The outcome of the Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat marks quite a turnaround for Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah. The failure of various political stratagems used to defeat Congress candidate Ahmed Patel goes beyond being a mere blow to his reputation of coming up with winning electoral magic. It has also ensured that the beleaguered and battered Congress party has walked away with more than a face saver from what would otherwise have been a routine election.

That it came months before the extremely crucial Assembly election in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is what heightened interest in Tuesday’s developments.

It was Shah who planned the BJP’s strategy for the Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat, converting it into a high-stakes personal battle. The target was Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary since 2001, once considered the third most important person in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

“Shah has a personal grudge against me,” Patel was quoted to have said last month. The BJP president, senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai wrote last month, was convinced that Patel had a key role to play in his being jailed in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin encounter case and wanted “to settle scores by ensuring that the man who he believes set the CBI on him” was denied a Rajya Sabha seat.

The battle was thus converted from being just a single Rajya Sabha seat to a high-stakes ones, aimed at striking a deep blow to the Congress president’s inner circle, in order to undermine its control and influence over the Congress party.

‘It was personal’

The events were set in motion towards the end of last month, ahead of the Rajya Sabha election when six loyalists of Congress dissident leader Shankarsinh Vaghela quit the party in quick succession. One of these six MLAs, Balwantsinh Rajput, was fielded by the BJP to take on Patel for the Rajya Sabha seat. Till then, the Gujarat Assembly was clearly positioned to elect one Congress and two BJP nominees to the Rajya Sabha. While the numbers were still so placed as to ensure victory for two BJP candidates and one Congress nominees, this defection seemed to finally have convinced the Congress that there was a credible threat to the rest of its MLAs being poached as the Shah-led BJP seemed serious about ensuring Patel’s defeat.

That is when it packed off its MLAs to a resort in Bengaluru and complained to the Election Commission. Its state leader Shaktisinh Gohil even alleged that the BJP had tried to buy off party MLAs. “The BJP is hitting below the belt. We are fighting to protect the democracy. These (Congress) MLAs chose to stand by the party even when they were offered Rs 15 crore,” Gohil told media persons on July 30.

On August 2, the income tax department raided the Bengaluru resort owned by Karnataka minister DK Shivakumar, where the Gujarat legislators had been housed. The government claimed the raids were part of an ongoing investigation against Shivakumar. But the Congress grabbed the opportunity to argue that the BJP was going to unprecedented levels to intimidate its legislators.

With all these high-profile raids and TV coverage, the stakes had been raised so high that Patel’s seat in Rajya Sabha had now become a prestige and personal battle between the political management skills of Shah and Patel. A blow to Patel would have been a mortal blow to the Congress party’s prospects in the upcoming Assembly elections, as it has been reeling under the impact of defections and loss of power in state after state.

BJP president Amit Shah with Union Textile Minister Smriti Irani in the voting room at the Secretariat where voting for Rajya Sabha was held, in Gandhinagar on Tuesday, August 8. Image: PTI
BJP president Amit Shah with Union Textile Minister Smriti Irani in the voting room at the Secretariat where voting for Rajya Sabha was held, in Gandhinagar on Tuesday, August 8. Image: PTI

Desperate attempts

Which is what accounted for the last minute hunkering down by the Congress, and scrambling for support from one Janata Dal (United) MLA. But despite all its efforts, two of the party’s own MLAs eventually voted not for Patel but for BJP’s Rajput.

Where things went wrong for them was that they were videographed showing their ballot papers to persons other than the authorised agent. That is what led to extraordinary scenes of a Rajya Sabha election counting being halted. It took many hours and repeated representations to the Election Commission in Delhi before the votes of the two cross-voting Congress MLAs were disqualified.

How crucial this decision was became clear when it emerged that without their disqualification, which reduced the total number of votes required to win by one vote, Patel would not have won in the first preferential vote round.

The victory of Patel, despite all the odds and overwhelming pressure is thus bound to at least act as a bit of a moral boost for the cadres left demoralised by the exodus of its MLAs in the run up to the Rajya Sabha election.

The poll outcome has also ended at once all the speculations that the damage caused to the Congress by the exit of senior party leader Shankarsinh Vaghela was decisive for its electoral fate, at least as far as the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls were concerned. This may also go some way in restoring the fighting spirit among the Congress cadres in a state where the party has not been able to win Assembly elections for almost two decades.

Despite the bad blood with Shah, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary has long been accused of having had some kind of tacit understanding with Modi ever since the latter became the chief minister of Gujarat. The palpable desperation shown by the BJP to ensure his defeat would perhaps help dissipate at least some of those clouds of suspicion

For Patel, therefore, the victory in the Rajya Sabha election marks a coup of sorts. His supporters hope that this will also prove to be a turning point in the fortunes of his beleaguered party, for which this was perhaps the only saving grace in months of ending up on the losing side in a contest with the saffron party.

For his critics and those hoping for a change in the very functioning of the grand old party, the old guard of the Congress has managed to live to fight another day.