Unlucky Number 13! It could not have been truer for former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Vajpayee's first government in 1996 lasted 13 days while his second government lasted 13 months. In both cases, Vajpayee's government was defeated by no-confidence motions. While in 1996, Vajpayee stepped down ahead of a trust vote, he failed to secure enough support in the 1998 vote of no-confidence.
Vajpayee, who died at the age of 93 at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Thursday, had, on that day in May 1996, acknowledged his party’s defeat, but asserted in an unusually thundering manner, “…We assure you that while you want power, we want to work for this country and we will never sit and rest in this endeavour.”
Vajpayee stuck to his assurance — he came back to power for a second term in 1998, and lasted for the next 13 months, only to be plopped back to Premiership in 1999, this time seeing it to its conclusion.
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In 1996, however, the Opposition never expected that Vajpayee — who was the first prime minister from BJP, would actually tender his resignation, let alone come to power two more times after that.
The 1996 general elections, and the BJP’s rise as the single largest party, came on the background of several major developments in the country— liberalization, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the riots and blasts in Bombay and the aftermath of Mandal Commission report.
The BJP had won 161 seats, followed by Congress’ 140.
President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited the BJP to form the government, and Vajpayee took oath on May 15, 1996, in the hope that regional parties would lend their support to the government in forming a majority.
That, however, did not happen. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s Mayawati, in fact, retraced her support minutes after she assured Vajpayee of it, rising up in the house to declare her opposition to the government.
On May 28, Vajpayee promptly resigned, but not before delivering a stirring speech.
Congress had rushed to knock on the doors of the United Front, first on Kolkata’s Alimuddin Street where CPI (M)'s Jyoti Basu was offered the premiership, which he and his party refused and which Basu later decided was a ‘historic blunder’, and then Janata Dal, whose Deve Gowda eventually became the Prime Minister.
Vajpayee came to dominate India’s political discourse in the years — though, perhaps, not decades — to come, and his policies, poems and polemics overshadowed the 13 heady days of his government.
Vajpayee has always been the friendly leader who knew how to differentiate between the personal and the political.
He was the leader who sat and gave interviews during the 1996 political campaigning while a picture of PV Narasimha Rao— against whom Vajpayee was pitted— adorned his wall.
“Whatever be our political differences,” Vajpayee had said in an interview, “he (Narasimha Rao) is a scholar, and he was the first to grasp the most significant of my poems.”