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'In this Parliament, everybody supports everybody!'
Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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July 23, 2008
To say that July 22, 2008 was an extraordinary day in Indian politics will be an understatement.

Five minutes before the voting on the confidence motion commenced in the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images], sitting on the first seat on the Treasury side, appeared nervous. His hands were folded and a bunch of papers had covered the buttons, one of which needed to be pressed to muster the vote in favour of his leadership and in the government.

Just five minutes before the voting could begin, Ghaziabad's Congress MP Surendra Goel developed chest pain. But when party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi [Images] sat beside him for a few minutes, he felt better.

Though the Congress was confident of a victory, the suspense remained till the results were declared. As soon as members pressed the button, the electronic board showed 253 Ayes, 232 Noes, and 2 abstentions in a total vote of 487. The United Progressive Alliance government had won convincingly.

Dr Singh, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi [Images] and Rahul Gandhi remained restrained till the Speaker declared the final results. Priyanka Gandhi-Vadhra and her husband Robert Vadra watched the proceedings from the Speaker's gallery.

After they voted, the couple waved to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Rahul hugged his mother. Dayanidhi Maran, the dissident Dravida Munnetra Kazagham MP, gave Dr Singh the warmest hug.

Maran, the former Union communications minister, later told, "The prime minister has proved that he is a true leader. He has the vision and courage to believe in something and stand up for it."

After the vote, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who sat next to Dr Singh, discovered that his vote in favour did not appear to register.

When the manual count revealed that the motion expressing confidence was carried with 275 votes in favour and 256 against Mukherjee seemed relieved.

The margin of victory gave Dr Singh his moment of glory. If democracy is only about majority and numbers, then surely the India-US nuclear deal has the support of a majority of Indians, as reflected in the vote by their representatives.

But the victory comes with a tarnished tag. Corruption may be a routine affair for Indians, but what the country witnessed these last few days crossed all limits of decorum. To get the numbers right, most parties, barring the Left and a handful of others , resorted to dishonourable ways.

The atmosphere in the Lok Sabha was so vitiated that Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav told around 3 pm, "I want the voting to take place earlier."

He said the UPA would win and there was no point waiting for the vote.

A Congress official, in an off-the-record conversation, felt it was Communist party of India General Secretary A B Bardhan's remarks that had polluted the political scene.

He was referring to Bardhan's charge that the UPA was indulging in horse-trading and alleged that the going rate for a member of Parliament was Rs 25 crore.

The Congress MP from a South Indian state felt this figure was humbug and asserted that no party would pay Rs 25 crore to one MP to change his stand. At the most, he added, Rs 5 crore is offered.

Another MP from Gujarat said a BJP MP from north Gujarat wanted to defect and was ready to vote in favour of the UPA. But he asked for Rs 7.5 crore. The Congress emissary refused; otherwise, the margin of victory would have been 20.

BJP MP Maneka Gandhi told, "That TDP (Telugu Desam party) and BJP MPs cross-voted is obviously due to Congress money power."

Vayalar Ravi, the minister for parliamentary affairs, felt the cross-voting was "a warning to the BJP and has created a clash between (Bahujan Samaj party supremo) Mayawati and the BJP."

Ravi, who led the Congress effort of manging the numbers in the House, dismissed the allegation of money changing hands, but said candidly, "Nobody can speak of ideals now. In this Parliament, everybody supports everybody!"

When the sensational scandal about how the Samajwadi Party allegedly tried to bribe three BJP MPs broke, Congressmen were stunned. On seeing bundles of Rs 1,000 notes, which were smuggled into the House by the MPs, some Congress leaders started leaving the House.

Only when Lalu Yadav returned to his seat and started flaying the BJP for conspiracy did the Congressmen come back to their seats.

Outside the Lok Sabha, the two men named in the CD -- Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh and his colleague Reoti Raman Singh -- were busy fielding questions from the media. The tape has been given to Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. It is believed that television journalist Siddhartha Gautam and his team from the CNN-IBN channel got the story from a top BJP leader.

In the sting operation, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel's name also cropped up during a telephonic conversation with Amar Singh.

A shell-shocked Patel denied the allegations. Talking to, Patel said, "It is a conspiracy to drag the Congress. I get more than 10 calls from Amar Singh daily. How do I know who is sitting next to him?"

Curiously, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar [Images], Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shanker Aiyar and Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan did not look elated after the victory. The emerging political equations are probably disturbing them. However, Prime Minister Singh and Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram looked delighted.

"All those economic reforms will be carried out now," Chidambaram said. "This victory is very emphatic."

But Aiyar felt, "It is not easy to move fast. There are standing committees of Parliament. We need new legislation too. Things can't move fast."

Many Congressmen are not in a mood to celebrate. They feel the Congress alliance with the Samajwadi Party is unlikely to survive. There are too many contradictions in the situation to handle. They argue that this year is likely to be a year of drought in many parts of the country; inflation too will be a major problem.

A BJP leader, who helped the sting operation, told a television channel that the CD contained the entire sequence of the bid to bribe the MPs. Sources felt the investigation into the bribing of MPs would haunt the Congress and remind it of the JMM scandal of the early 1990s, when then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao's political managers allegedly bribed Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs for their support during a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha.

As Dr Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi complimented each other, the day ended giving the three powerful Congressmen a victory with a price attached to it.

Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, who defeated the Roman armies, secured victory at heavy cost to his troops. He could not attack Rome itself. He famously said, 'One more such victory and we are lost.'

There is a lesson for the Congress in that story.

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