A Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat, which was meant to be a friendly match, turned into a high velocity slugfest that spilled into slog overs and has the potential to influence state and national politics in the years ahead.
Gujarat goes to polls in 2017 and India two years thereafter. Three principal players of opposing sides — Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Ahmed Patel — slated to play a key role in both polls hail from Gujarat. Two of these were directly involved in the Rajya Sabha election that concluded on Tuesday and the shadow of the third loomed large over the entire proceedings. That BJP president Amit Shah and Union Textiles minister Smriti Irani would sail through with ease was never in doubt. Neither was the election of Ahmed Patel, political adviser to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Three Rajya Sabha seats, three candidates. Two from the ruling elite and one from the Opposition. The understanding seemed simple enough. Except that the ruling BJP decided to fish in Congress’ troubled waters and raised the stakes high enough to trigger a run. It poached three Congress legislators and turned one of them, a party chief whip (Balwantsinh Rajput) into their third Rajya Sabha candidate, thereby setting the cat among the pigeons.
What followed was a Mohammed Ali-style pounding of the Congress by the BJP. The Grand Old Party was chased from Gujarat through the countryside to the Congress haven of Karnataka and remorselessly pummelled even there. Seeking safety in numbers, the 44 Congress legislators returned to stay at a resort in Anand, 80 km from the state capital, Gandhinagar, where the voting took place on Tuesday.
Even the end of voting failed to stop the sparring. The Congress raised the issue of cancellation of the votes of two of its rebels, Raghavji Patel and Bholabhai Gohil. With counting stopped after the Congress sought redressal of their grievance, the scene shifted to the Election Commission in Delhi with both sides hurling their top guns in to the attack. A video of the voting perused by the Chief Election Commissioner clinched the issue for the Congress, with the two votes held invalid. Patel joined Shah and Irani into the Rajya Sabha with a personal tally of 44 votes.
The moot question here is the following: Why did the BJP invest so much of its standing, power, pelf and planning in seeking to defeat Patel?
Executed by Shah, the go-ahead came from the highest level. Shah’s backroom boys worked hard to fuel speculation that the leader of the Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, Shankersinh Vaghela, would jump back onto a saffron pony. No amount of denials by him worked and the Congress leadership fell into the trap. Vaghela’s demand for an Amrinder Singh-like freedom for him not only added to the suspicion but further fuelled intra-party rivalry among the other chief ministerial aspirants.
Until Vaghela walked out in exasperation, a situation was tailor-made for poaching of his pack by the BJP. What followed is now history.
For Shah, the defeat of Patel, who is the second-most powerful party leader after ‘the family’, would be a coup d’état. It would be a blow straight to the ‘heart’ of the Opposition empire, adding on to the misery of the UP, Uttarakhand and Goa reverses. Conversely, it would be a morale booster in a Gujarat set for a pitched poll battle later this year.
For all its filibustering, the BJP remains very wary of Sonia Gandhi, having witnessed first hand her ability to virtually single-handedly pierce the ‘India shining’ shroud of the NDA government to sculpt the revival of the Congress-led UPA which had a two-term rule.
The scalping of her trusted adviser would be an immobilising body blow to the party and also affect the standing of its president while conversely raise Shah’s stock within his ilk.
The ruling BJP has been on a weak wicket in Gujarat ever since Modi left for Delhi. While chief minister for almost 13 years, he was both the party and the government and the lord and master of all that he surveyed in Gujarat. Both chief ministers who followed, Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani, fell way short of popular expectations and ethnic strife as well as disenchantment has risen manifold. Patidars, the strongest supporters of the BJP, are now up in arms and the Dalits in a rebellious mood. It is against this backdrop that a Patel defeat would have restored some balance. However, this was not to be.
Patel’s victory is a shot in the arm for him personally viz-a-viz those within his own party who would be happy to see him fall. Also for the Congress because he is now seen as the man who survived a full-fledged, no-holds barred onslaught by the Modi-Shah combine — no mean feat — and managed to clamber back. His writ will now run large both in the ensuing polls in the state as well as nationally within his own party.
If Modi realises that a defeat in Gujarat in 2017 will be a setback to his plans to retain Delhi in 2019, Patel will also need to factor in that a prolonged Congress poll draught (it last won power through elections here 33 years ago) needs to end for his party to salvage its credibility. Additionally, while Vaghela may find himself checkmated in Patel’s victory for the moment, he is not one to sit and lick his sores. The Congress will see much more of him around election time and so will Patel.