After a prolonged drama, the curtain finally came down on the high-stakes Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat early Tuesday morning with Ahmed Patel, the political secretary of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, just about winning his seat.

Predictably, a much-relieved Congress camp was celebrating the victory on Wednesday, especially since the seemingly-routine Rajya Sabha poll had assumed the proportions of an epic battle after Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, along with the party’s top brass, used all means at their disposal to deny Patel a fifth term in the Upper House.

Had Shah succeeded in his mission, it would have been a major coup for the BJP president, given Patel’s proximity to Sonia Gandhi and the all-important role he has played in organisational matters in the Congress for the last 16 years. The BJP believed Patel’s defeat would undermine the Congress president’s position and further demoralise the party rank and file, which is yet to recover from its electoral defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and subsequent Assembly polls.

Intra-party politics

Exultant party leaders grandiosely declared on Wednesday that this election would prove to be a turning point for the party. However, it is, at best, a personal victory for Patel. It is now to be seen what impact Patel’s hard-fought win will have on intra-party dynamics. To begin with, Patel’s detractors in the Congress, who had pinned their hopes on Patel’s defeat, will be a disappointed lot.

It is also no secret that Patel derives his strength and power from his position as Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary but he does not have the same equation with Congress vice-president and heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi. Consequently, Patel was known to have been lying low for the past several months as Rahul Gandhi sought to put his own team in place in the party organisation.

The much-awaited organisational revamp has turned to be a tedious and long drawn-out exercise as Rahul Gandhi has often met with strong resistance from the Congress old-guard who believe they will be out in the cold after he takes over as party president. The Nehru-Gandhi scion has succeeded in his effort to some extent as he has managed to make several appointments of his choice. For instance, former Rajya Sabha MP Avinash Pande, known to be close to Rahul Gandhi, was elevated as Congress general secretary incharge of Rajasthan, replacing the sulking Maharashtra leader Gurudas Kamat. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi was also able to ensure the appointment of other favourites like PL Punia, RPN Singh, Asha Kumari and A Chella Kumar who were given charge of states.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi had to also defer to the old guard as seniors like Kamal Nath, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni have been retained as general secretaries. In addition, the Congress vice-president also went along with the appointment of former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde as general secretaries in charge of the poll-bound states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Both Gehlot and Shinde are known to be Patel’s picks. However, the high-profile party leader Digvijaya Singh has been divested of his responsibilities as general secretary in charge of Goa, Karnataka and Telangana, and is left with the charge of Andhra Pradesh.

As the phased organisational reshuffle in the Congress picks up pace in the coming days, it will have to be seen whether Patel will become more assertive and, once again, play a more proactive role in party affairs as he did before Sonia Gandhi handed over her responsibilities to Rahul Gandhi. This was the main topic of discussion among members of the Congress on Wednesday as there was all-round agreement among Congress leaders that Patel had further consolidated his position in the party.

“Let’s see if Rahul Gandhi will cede more space to Ahmedbhai or alternatively, to what extent will Ahmedbhai assert himself,” remarked a former Congress minister.

Road ahead

The manner in which the Congress top brass pitched in with their vast political experience and the party rallied around Ahmed Patel demonstrated that it will be difficult for Rahul Gandhi to marginalise the old guard. The Congress vice-president’s protégés are novices when it comes to realpolitick and backroom manoeuvres and this has been proved on several occasions in the past when the Congress had to turn to its seniors to bail out the party when confronted with a difficult situation.

“I believe Rahul Gandhi will find it increasingly hard to shake off Ahmed Patel’s overweening influence in the party,” declared another senior Congress leader.

While this internal battle in the party will be followed closely over the coming months, Congress leaders are convinced that the Rajya Sabha election will energise party workers in Gujarat ahead of the year-end Assembly polls.

However, this could well prove to be a temporary phenomenon. There is no getting away from the fact that the Gujarat Congress has been badly bruised following the exit of senior leader Shankarsinh Vaghela and his supporters. What should have been a cakewalk for Patel, given that the Congress had 57 legislators in the Gujarat Assembly, turned out to be an extremely tough contest as the Congress numbers dwindled perilously and the party had to deploy extreme measures to safeguard its MLAs from being poached by the BJP.

While realising that they face a long, hard road ahead, the Congress rank and file is drawing comfort from the fact that the party has the will to put up a fight and that it can take on formidable opponents like BJP president Amit Shah if it chooses to do so. The question is: will the Congress retain this fighting spirit in the coming days or will it back to square one again.

For the present, the Congress is celebrating the fact that it managed to get the better of Amit Shah. But, Shah and the BJP, may well live to fight another day. After all, the BJP did bounce back after its electoral defeats in Delhi and Bihar. “The fact is that Modi and Shah have a strong party organisation to back them while the Congress is in shambles,” observed a senior Congress leader.