It is well known that Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav's open declaration against Sonia Gandhi scuttled Congress' chances of coming to power at the fall of the BJP-led NDA government in April 1999. But it was actually the late Harkishen Singh Surjeet and the Left parties that ditched her and forced her to call off her plans to form a government then.
This as-yet-unknown facet of the heady developments of the summer of 1999 has been revealed by former Prime Minister I K Gujral in his just-released autobiography "Matters of Discretion" which also throws light on the "hawks" in the Congress who forced the toppling of the United Front government in 1997 against the presence of DMK ministers after the Jain Commission report indictment of the party linking it to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Incidentally, the DMK is the second biggest ally of the Congress in the UPA coalition at the Centre now.
91-year-old Gujral writes in vivid detail the hectic political developments leading to the collapse of his short-lived four-month government in November of 1997 after the Jain Commission report was leaked to a news magazine in Delhi by M C Jain, a retired judge of the Rajasthan High Court.
Just after the fall of the NDA government on April 17, 1999 by just one vote, Gujral writes in his book published by Hay House India that he and Ram Vilas Paswan, who was a minister under him, came under a lot of pressure from the BJP to support the NDA. Defeated Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and BJP leader Jaswant Singh came over to persuade him.
The BJP also sent Akali Dal leader Parkash Singh Badal to meet him and tried to put pressure through TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu, who was then supporting the BJP.
"At this juncture," he recalls, "Harkishen Singh Surjeet came up with the name of Sonia Gandhi and persuaded her to make a bid to form the next government. Sonia came over to my residence on April 20, 1999 for a cup of coffee.
"Hers was basically a courtesy call to ask for my support. I told her very frankly that while I would support her candidature for prime ministership, she would be let down by her friends in the Left at the last moment. I added that she was being naive if she thought that Surjeet was seriously backing her.
"In fact, their 'hidden horse' was Jyoti Basu who had been convinced by Surjeet to enter the fray for the top post in case of a deadlock," writes Gujral. Gujral says on April 21, 1999 after Sonia Gandhi met President K R Narayanan to formally stake her claim to form the next government with the famous comment, "We have 272 and more are coming", Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had been professing to support her, suddenly did a volte-face and announced to the media that "his party would not be supporting the Congress".
The next morning, Mulayam Singh's party floated the name of Jyoti Basu and the Left hurriedly endorsed it. It was at this juncture that Sonia Gandhi decided to call a spade a spade and refused support to the 'Third Front' (non-Congress and non-BJP parties).
Gujral recalls, "Later, in passing, she once asked me how I had correctly guessed the course of events, to which I replied: I have spent 50 years of my life in politics with the likes of Surjeet and certain things you learn only through experience."
Then he reveals that in the subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha in September-October 1999, Sonia Gandhi was gracious enough to offer him a Congress ticket for contesting the polls.
In case, he did not wish to contest, she told him that she would back his entry to the Rajya Sabha.
"However, I decided that having held the position of the prime minister of India, I must refrain from switching parties and call it a day gracefully," he writes.
The former Prime Minister recalls the build up to the collapse of his government on the issue of DMK ministers in the chapter titled "The First Tremors".
It was November 16, 1997. The nation was abuzz with rumours that the Congress was about to withdraw its support to the government on that day itself. However, the rumours remained rumours.
Late Sitaram Kesri, then Congress President, came over for lunch. He was happy after meeting Sonia Gandhi. According to the political grapevine, she had pressurised him to let his government fall.
In the beginning, he was reluctant to talk about this touchy matter, but later told him that 'she was very emotional' during the meeting.
Kesri also disclosed that Congress leaders such as Arjun Singh, K Karunakaran, Jagannath Mishra, Sharad Pawar, Jitendra Prasad and Vijayabhaskar Reddy had ganged up to press for mid-term elections but he (Kesri) had resisted them. He then took out a piece of paper from his inner pocket, which contained three points.
He wanted assurances that the UF government was not not out to denigrate the Jain Commission (which went into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE), the Commission's report would be placed on the table of Parliament, and other documents sought by the Commission would be supplied.
Kesri told him before leaving: "You need not not worry since you possess the 'powerful weapon' of the power to recommend dissolution of Parliament.
"I assured him that I would let him know well in time about my plan so that we could together ensure that the President did not not summon the BJP to form the next government at the Centre."
In the afternoon, R K Dhawan came to meet Gujral and revealed that he himself had drafted the three points.
Gujral says that it was but obvious that Sonia Gandhi and her advisers were pressuring Kesri on these points.
He recollects several incidents during his prime ministerial tenure which was getting to be full of media-created situations.
"All the same, it seemed to me that the beginning of the end of my government was in sight. The Congress, which I felt was suffering from a death wish, had by then been captured by 'anti-Kesri forces', which would do anything to politically humiliate him.
"They had seen the Jain Commission interim report in the November 8, 1997 issue of India Today, even before it had been made public. Hence, they vociferously demanded the ouster of DMK ministers from the government," Gujral notes.
The book recounts the various developments in the Congress and the UF parties and proceedings in Parliament which were being disrupted by the Congress on its demand for dropping of DMK ministers from the government.
On November 21, 1997 Gujral recalls that a temperamental Mamata Banerjee had moved a motion of no confidence against the government.
That day, rumours were rife that a Sharad Pawar-led group had crossed over to the BJP. But that was not the case. Later, Gujral learnt that he was unable to muster the required number of backers from the Congress.
In between efforts were also being made by various people to patch things up. This included Ahmed Patel, a leading member of the Congress, who was a part of major-decision-making bodies of the party. Patel's suggestion seemed worthwhile, but fast-moving events precluded its being tried out.
"When I spoke to Kesri later that night, he sounded a bit more cheerful. He criticised Jitendra Prasad and Arjun Singh for their rigid stand that the Congress insist on the DMK ministers being dropped from the government.
"He also told me that two other Congress leaders Sharad Pawar and Vijaybhaskara Reddy had realised the danger of leaving the party and had returned to its fold," writes Gujral.
Some influential Congress leaders tried to first lure G K Moopanar (who was then leading Tamil Maanila Congress) and then Mulayam Singh away by offering each of them the prime ministership.
Moopanar's response was that he could not drop the DMK ministers but Mulayam Singh was apparently tempted. However, the numbers would not add up.
R K Dhawan then telephoned Gujral to present a new proposal. He wanted to know if "I could ask the DMK ministers to step aside for a few days till bilateral talks took place between the Congress and the United Front leaders," says Gujral.
"I rejected his proposal outright. I told him firmly: They are not not Class IV government employees who can be suspended pending an enquiry," says the former prime minister.
Gujral also narrates some instances which were engineered to provoke the Congress against his government.
On November 5, 1997, N N Vohra, his Principal Secretary, brought along N K Singh, then Union Revenue Secretary, who said that an income tax commissioner had reported to him that UP Congress leader N D Tiwari had a whopping Rs 90 crore in his house for distribution to gain certain favours.
The I-T commissioner reportedly sought Singh's permission to raid Tiwari's house.
"I questioned Singh in-depth about the authenticity of the story. I soon realised it was a manipulation to compel me to act against the Congress which was supporting the government from outside," he says.
Later in the evening, Gujral recalled that P Chidambaram, his finance minister, too had told him that N K Singh had recounted the same story and that he had reacted similarly.
"We viewed it as a clever ploy to create a gulf between the Congress and the UF Government and decided to ignore it," says Gujral.