexpected.

What was the prime minister's response?

Within half an hour he went to the President and tendered his resignation. In his speech in Parliament, he said we will go back to the people and seek their mandate and the people returned us in a big way.

Mr Vajpayee resigned, but within the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance, it must have been very disappointing, especially because you lost by just one vote? What went on within the party at that time?

We did not expect it, but we admired the behaviour of the prime minister because only five years back Mr Narasimha Rao had purchased votes to save his government. Everyone was proud of what Mr Vajpayee did.

In the run-up to a trust vote, what is the activity in the ruling alliance like? Who are the people given the task of persuading MPs to vote in their favour?

It is team-work. Our leader was Mr Vajpayee. Others who wield influence and hold acquaintance with other MPs, one has to work that way. But Vajpayeeji refused to have any kind of horse trading. Though we lost, none of us felt that we could have survived by giving money to some MPs.

Who decides who will speak during the trust vote in Parliament?

The party leader decides. The party leader has to speak, of course. On July 22, Mr () Advani will lead the major attack.

There is a likelihood that the MPs who are in jail will be brought to Parliament to vote? Did you see such a situation during your tenure as MP?

As a MP, he has a right to vote. There have been cases where MPs in jail have been brought for giving their vote. It happened during the Emergency. Now it brings the issue of moral value. The moral value is whether these criminals should be brought to save the government.

They have a legal right, but whether they have a moral right, Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] will have to speak about the morality of this.

In place of the Left, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance now has the Samajwadi Party as its main ally. What do you make of this changed political equation.

Dr Singh is not a political leader who can take decisions. He is an intellectual. The diktat comes from Shrimati Sonia Gandhi [Images].

But as far as the nuclear deal is concerned, Dr Singh has shown that he is very committed to it and that he would go ahead with it. He has shown he is a politician in this regard, hasn't he?

History will decide whether his firmness was in the national interest or not.

The Americans have said the BJP was willing to give more for this deal than what Dr Singh has agreed to.

I don't go by what the Americans say now, we go by what we said and it was never agreed by Mr Vajpayee.

Didn't Mr Vajpayee agree to not conduct any more nuclear tests?

No, no further testing is our decision. That we will not have it is our decision. That decision making power will not be left to the USA. We don't want to give that decision to any other country. That is the long and short of this controversy.

For an MP, how important is the day of the trust vote?

That is the day. It decides the future of the country and also the future of the MP. If it is lost, the only recourse is an early election. If the Congress wins it, the election will be postponed by 3, 4 months. Now there is nothing like a mid-term poll.

We are at the fag end of the government's tenure. There is more curiosity when there are chances of a mid-term poll than now. Here, the only curiosity is whether Dr Singh will be able to garner those votes.

In your view, how long will this trust vote continue?

This will depend on the Speaker. Mr (Somnath) Chatterjee has kept the country guessing. Normally, who will speak, how much time must be given for the debate is decided in the chamber of the Speaker. Whatever time is decided, that is then divided amongst the parties.

In such debates one is allowed to express himself properly. The rule of timing is not applied harshly. MPs are allowed to explain their viewpoint. A debate on a bill and a debate on a no confidence motion are entirely different.

Will the nuclear deal be the main topic of the debate on July 22?

No, the government is trying to have confidence.

But the government will convince the House why it should support the deal?

Yes, the government will be doing that, but there will be many other issues that can be debated. See, the government is seeking the vote of confidence -- for not giving them that vote, the nuclear agreement can be just one of the many reasons. Price rise and many other reasons could come in.

In the run-up to the trust vote, what is happening within the BJP?

We want this government to be defeated and we will ensure that our numbers are present. Those who feel like us, we are trying to garner their support.

So you are with the Left on this?

No, the Left is with us. Because the Left has left the government.

Is it known who votes for, against or abstains from voting?

It is known who voted for and who voted against. It is not only by show of hands but by pressing the button, so if you have voted or not or abstained, it is all known.

What happens if some MPs disregard the party's whip and vote contrary to what has been asked of them?

This does not happen much. Because the present Act says if you disobey the party then you lose your seat.

After conducting the nuclear tests and reaching out to the US, why is the BJP so opposed to the nuclear deal?

We are opposed to only one point -- that we lose the independence of having nuclear tests. That is a protection for our freedom. Why should we give that right to some other organisation? The decision making power should be with us.

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