The 8 August biennial poll for three Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat is proving to be the mother of all elections ever held for the Upper House of Parliament.
Since its inception in 1952, there was not a single example when MLAs of a state (of any political party) were flown out to be kept in luxurious captivity, away from any contact with the outside world under the watch and the ward of the party high command, and then flown back to the state a day before the election, only to be confined in another fancy resort, again, under the close scrutiny of their party bosses.
But the Congress party under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi made that exception in July-August of 2017. All this was done with a singular purpose — not to allow the rival political party to establish any contact with them till the elections are over.
There have had been several instances across the political spectrum when an incumbent chief minister or a challenge, fearful of poaching from the rival camp, herded the MLAs to safe houses in the state or outside, to keep the flock together ahead of a vote of confidence in the state assembly. But such a thing had never happened ahead of Rajya Sabha biennial poll.
It must be noted that unlike a vote of confidence in Assembly or in the Parliament where voting is open and the leader of a party can easily assess who voted as per the party whip and who didn't, in Rajya Sabha polls the provision for secret vote makes it impossible to identify cross voters or those who may have consciously cast an invalid vote.
Over the last week, India has been watching a bizarre political drama with certain amusement unfolding in Gujarat: Six Congress MLAs resigned from the party after expressing low or no confidence in their national leadership.
Then 44 MLAs were flown out of Ahmedabad to Bengaluru to have fun in custodial luxury — if they actually could when people back home were cursing them for leaving them to their fate when the state was facing one of the worst floods — and then flown back to Ahmedabad with the condition that they can’t go to their homes till they have voted for party brass Ahmed Patel.
The situation couldn't be more ironic and embarrassing for Sonia, Rahul, and Patel. Till recently Patel’s word was the law in Congress. As political secretary of Congress president, Sonia, Patel spoke on behalf and also for her. He was the second most powerful person in Congress till Rahul became the de-facto leader of the party. After the advent of Rahul as the vice-president of Congress, Patel became the third most powerful person in the party. The current prospect of him losing Rajya Sabha seat from his home state will be humiliating not just for him but for the entire Congress party. The problem is that whomsoever the Congress leadership may blame, the trouble is self-inflicted.
Consider three things — first, Congress had 57 MLAs in the Gujarat Assembly, BJP had 121, and three Rajya Sabha seats were vacant. To win, each candidate needed 47 votes (MLAs are electors). On paper, Congress had 10 surplus votes to make Patel win comfortably, whereas, the BJP had 27 spare votes after electing party president Amit Shah and union minister Smriti Irani.
Second, six Congress MLAs quit the party after senior Congress leader and leader of Opposition in state Assembly Shankarsinh Vaghela was thrown out. The BJP fielded Balwantsinh Rajput, one of the rebels and close supporter of Vaghela, as the fourth candidate in the Rajya Sabha polls. The Congress strength in the House got reduced from 57 to 51, but it also reduced the current strength of the assembly, thus the number of votes required for a candidate to win decreased from 47 to 43. That way Congress still has eight spare votes and it was hoping to get the votes of two NCP MLAs. That being the case Patel should have been sitting pretty. But he is not. Patel and his supporters are sweating it out in Ahmedabad, Delhi, and Bengaluru, working on numbers and making whatever that is in their command to ensure his victory.
Third, Patel and the entire Congress, however, are jittery about the 8 August polls. It’s a secret ballot and despite his best efforts to keep the flock together, Patel can’t be sure whether all Congress MLAs are going to vote for him. In the presidential election, 11 Congress MLAs had defied leadership instructions and voted for BJP candidate Ram Nath Kovind. If the same number of MLAs cross vote in the Rajya Sabha polls, Patel would lose the election. Besides, in the vice-presidential election Congress-led Opposition candidate Gopal Krishna Gandhi got 30 votes less than expected. In other words, BJP candidate Venkaiah Naidu got far more votes than expected.
The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation of BJP is punching far above its weight and knocking out its rivals. In the June 2016 biennial elections, BJP fielded four extra candidates, one each in Jharkhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan than the seats it could win easily. Out of the four extra candidates, three won because the party managed cross voting from its rival parties' MLAs. That was a big shocker for Congress.
Sources in BJP Delhi and Ahmedabad are confident of a section of Congress MLAs cross voting for Rajput, a BJP candidate (and a Congress rebel) and make Patel loose. "We are sure that there are many Congress MLAs who don't want Patel to win. They are sick and tired of him and also of Rahul. The Rajya Sabha poll is an occasion for them to send that message loud and clear. Congress’ most powerful leader would realise it the hard way as to just how disliked he has become in his home state. This election is no fun for him," a BJP leader said.
Pictures of Congress MLAs having fun at a five-star resort in Bengaluru and Anand (Gujarat) at a time when people are faced with the miseries of a flood, is not going down well with the electorate in the state. Besides, the amount of cash recovered during Income Tax raids from Karnataka minister DK Shivkumar’s premises, who was their custodian in Bengaluru, makes it easier to make guesses about its possible use.
The election tomorrow is not a simple win or loss for Congress. If Patel is defeated then it would sound the death knell for Congress in the upcoming Assembly election. For many in Gujarat, it would mean that the November-December election for all practical purposes is over. The only curiosity about the Assembly polls would be the victory margin for BJP over Congress.
Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 08:40 AM