Ahmed Patel's win sours Amit Shah's Rajya Sabha debut, gives Congress another chance for fightback

Amit Shah will be smarting. On the day he completed three years as BJP president, taking the party to unprecedented heights, his inability to oust Congress leader Ahmed Patel from Rajya Sabha is likely to sting him in more ways than one. It may even spoil, to a certain extent, his debut in the Upper House of the Parliament.

A lot has been written about the reasons which led to Shah directing such an extraordinary amount of attention towards one Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat. Some analysts have pointed out that it was a reflection of the ego battle between the two rival master strategists, some defined the antagonism as a revenge melodrama, while some saw in it BJP's blueprint to fight anti-incumbency in Gujarat and extend its nearly two-decade reign in the state.

File image of Amit Shah and Ahmed Patel. PTi

File image of Amit Shah and Ahmed Patel. PTi

All of this may be true but these theories fail to adequately explain the need for BJP to spend so much ammo to keep one man away from the corridors of power. Ahmed isn't a mass leader but a conjurer, adept at cutting under-the-table deals and triggering silent coups. Power brokers like him are not easily subdued because they can slip through the proverbial eye of the needle.

It would be foolish and an underestimation of Shah's intelligence to suggest that he wasn't aware of these risk factors or repercussions in case Ahmed manages to scrape through. Not only will Ahmed's win infuse much-needed energy into the rank and file of a beleaguered Congress, it will also gnaw away a little bit of the halo that Shah has so assiduously built for himself. So, the question is why did he take the risk when he was aware that BJP candidate Balwantsinh Rajput, the former Congress whip, had a 16-vote handicap, to begin with?

There are two ways of looking at the story which had a rather anti-climactic end for BJP. One, the intense bullfight over Ahmed's seat was essentially an afterthought.

The real worry for BJP is the leadership vacuum that has been created in Gujarat after Narendra Modi's exit. His replacements have either been incompetent or inadequate. Nearly two decades of BJP reign has generated a substantial amount of anti-incumbency which has found popular expression through the Patidar movement.

Shah is aware that Congress is wooing Hardik Patel. The Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti leader represents a generous chunk of the upper caste community that forms an influential 14 per cent of the state's population. The Patels, once staunch saffron backers, are decidedly angry with BJP — part of a larger upper-caste discontent built on the twin platforms of erosion of power and a feeling of betrayal stemming from the denial of social benefits. Bear in mind that the only BJP MLA to cast his vote in Ahmed's favour is Patidar community's Nalin Kotadiya who defied the party whip.

Along with a weak state leadership, this electoral equation can queer BJP's pitch. Shah's attempt to fracture the state Congress may be traced to this counter-strategy. The presidential election where NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind benefitted from cross-voting in his favour indicated that Shah's effort has been successful. Perhaps a little too successful as six Congress MLAs led by the rebellious Shankarsinh Vaghela and Balwantsinh Rajput broke away from Congress.

This may have persuaded Shah of the possibility of an added bonus in the form of Ahmed's ouster. Therefore, the BJP may have renewed its effort of hacking Ahmed's vote bank and ensuring three Upper House seats from Gujarat. As Ahmed flew his remaining 44 legislators from resort to resort, Shah saw an opportunity of owning the narrative about resort-hopping Congress MLAs making merry as the state reels from a flood.

The second possibility is that Shah was as serious about ensuring a humiliating defeat for Ahmed as he was about weakening the Congress organisational structure. The reasons are less likely to be personal. Commentators of Indian politics have shown a certain dogged inability in understanding the politics of Modi and Shah. The duo represents a new brand where personal grudges and equations fade before the larger picture. It's not as if Modi or his trusted general have no instincts of revenge, but they possibly see this as a hindrance, one that serves more to cloud their judgment rather than bringing electoral benefits.

We have repeatedly seen this trait in Modi. His tweets in support of Nitish Kumar after he severed ties with the Bihar Mahagathbandhan being the latest example. Kumar had once broken away from BJP in protest against Modi's elevation as a prime minister candidate and had made no bones about the fact that his decision was driven by personal bitterness.

Instead of searching for personal-grudge theories in Amit Shah-Ahmed Patel battle, therefore, we may be better off putting it in the larger perspective. Ahmed, the biggest and most influential backroom operator, represents the last vestiges of Congress power. As a remnant of the old guard, his long association with the Gandhi clan and proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi as her political secretary made him, in Shah's eyes, an invaluable target whose political demise may hasten Congress's annihilation.

The scalp of a man who served at the sanctum sanctorum of Congress during its heydays, who dragged the Congress along during challenging times and worked behind the scenes in stitching a rainbow coalition of allies post 2004 through successful implementation of saam, daam, dand and bhed, would have insured BJP from 2004-type surprises.

Ahmed's ouster from the Upper House would have forced the new guard under Rahul Gandhi deeper into the hot end of power-broking where wheeling-dealings take place, and where kings and queens are made and unmade. The new crop of Congress dynasts have not distinguished themselves so far either as mass leaders or Machiavellian operators.

Instead, Ahmed lives to fight another day. He has shown a remarkable ability in fighting for his seat, even upsetting BJP's calculations by influencing some of Shah's pawns. This win may well transfer some steel into Congress in the upcoming Assembly polls. Shah won't be comfortable.

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2017 06:32 AM

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