18th April 1999
Sonia Gandhi (L), the president of India's
main opposition Congress party, smiles as she is
greeted by supporters after a confidence motion against
India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's coalition
government in New Delhi yesterday
NEW DELHI, Saturday (Reuters) - India's 13-month-old government fell today after losing a confidence motion by just one vote, raising the spectre of another shaky coalition.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee resigned gracefully as the main opposition Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, prepared to cobble together support in a fractured parliament to form what would be India's sixth government in three years. "It is for the opposition to decide how to meet the situation," Mr. Vajpayee, a moderate Hindu nationalist, said. "I do not rule out the possibility of early election."
Mr. Vajpayee will be remembered for ordering the nuclear tests that prompted rival blasts from Pakistan last year, and a goodwill bus ride he made later to India's arch-foe.
After two days of debate and feverish manoeuvring for allies by both sides, a minor party reneged overnight on its promise to abstain and voted against the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The frantic climax to the political drama sent stock markets swinging wildly in tandem with the government's fortunes. The Bombay stock exchange's index of 30 leading shares closed 6.88 percent lower after the vote.
Mr. Vajpayee said President Kocheril Raman Narayanan had asked him to stay on until a new administration was formed.
The government's defeat threw the world's largest democracy into political limbo just before its investor-friendly 1999/2000 (April-March) budget had been due to go before parliament.
The 114-year-old Congress party said Sonia, widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi, was the legitimate successor to Mr. Vajpayee. The party, a shadow of its former self, faced an uphill task.
"If the opposition is unable to prove that it has 270 votes, the present government should be allowed to continue," said Defence Minister George Fernandes, whose decision to sack a navy chief had triggered events leading to the government's fall.
The BJP-led coalition won 269 votes and the opposition 270.
Parliament held two votes on the confidence motion today, after there were doubts about an initial, electronic vote which showed a much bigger defeat for the government. Two sick BJP members were shepherded in to vote from wheelchairs.
The defeat came as a surprise after pledges of support from small parties on Friday had appeared to favour the government.
"The conspirators were able to have temporary success," BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu told reporters after the defeat.
The Bahujan Samaj Party representing low Hindu castes had said its five deputies would abstain, but later voted against Mr. Vajpayee.
The vote was triggered on Wednesday when the BJP's most unreliable partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, crossed to the opposition.
The Congress party's working committee was scheduled to meet at around 8 p.m. (1430 GMT) to decide on its course of action.
Ms. Gandhi's party and a handful of minor allies controlled 145 lawmakers in the 545-seat lower House prior to the vote.
"If (the president) invites the Congress then the party will respond to that invitation," party spokesman Arjun Singh said.
Following are some of the political scenarios that could play out:
* Narayanan could summon Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of the Congress party, either today or tomorrow to ask her if she was willing and able to form a majority government.
She could ask for time — probably a couple of days — to explore ways to form a viable government.
Congress could form a majority government with the support of Communists and a clutch of regional parties that oppose the BJP, including a so-called Third Front of mostly centre-left parties. Many of these were part of two United Front coalition governments that were formed to block the BJP after 1996 elections.
Congress, 127 seats short of a simple majority in parliament, could lead a minority government with support from the Third Front and other allies from the outside, though it remains to be seen whether regional parties would accept this scenario.
* Congress could back a centre-left government from the outside, preferring to wait for another mid-term election to be called — possibly at the end of the year or in early 2000 — in the hope of winning power on its own.
* Either way, President Narayanan will ask the new administration to prove its majority in parliament within a specified time period, not more than a month of being sworn into office.
* If no party or group of parties is able to put together a viable government, the president would dissolve parliament and the Vajpayee administration would stay on in a caretaker capacity until new elections were held to form a new government within six months.
Dates for such a poll, which would be India's third since 1996, would be set by the Election Commission.
Sri Lankan political leaders who reacted to the ouster of Premier Vajpayee's BJP Government were of the unanimous view that the developments would not affect Indo-Sri Lanka relations.
They expressed identical views through The Sunday Times.
But the Colombo security establishment was yesterday closely watching developments unfolding following the defeat of the BJP Government. This is in view of the presence of a Sri Lankan element in the ouster of the BJP regime.
India's sacked Navy Commander Admiral Vishnu Bhagawat after his ouster accused Defence Minister George Fernandes of consorting with the LTTE. Admiral Bhagawat sought a public explanation of the "LTTE, Myanmarese and the Northeast Rebels" being present at the New Delhi residence of Mr. Fernandes. He also referred to the Defence Minister's decision of July 27, 1998 to stop interceptions of vessels carrying weapons and narcotics, without prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. The withdrawal of the Tamil Nadu AIDMK faction was on the demand that Mr. Fernandes be relieved from his defence portfolio in the wake of the disclosures made by Admiral Bhagawat.
The Defence Minister George Fernandes' pro- LTTE leanings caused serious concern at the highest levels of the PA Government in Colombo. A hitherto unknown factor is that the matter was raised with the Government of India.
The Sunday Times learns that this was done by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during a meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee. According to authoritative sources Mr. Vajpayee who gave a patient hearing had assured Mr. Kadirgamar (and through him the government) not to worry or to entertain any apprehensions about Mr. Fernandes.
Any government succeeding the BJP will need the strong backing of the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi and even the AIDMK of Jayalalitha Jeyaram.
Sonia Gandhi's bitterness of the LTTE for its assassination of her husband Rajiv Gandhi is widely known.
Defence circles in Colombo believe that from a position of power she would seek to deal sternly with the LTTE and to bring to book those responsible for her husbands killing. Now that she has aligned herself with Ms. Jeyaram she is expected to back her in her actions against the LTTE.
Here are the views of Sri Lankan political leaders:
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesighe: "I don't think there would be a major impact on Sri Lanka, on the political scenario. Still no one knows what is happening in Delhi. As no one is having a majority it is a very confused situation there."
Acting Foreign Minister Lakshman Kiriella: "As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the impact is none at all. Because the desire of Sri Lanka is to have good relations with whatever party is in power."
Joseph Pararajasingham of the TULF: "I don't think immediately there would be any impact. It all depends whether Congress comes to power or not." EPDP General Secretary Douglas Devananda: "It is too early to comment. And as far as I am concerned it would not have any impact on Indo-Sri Lanka relations, which will continue to be as strong as ever."
By Frederica Jansz
A massage parlour situated directly opposite Mumtaz Mahal, official residence of the Speaker was raided on Friday after a police surveillance team found the massage parlour "resorting to unhealthy sexual practices."
Kollupitiya Police Chief Inspector E. E. Widisinghe said three women were arrested and they would be charged with prostitution. The massage parlour had a license issued by the Western Provincial Council and the CMC.
Inspector Widisinghe said the premises from which "Pilawoos" — a popular 24-hour restaurant situated below the massage parlour 'Queens' — and the Massage Parlour operate are on rent, but belong to Abdul Hathy Sulaiman, President of the Justices of the Peace Association. Mr. Sulaiman resides in the adjoining block.
When The Sunday Times contacted Mr. Sulaiman he denied the premises where "Queens" operates from belonged to him. He said it was a condominium and the top floor belongs to one Kamal Mustapha. Asked if Mr.Mustapha could be contacted, Mr. Sulaiman said Mr. Mustapha lived in the Eastern Province and "can never at any stage be contacted."
The Kollupitiya police also raided two other massage parlours. One operating at the Rainbow Hotel at Palmyrah Avenue, and another at Sellamuttu Avenue. Fifteen women were arrested in these raids.
The Government was defeated by the opposition UNP by a thumping majority on Friday — in Geneva.
The PA-UNP battles have now extended beyond the shores of Sri Lanka and in a vote where foreign Governments had to vote, the UNP came out victorious.
The vote was for the post of titular representative for Asia/Pacific of the Inter Parliamentary Union's (IPU) Human Rights Committee, a post that comes with responsibility for monitoring human rights activity in the region.
UNP's nominee was Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP for the Kalutara District and the PA's nominee was Acting Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The UNP candidate won by a resounding majority of 120 votes.
This was the first time two Sri Lankan MPs offered themselves for an election for the same post in an international organisation.
The contest got heated up in Colombo when Mr. Samarasinghe informed the Sri Lanka branch of the IPU of his intention to offer himself for the vacant post.
The Government moved in at that stage and refused to back Mr. Samarasinghe. Instead it proposed Mr. Yapa.
At an IPU Sri Lanka branch meeting held in Parliament on April 8 with Speaker K. B.Ratnayake presiding, the PA had insisted on its nominee. Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike also attended the meeting.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe who attended the meeting however refused to budge saying Mr. Samarasinghe had given his name much earlier, and that there had been a long tradition where both Government and Opposition supported a candidate irrespective of his party.
The matter unresolved, both names were put forward with 131 foreign governments voting for the UNP candidate, and only 11 for the PA candidate, despite several PA MPs also being sent to Geneva to lobby their candidate's case.
By Shelani de Silva
Maverick LSSP Parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara has been suspended from his party hours after he formally informed the Speaker that he would sit in the opposition from Wednesday.
State radio quoted party leader and minister Batty Weerakoon as saying that the decision making politburo which met on Friday night decided to suspend Mr. Nanayakkara and take steps which could lead to Mr. Nanayakkara's expulsion from parliament.
Mr. Nanayakkara told The Sunday Times he had differences of opinion with the party but moving to the opposition did not in any way mean supporting the UNP.
For several years, Mr. Nanayakkara had been at odds with his party and the PA on issues such as privatisation, economic policies in general and workers' rights.
An LTTE area leader in Jaffna identified as Kutti, and accomplice Kavi and an unidentified cadre were shot dead by the Army yesterday.
They are said to have been hiding in a bunker inside a house.
The Army had been tipped off by residents in the area.
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