Facing its worst crisis ever, the rejection of 14 votes polled by Congress MLAs for the Rajya Sabha elections in Haryana last week, could not have come at a worse time for the grand old party. The invalidation of these votes led to the defeat of the independent candidate that the Congress backed, and victory for the candidate supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

What may be more worrying for the Congress is that the finger of suspicion for the fiasco is being pointed at former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who is considered a close aide of party president Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, when the Congress won the Haryana Assembly elections in 2004, Gandhi overlooked the claim of old war horse Bhajan Lal and anointed Hooda as chief minister. Hooda went on to rule the state for a decade.

Hooda currently faces several inquiries. These include changing the land-use pattern for a piece of land in Gurgaon, which led to a lucrative deal for Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, and the re-allotment of prime land to the Congress-run National Herald in Panchkula.

Hooda has never questioned the authority of Sonia Gandhi, or any decision by her on party affairs. There have been hiccups, however, like the appointment of Ashok Tanwar as the state party president at the behest of Rahul Gandhi, and the high command’s agreement to the merger of the Haryana Janhit Congress, led by Bhajan Lal’s son Kuldip Bishnoi, with the Congress.

Jindal vs Chandra

The genesis of the Rajya Sabha election fiasco can perhaps be traced to the feud between former Congress MP and steel magnate Naveen Jindal and media baron Subhash Chandra. Both trace their roots to Hisar and are fighting several legal battles. Chandra’s Zee network had been going hammer and tongs against Jindal, who allegedly conducted a sting operation against Zee News to prove that he was being blackmailed by them.

Thus, when it transpired that Chandra was in the running for a Rajya Sabha seat and needed Congress support to make it through, Jindal rushed to Delhi and met Sonia Gandhi to convince her that Chandra should not be supported as his channels have been critical of the Congress and its leadership. The party president agreed and it was announced that the Congress would support senior advocate RK Anand, who was also being backed by Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal.

However, Hooda does not share a good relationship with Jindal, and he was dead opposed to be seen supporting a candidate associated with the rival Indian National Lok Dal. There is also speculation that Hooda shares a good personal rapport with Chandra.

Of the two Rajya Sabha vacancies in Haryana, there was no doubt that BJP candidate Union Minister Birender Singh would win from the first seat; Singh sailed through without a hitch. The fight was for the second seat. The Indian National Lok Dal and the Congress together could have successfully elected Anand.

However this did not happen as 14 votes cast by Congress MLAs owing allegiance to Hooda were declared invalid. With the help of second preference votes in favour of Chandra, Anand was declared defeated.

There was an outcry as soon as the results were declared. Chautala’s party blamed Hooda for the defeat and accused him of colluding with the BJP. Its leader Abhay Chautala alleged that this was part of a deal done by Hooda to save himself from being prosecuted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Haryana.

Conspiracy theories

In August 2003, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, was amended to introduce the “open ballot” system in elections to the Rajya Sabha. Thus, it is possible to identify those who cast the invalid votes. The Congress, which has started an enquiry into the sequence of events that led to the fiasco, is attempting to do this.

But how the votes turned invalid, and what was the modus operandi, remains a mystery although there is no doubt that this was a well thought of move to ensure that Anand was defeated.

Hooda and other Congress leaders feigned ignorance and are attempting to shift the blame on the BJP and the Vidhan Sabha staff.

But there is one conspiracy theory doing the rounds.

Of the 17 votes cast by Congress MLAs, 14 were declared invalid because a different pen was used to mark the ballots. As per the rules, all ballots have to be marked by a designated pen provided by Vidhan Sabha staff. It is alleged that one of the Congress MLAs managed to take his own pen inside the booth and replaced the designated pen with the new one. According to this theory, the last Congress MLA to vote returned the designated pen to the booth.

The Indian National Lok Dal has already demanded a repoll and the defeated candidate, RK Anand, who said his defeat was part of a “conspiracy”, has declared that he will move court to expose those involved.

Though Anand had blamed Hooda for his defeat immediately after the results were declared, he later retracted his statement and blamed the BJP instead. In a complaint to the Election Commission, Anand alleged that a BJP MLA had changed the designated pen and sought an inquiry. The MLA, who has been named by him, has threatened to file a defamation case against Anand. Meanwhile Abhay Chautala has demanded that the election be cancelled as as over 15% of votes polled were found to be invalid.

But more than anything else, the Haryana fiasco is bad news for the Congress high command as it is seen to have further diluted the authority of the leadership. With the Congress struggling to stay afloat, this blow from its trusted Haryana unit will have a serious impact.