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Deve Gowda goes down with all guns blazing

It was five minutes to midnight.

A night made bright by the incandescence of Deve Gowda's political oratory.

It was a bravura performance - and very obviously aimed at a larger audience than the one assembled in the Lok Sabha for the crucial vote of confidence. Startlingly frank, Deve Gowda ignored the buzzwords of communalism and secularism with which, for 11 hours, the various parliamentarians who rose to speak on both sides had sought to obscure the real issues, and directed the beam of the spotlight squarely on Congress president Sitaram Kesri.

Stunned silence greeted the various statements Deve Gowda reeled off in quick succession, each demolishing one of the allegations levelled against him by Kesri in the letter announcing withdrawal of support. And never was that silence more profound than when Deve Gowda said, "Are we supposed to believe Mr Kesri when he says that the CWC took the decision to withdraw support from the government towards the end of March? On the day he was elected president of the Congress, I invited him for lunch. In a meeting of two hours and more, he time and again reiterated his support for the UF government. Four days later, Mr Farooq Abdullah met him. And Kesri told Mr Abdullah, don't join the UF government, I am going to withdraw support. This decision was taken then, not in March, and it has nothing to do with my performance and that of my government, but everything to do with one man's ambitions."

Gowda's speech had two obvious intentions. One, he was very clinically fostering the division within the Congress, widening the rift between Kesri and P V Narasimha Rao. Time and again he made complimentary references to Rao, time and again made the point that as long as Rao was President of the Congress, the UF government had no problems.

And his second, and most important, point was aimed at the national electorate. "You," he told the Congress members, "made this House, and this nation, a promise in June last year when we sought our initial vote of confidence. You promised stability, you promised unconditional support for five years. Today, you have gone back on that promise and, what is more, you have not had the honesty to admit why you have done so. For this, you will have to answer to the nation - and I promise you, the reckoning will be bitter."

The unkindest cut of all was aimed at Kesri. "I do not need a certificate of competence from your president," Deve Gowda said, referring to the letter Kesri had sent to the President. "In my political career, I have faced 10 elections. How many elections has Kesri faced?"

At ease and smiling almost throughout his peroration, Deve Gowda, however, lapsed into one moment of sheer savagery. "The secret behind what is happening here is very simple," he said. "The office of president of the Congress party holds very little prestige today. The real prestige is to be sitting here, in this House, and that is why the old man is in such a hurry to get rid of me."

The remarks sparked pandemonium. The Congress MPs, who had sat in stony silence as Deve Gowda clinically dissected their president, were suddenly up in arms at the PM's casual use of that phrase, "old man". So heated became the proceedings that Sangma ordered them expunged from the records, and commanded that the television cameras carrying the debate live to millions of homes in India and around the world be turned off. The blackout lasted for five minutes, till order was restored and Deve Gowda resumed his speech.

It was fighting stuff, every minute of the 80 minutes that Deve Gowda spoke. And ultimately, it was all so futile. Though he called,. at the end of his peroration, for a conscience vote, the various party whips prevailed and both the Congress and the BJP expectedly went against the motion, leading to the fall of the Gowda government and the end of yet another experiment in coalition politics.

Typical of the drama thus far, the end produced a little twist of its own. Speaker Purno A Sangma called for a voice vote, and then announced that the Ayes had carried the day, that the vote of confidence had been passed. When some members objected and demanded a division, the electronic voting machines were pressed into service. The result, 158 Ayes, 292 Nos - and Gowda's innings had officially ended.

And so to the future -- and the meeting of the United Front steering committee, earlier scheduled to be held late on Friday night and now postponed to Saturday morning, at the ex-prime minister's residence. Deve Gowda drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan soon after the vote and submitted his resignation to the President.

Speculation, meanwhile, surrounds the meeting between UF steering committee convener and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu and President Shankar Dayal Sharma on Friday evening, even as the crucial debate in Parliament was entering its final stages. It is understood that Naidu appraised the President of fast-changing political developments, though the details of the meeting were not known.

However, the talking point of the day remained Deve Gowda's last hurrah in Parliament.

Ironically, his initial speech, while tabling the motion seeking a vote of confidence, was an uninspired oration, delivered in trademark monotone, which sought to list the achievements of his nine-month old ministry. Both Jaswant Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when speaking in opposition to the motion, had pointed out that Deve Gowda had not even asked for a vote of confidence, nor addressed the allegations levelled against him by the Congress party.

It was when Deve Gowda rose to make the concluding address that he turned the tables -- even remarking, with a smile that belied the venom of his concentrated attack on Sitaram Kesri, "I too know how to make political speeches, Vajpayeeji!"

Referring to Kesri's criticism that the United Front had not supported the Congress in its recent electoral battles against the forces of communalism, Deve Gowda demanded: "Am I responsible for the defeat of Congress in the elections in Punjab, by-elections in Karnataka and in the local elections in Maharashtra?''

Deve Gowda then took on Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi who, earlier in the day, had said in his speech opposing the motion that the withdrawal of support was not a sudden move, adding that the Congress president had earlier forwarded to Deve Gowda two letters detailing the grievances of the Congress against the UF. "I have not received one single letter from your president," the prime minister said in flat rebuttal. "The only letter I have received was from the President of India, on March 31, enclosing Congress president Mr Sitaram Kesri's letter withdrawing the support of his party."

He indicated that the secret to Kesri's action lay in the timing. He recalled how, on March 29, Finance Minister P Chidambaram had informed him that the Congress had not submitted its income tax statements and accounts, and since the financial year was coming to a close, Deve Gowda said, he had personally telephoned P V Narasimha Rao who was the party president during 1993-94. Later, he added, he had in course of a telephone call requested Mr Sitaram Kesri, the current president, to sort out the issue. "Kesri gave me time, at 1400 hours on March 31, for a meeting. And then wrote to the President conveying his decision to withdraw support from the UF government," Gowda said.

Referring to the charge that he had sought to foster division in the Congress by visiting Mr Narasimha Rao often while ignoring the Congress president, he flatly termed the charge a lie. "I have visited Mr Kesri 12 times after he became Congress president. I have visited Mr Narasimha Rao on several occasions. I have also visited Mr Chandra Shekhar, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr L K Advani and Mr Sharad Pawar. They are seasoned leaders, veterans, respected figures in politics. It is a matter of good manners that impelled me to visit these leaders. As far as I am concerned, whether PM or no, friendship is not a marketable commodity in this world."

Another charge, made in course of the debate by Dasmunshi and Rajesh Pilot, was that Deve Gowda had worked to weaken the Congress. "Is that so?" demanded Deve Gowda, then, turning to Madhavrao Scindia who was seated with the Congress MPs, continued, "When Mr Scindia came to inform me that he was joining the Congress, I told him by all means do so, it is your duty to strengthen the Congress. I said the same thing to N D Tiwari and Arjun Singh, when they were about to rejoin the Congress. Was this the act of a man who sought to weaken the Congress?" Deve Gowda demanded.

And then came the riposte. "The Congress has made much of the fact, which I have now disproved, that I tried to divide the Congress. When my Home Minister, Mr Indrajit Gupta, met Mr Kesri the day after the Congress withdrew support, what did Mr Kesri do? In course of a one-and-a-half hour discussion, Mr Kesri kept insisting on only one thing, he kept telling Mr Gupta that he has no problems with the UF, all he wants is that I be forced to resign office of the prime minister. Is this not an attempt, on the part of the Congress president, to divide the UF? What face does he then have to accuse me of attempting to divide the Congress?" Deve Gowda demanded.

BJP leader Pramod Mahajan had earlier indicated that Deve Gowda's real fault, and the reason for the Congress ire, was that he had initiated CBI cases against several prominent Congress leaders. Deve Gowda, in his turn, denied having done so. "I have not, in the past ten months, ordered a single enquiry against any politician, of any party, I have not passed any orders against anybody," Deve Gowda said. "True, I have not interfered in the CBI enquiries in progress, but isn't that what the House expected of me?"

It was evident, even before Deve Gowda rose to deliver the concluding address, that the UF had given up all hope of saving the government, though discussions were going on behind the scenes almost till the very end.

Front leaders had apparently been counting on a revolt in the Congress party, with several disgruntled MPs voting along with the government on Friday. But that prospective rebellion quickly evaporated with even rebel Congress chieftains like P V Narasimha Rao and Rajesh Pilot asking their supporters to obey the party whip.

Samajwadi Party chieftain Mulayam Singh Yadav and Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav met with Deve Gowda on Thursday night and asked him to step down. When that initiative failed, fresh efforts to find a compromise began early on Friday morning when UF leaders had an emergency meeting at the prime minister's home shortly before the Lok Sabha convened.

According to highly placed Front sources, the UF leaders pleaded with the prime minister to consider the Congress demand to step down and save the government. However, the sources said, Deve Gowda was adamant that a change of leadership was no solution and the Lok Sabha should decide whether the government is voted out or not.

As the debate in Parliament began, Front leaders -- West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, Tamil Maanila Congress president G K Moopanar, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang, CPI-M general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechuri and Front convener Nara Chandrababu Naidu -- met at Andhra Pradesh Bhavan to discuss the post-vote situation.

Though the Front leaders made the usual noises about continuing to repose faith in Deve Gowda's leadership after the meeting, it is understood that the names of External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, Naidu and Moopanar had begun to make the rounds as possible successors to the prime minister.

In fact, Chidambaram in course of his speech supporting the motion made a statement that political observers felt gave a clue to developments in the immediate future. "Today, we are on opposite sides," the finance minister said, "But that means nothing, tomorrow we could be back together. In political life, there are no full stops, only commas." Hidden in there, it is being speculated, lies the possibility of the UF government continuing in office, albeit under a new leader.

Meanwhile, soon after the meeting, the three Front chief ministers and Moopanar held an unscheduled meeting with the prime minister at his office in Parliament House even as the debate was in progress in the Lok Sabha.

Basu, Karunanidhi, Laloo Yadav and Moopanar are understood to have briefed Deve Gowda on the post-vote situation including the issue of the Front leadership.

The details of the discussion, however, were not known.

Meanwhile, Gowda ended his speech as he had begun it - on a note of personal anguish. "Nine months ago," he said, "I made a statement in this House. I said then that I did not know how long my government would last -- five days, five months or five years, and that I did not care. All I cared was to ensure that every minute of whatever time I had would be spent working for the nation, and I leave with my head held high, proud in the knowledge that I, at least, have kept my promise to this House and to this nation. And if it is my destiny to rise again from the dust, then I shall do so -- for no one, not even the president of the Congress party, can deny a man his due."

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