“This is not a conspiracy but a war,” said Congress leader Jairam Ramesh on Wednesday about the far-reaching attempts being made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to defeat Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel in the coming Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat.

And if the events of the past several days are any indication, this election promises to be a fight to the finish.

The managerial skills of the BJP president Amit Shah are pitted against those of Patel, the Congress party’s low-key but powerful backroom player. It is being described as a battle between the two strongmen of Gujarat with both sides going all out to outwit each other. “It’s a prestige issue for both the leaders,” said a senior Congress office bearer.

The elections of three Rajya Sabha seats are scheduled for August 8. The BJP has the numbers to ensure the victory of two candidates – Amit Shah and Union minister Smriti Irani – while the Congress could win one seat for which Patel was nominated.

But the BJP president had other plans. Determined to deny Patel a victory, Shah has made all possible efforts in this direction. The drama began unfolding when six of Congress dissident leader Shankarsinh Vaghela’s loyalist MLAs quit the party from the 182-strong Gujarat assembly, reducing the Congress party’s strength down from 57 to 51. One of these six, Balwantsinh Rajput, has been fielded by the BJP to take on Patel for the third Rajya Sabha seat.

A candidate requires one-fourth of the total number of votes plus one to get elected. As the effective strength of the house has come down to 176, the number required to win is 176/4 + 1 or 45 in the first preferential vote. BJP has a strength of 121, which means that after 90 votes to get two candidates selected, it will have a surplus of 31 votes. It would need 14 more to get the third candidate elected, if the effective strength of the house remains the same. There are two Nationalist Congress Party MLAs and one Janata Dal (United) MLA in the Assembly.

Realising that its legislators were vulnerable to poaching by a predatory BJP, the Congress moved 44 MLAs to a resort in Karnataka to keep them safe. But matters did not rest there as the BJP upped the ante with the Election Commission reissuing a 2014 notification on Tuesday stating that the None of the Above – commonly called NOTA – option will be applicable in the Rajya Sabha elections.

The Congress was quick to cry foul and petition the Election Commission, saying this was a deliberate move to confuse the legislators.

The BJP maintained that this was an old notification and that this option had been used in four previous Rajya Sabha elections. Later, after the Congress went to the Supreme Court against NOTA in Rajya Sabha polls, the BJP approached the Election Commission asking for NOTA to be set aside for the moment since political parties had raised questions about the matter.

Fresh twist

There was a fresh twist to this ongoing battle on Wednesday, August 2, when the income tax department raided the Bengaluru resort owned by Karnataka minister DK Shivakumar, where the Gujarat legislators have been housed. Predictably, a furious Congress derailed proceedings in the Rajya Sabha while Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha saying, “This is a politically motivated witch hunt. This is happening just ahead of the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls.”

As always, finance minister Arun Jaitley sought to brush aside these allegations, maintaining that Shivkumar had been on the department radar for the past several months and that the timing of the raids was not connected with the stay of the Gujarat MLAs or the August 8 Rajya Sabha elections.

The otherwise taciturn Patel, who has been keeping low since this drama unfolded, was provoked to speak out after the income tax raids. He tweeted:

The Congress followed it up with a hard-hitting media briefing where it charged that the systematic manner in which the BJP was using the state machinery to target the opposition states showed that it is determined to destroy the country’s federal structure. It vowed to fight the BJP’s dictatorial tendencies.

Key man

This ongoing bitter tussle between a resurgent BJP and a weakened Congress essentially illustrates the importance of Ahmed Patel in the grand old party. Always known to be low-key and behind-the-scenes man, Patel is a powerful figure in the Congress. As political secretary to the Congress president, Patel has played a key role in handling sensitive organisational assignments. Patel was described as the third most powerful person after Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power.

“The BJP is going all-out to defeat him because he is Ahmed Patel,” said a senior Congress leader. “Had the Congress fielded anybody else, the BJP would not have bothered to go to such lengths to ensure that the opposition lost the election,” Should Patel be defeated, it would erode his personal moral authority in the party and undermine Sonia Gandhi’s position. A jubilant BJP would leave no stone unturned to publicise the fact that it had destroyed a strong pillar of the Congress party.

The BJP has raised the pitch against Patel as it believes that if it can deny him a fifth Rajya Sabha term, it would demoralise the Congress rank and file, especially the party’s Gujarat unit, since the state is heading for a crucial assembly poll later this year. The Congress maintains that the BJP’s moves clearly indicate that it is not confident about winning Gujarat where the three-term government faces anti-incumbency, a backlash by angry Dalits and an alienation of the powerful Patel community.

Though worried, Congress leaders are exuding confidence that Patel’s goodwill and skills will see him through this election. The party has rallied behind him, launching an all-out counter-offensive to see that the BJP does not succeed in its mission. While the Congress is putting up a spirited fight, the BJP is not lagging behind. Shah can be depended upon to work till the last minute to reduce the Congress numbers further.

Motilal Vora, Ashok Gehlot, Ahmed Patel, Manmohan Singh. Photo credit: AFP.

Both BJP and Congress insiders maintain that the Shah vs Patel battle is not an ordinary fight – it is personal. Modi and Shah, they said, are known to be vindictive and are convinced that Patel masterminded the plethora of court cases initiated against them during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime. A BJP minister maintained that although the Congress also used the investigative agencies against other political leaders, it was subtle about it. “For instance, the Congress ensured the support of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party by keeping alive the corruption cases against them but it did not order raids against them,” said the BJP leader. “But Shah is more upfront in such matters.”

BJP leaders insist that this is a win-win situation for their party. As a minister pointed out,”If Patel loses, the BJP will go to town that it defeated a Muslim and if Patel wins, the party will run a campaign that this will lead to greater assertiveness by the minorities.”

But the Congress has its own take on the ongoing drama. A party leader said that for somebody who always kept a low profile and shunned publicity, Patel is grabbing headlines everyday which has helped him acquire a national stature. A former Congress minister summed it up. “How many people were even aware that Patel is a Rajya Sabha member? Today he’s a national figure.”

Party insiders are unanimous that if Patel wins, he will further consolidate his position in the party. “But he will not lose out if he is defeated. It will generate a lot of sympathy for him,” they underlined.

Clarification: The piece has been updated following a fresh statement from the BJP regarding NOTA in the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls.