By all indications, the confidence vote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will seek on July 22 will go down to the wire, rekindling memories of the tantalisingly close division that knocked Atal Bihari Vajpayee out by the margin of one in April 1999.
As Singh might get the vote he has sought,
the parallel actually is in the political dynamics, the whisker-thin margin in the unfolding numbers game. The NDA needed 270 to survive. The UPA requires 272. The effective strength of the 12th Lok Sabha was 543. Ditto for the 14th House where too some members might abstain as they did during Vajpayee's motion nine years ago.
Once Jayalalithaa withdrew support of her 18 MPs for the Vajpayee regime, it was touch and go for the BJP-NDA's frontline floor managers - the since deceased Pramod Mahajan and Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. Such was the paucity of numbers on either side of the divide that the Congress's Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang, still within the permissible six months for which he could hold his Lok Sabha seat, was called to oppose Vajpayee's motion.
Theories abound about the vote that felled the 13-month-old BJP-led regime, the famous Mayawati about-turn after assuring NDA of a bailout, no-show in the House and the sole Peasants and Workers' Party MP Ramsheth Thakur's dogged refusal to play ball with the BJP's number-seekers.
But the man who actually sealed Vajpayee's fate was Saifuddin Soz - Manmohan Singh's Minister for Water Resources who, as a National Conference Member of the 12th Lok Sabha, defied the party whip. "I voted against Vajpayee's motion because I felt the NC's decision to support the BJP - perceived all along as a communal party - was a betrayal of the mandate of the people of Kashmiri," he recalled. "My purpose was to save the party as a secular, regional force."
"Count Soz out," a flustered Farooq Abdullah, the NC chief told L.K. Advani on failing to persuade his senior party MP. The 269 ayes against 270 noes after a marathon 25-hour debate over three days saw Lalu Yadav hugging Soz while Kumaramangalam blamed him for the government's fall: “Soz nein dubo diya".
The one-vote margin stunned the NC rebel as much as Mahajan and Kumaramangalam whose last-ditch efforts to make him change his mind, he spurned on the eve of the April 17 vote. "I couldn't believe it was my vote that had the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy driving down to the President's House to tender his resignation," he said. "It wasn't as much a moment of joy as of the realisation of the power of each vote in Parliament."
A very tangible realisation of that very power by individual MPs and political parties whose vote Manmohan Singh so desperately needs constitutes the challenge faced by the UPA trouble-shooters. Like Mayawati's five then, the JMM's five are now playing truant, certain Independent members are loath to reveal their hand and for a few inveterate power players, it's their moment to secure lucrative quid pro quos. "We'll sail through. But there is an element of risk," confessed an AICC functionary. The point is best illustrated by the internal SP rebellion, political barters sought by smaller groupings and the BSP's fishing rod in the UPA's troubled waters.