Patel rap: Ahmed manages to turn the tide by holding on to his Rajya Sabha seat
Nine hours after the counting was to begin for one Rajya Sabha seat in Gujarat, Congress President's political secretary Ahmed Patel emerged victorious in a late-night drama that witnessed several twists and turns. A little help from the Election Commission (EC) ensured Patel reached the magic figure needed to secure his fifth consecutive term in the Upper House.
The EC gave a boost to Patel's prospects after it passed an order invalidating votes of two Congress legislators who allegedly cross-voted in favor of rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s candidate. Accusing two of its MLAs of violating the provisions of Number 39 in Conduct of Election Rules, Congress provided video evidence to poll panel wherein those MLAs could be seen showing their ballots to BJP leaders.
Taking cognisance of the evidence, Supreme Court judgments and precedents, the EC accepted Congress' demand and disqualified the votes of the duo, which brought down the total votes to 174. This meant that Patel needed only 44 votes to thwart the BJP's plans of denying him another term in the Council of States.
However, the story was far from over. Way past midnight the BJP alleged violation by two Congress MLAs that stopped the counting process, further delaying the much anticipated results. Later, the Returning Officer resumed counting and the results were announced declaring Patel victorious.
Patel secured 44 votes against 38 by Balwantsinh Rajput, a Congress turncoat fielded by the BJP. With this victory Patel managed to deal a major blow to the saffron party, which was confident of winning all three seats till the EC intervened.
BJP National President Amit Shah and Union minister Smriti Irani though sailed past with 46 votes each.
But this was a major setback for Shah who had turned the contest into a prestige battle, considering how several Union ministers rushed to the EC to counter Congress' charge. This win is almost certain to boost morale of a faction-ridden Congress, which can now regroup and fight a united battle to take on the BJP juggernaut in the upcoming assembly elections.
Often been accused for the party's failure to oust BJP for more than two decades in his home state, Patel's triumph further strengthens his position in Gujarat. In the run up to the Assembly elections, he is most likely to take a more active role to counter an aggressive BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah.
Within his own party, Patel has put to rest all doubts about his management and networking skills and reasserted his position as a master strategist. In the battle of Chanakyas, Patel has emerged victorious while Shah will have to contend with a debut in the upper house.
Earlier in the day cross-voting by JD(U) and NCP MLAs added to the confusion. The votes of these two MLAs holds the key to Patel's return to Rajya Sabha.
This led to battle lines being drawn in Delhi. Multiple delegations of both the Congress and the BJP met with Chief Election Commissioner Achal Kumar Joti late into the night, seeking the disqualification of legislators of respective parties over showing their ballot papers to unauthorised persons.
The Congress was the first to move the EC against its own MLAs, claiming they showed their ballot papers to “persons other than the authorised INC agent”, thus violating the provisions of Rule 39 of Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
“The Indian National Congress has protested about the above matter to the Returning Officer, and has asked them to cancel the votes of these two MLAs,” read the Congress's letter to the Presiding Officer, wherein it claimed that videography of the entire incident is available with the officer.
Speaking to the media, senior Congress leader and former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who was part of the Congress's second delegation to the EC, said they had proof of ballot papers being shown to party leaders. Chidambaram said that the EC should follow the precedent of 11 June 2016, when ballot papers of 12 Congress leaders were rejected in Haryana after they were accused of using the wrong pen.
Interestingly, the Congress's chief spokesperson RS Surjewala, who was part of the two Congress delegations, was among the legislators whose ballot papers had been rejected in Haryana last year.
BJP heavyweights' counter
Just after the Congress's first delegation met the EC, a heavyweight BJP delegation, led by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, also moved the commission, demanding the cancellation of Congress MLA Miteshbhai Garasiya's vote, claiming he too showed his ballot paper.
Coming out of the meeting, another Union minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad accused the Congress of putting unnecessary pressure on the EC, while making baseless allegations and creating drama, since the party was staring at defeat.
BJP leaders also argued that the grand old party did not file any complaint with the Returning Officer when the incident took place.
Countering these allegations, Ahmed Patel claimed that the complaint was filed immediately, but the officer did not take note of it. These allegations and counter-allegations led to EC stalling the counting process, which further added to the confusion and chaos.
Reacting to senior ministers rushing to the EC to counter the Congress's allegations, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said the entire Indian government was “hell bent” on defeating the Congress candidate.
Later, third delegations from both parties also tried met the EC, but were both turned down.
What caught Cong off-guard
Ever since the voting began early in the day, there had been intense speculation about cross-voting by members of both parties, particularly the Congress, which had cast aspersions on Patel's return to the Upper House for a fifth term.
However, the political drama didn't just stop there. Several legislators defied party whips and voted in favour of the candidates their parties were opposed to.
What caught the Congress off-guard was one of its 44 MLAs, who were kept in luxurious confinement in Bengaluru and Gujarat, voted in favour of the BJP candidate.
As expected, estranged Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela and six of his supporters, who were not taken to Bengaluru, voted against the Congress candidate. But what made Congress jittery was Karamsibhai Virjibhai Patel's decision to vote in favour of the BJP candidate. Karamsibhai was one of the 44 MLAs expected to vote in favour of Ahmed Patel.
Though it is common practice to fly out legislators and keep them in luxurious captivity when political parties are expected to prove their majority on the floor of the house, it is for the first time that this practice is being employed for Rajya Sabha elections.
What made these elections unique was how the contest was played out as a prestige battle between Amit Shah and Ahmed Patel. Insiders claim that Shah had left no stone unturned to ensure Patel's defeat, which also reflected in how six Congress MLAs quit the party just before the elections. In fact, Shah is said to have played a key role in Vaghela's exit from the party.
It was the fear of more MLAs being poached that led to the Congress high command deciding to send its MLAs to a luxurious resort near Bengaluru, and later, to another resort in Anand, Gujarat.
If that was not enough, Shah pulled out another rabbit from the hat after BJP pitted Congress turncoat Rajput against Patel. A close relative of Vaghela, Rajput secured votes of not only BJP legislators but also Congress rebels, which threatened Patel's return to the Upper House.
But even Patel put up a brave fight, and ensured that the contest went down to the wire.
In these circumstances, these elections can be easily considered as one of the most bitterly fought Rajya Sabha elections ever.
Congress supporters have been left wondering that if only the party had put in such aggressive efforts in Assembly elections, its position wouldn't have been as bad as it is right now.