Modi vs Mrs Sanjiv Bhatt: BJP in 'I-told-you-so' mood

The Congress’s decision to field Shweta Bhatt, wife of suspended IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from Maninagar constituency has encouraged BJP leaders in the state. They now believe that the cop's cover has been blown. The state BJP has been saying that Bhatt, who has accused Modi of deliberately asking the police to let rioters have their day in 2002, is being used by the Congress as a 'political pawn' to target Modi.

Apart from the fact that Maninagar has over the years turned into a Modi’s electoral fortress, Shweta Bhatt is a political novice and has no influence in this high-profile constituency. Though it may not be much of a contest, her candidature will, however, add colour to it. BJP Rajya Sabha MP Smriti Irani called it Congress’s “headline chasing” tactic.

Flanked by her husband, Sanjiv, she made a big bang entry into politics by quietly filing her nomination papers ahead of Modi today, the last date for filing her papers. In contrast, Modi held a grand workers' rally and blasted the Congress party on various counts before filing his nomination. Though he did not refer to Sonia Gandhi, she was clearly the target of his ridicule.

“The leaders who come from Delhi with written speeches have their speeches edited at various levels to ensure that it does not contain any offensive words against Modi. They fear that should one word go wrong, I would use that to my benefit,” the Chief Minister said.

Sanjeev Bhatt (C), his wife Shweta (3R), son Shantanu (L), and his daughter Akashi (R) pose for a photo after Bhatt arrived at his residence after being granted bail by a local court in Ahmedbad in 2011 file photo. AFP

The Gujarat Congress, Modi said, was a party without leader and without workers. But then he went a step ahead and directly took on Sonia Gandhi's Political Secretary, Ahmed Patel, who has had a major role to play in the choice of Congress candidates.

If he was such a big leader, he should have been projected as a chief ministerial candidate, Modi said, and asked: "Why does he never come to the forefront?"

It is no secret that no Congress leader of any consequence wanted to contest from Maninagar to become the proverbial sacrificial lamb. In the last election, Dinsha Patel, contested against him and lost. He is now the Union Mines Minister. He had been an influential Patel community leader, and during the last elections many had hoped he would be able to cash in on the latent resentment in the community due to the political marginalisation of Keshubhai Patel in the BJP. He was even informally projected as the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate. But he lost miserably by over 86,000 votes.

The common refrain among BJP leaders of all ranks is that the Congress couldn’t find a leader from within their own list of known leaders, so they ultimately had to look for someone from outside even at the risk of exposing Sanjiv Bhatt’s political links. Local Congress leaders were unwilling to comment on the merits of her candidature.

BJP leaders believe that after his wife filed the nomination papers as a Congress candidate, Bhatt can no longer claim whistleblower status and even Modi’s critics will now find it difficult to portray him as an independent police officer. BJP MP Balbir Punj said Bhatt had been “unmasked”. Senior state party leader Vijay Rupani went ballistic against Bhatt’s Congress’s connection and claimed that his political sympathies may have coloured his decision to file cases against Modi.

If Shweta Bhatt’s candidature made BJP leaders happy, they were rather guarded on the possible switchover of former Deputy Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Narhari Amin from the Congress to the BJP. Both Congress and BJP leaders confirmed that such a move was in the offing but last minute efforts were being made by the Congress leadership to salvage the situation. Amin wanted to contest these elections but the Congress leadership was said to be unwilling to give him a ticket.

Modi and Amin have a common connection: cricket. Modi and Amit Shah had taken over the reigns of the Gujarat Cricket Association in 2009 after demolishing Amin’s unchallenged control over the state cricketing body for 16 years. The relationship between them, since then, has improved.

The handling of leaders like Narhari Amin may have something to do with internal factional feuds but the way the Congress went ahead with a “secretive” ticket distribution process is raising questions about its ability to handle defections and rebellion.

Though the Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road in Delhi put its approval stamp on the list, it does not make the announcements from there. Instead the list is sent to Ahmedabad where again the list is not declared publicly. The selected candidates are individually informed and quietly handed over the ticket for filing nominations.

The list is expected to be made public only after all nominations are filed and the last hour for filing has passed. The Congress seems to have taken a cue from its erstwhile ally, and now an outside supporter at the Centre, RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav. Lalu used to follow same practice in Bihar while giving tickets.

By fielding Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife the Congress has, however, ensured that Maninagar constituency will provide constant fodder to the media in the heat of electioneering. Beyond that it does not require much guesswork on how voters will behave on polling day.

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