After weeks of dramatic political developments, Gujarat looks set for an on the edge of seat contest in the Rajya Sabha elections which will decide among others the fate of Ahmed Patel, the influential political secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. It is after a gap of about two decades that a contest is happening in Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat, where official nominees of major parties used to get elected unopposed, after the BJP fielded a Congress rebel against Patel, who is seeking a fifth term.
The ruling BJP has fielded party chief Amit Shah, Union minister Smriti Irani, and Balwantsinh Rajput, who till recently was Congress’ chief whip in the House, for the three RS seats. While its first two candidate will sail through, the BJP will have to manage extra votes to enable Rajput beat Patel. Ahmed Patel, who met Congress MLAs after they returned from their Bengaluru sojourn, said he was confident of his victory.
“This poll is not at all about anyone’s prestige. I have full faith in my MLAs. Apart from these 44 (Congress) legislators, two of NCP, one of JD-U would vote for me,” Patel told reporters. These MLAs have now been hosted at a resort in Anand district. Even as Patel asserted the two NCP MLAs would vote for him, a legislator of Sharad Pawar’s party claimed the two lawmakers have been instructed to back BJP’s Balwantsinh Rajput.
The NCP, it appeared, was divided on the issue, with Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, an MP, saying the party would back the Congress candidate. NCP MLA Kandhal Jadeja told reporters in Gandhinagar that he and Jayant Patel, another party lawmaker, have been asked to cast their first preference votes in favour of Rajput. “As per our party’s directive, we have to give our vote to BJP’s Balwantsinh Rajput. He will be our first preference,” said Kandhal, who has openly admitted in the past that he was Vaghela. However, Sule said the NCP MLAs would vote for the Congress candidate “to the best of my knowledge”.
“To the best of my knowledge it’s Congress (that NCP MLAs would vote for),” she said, responding to a text message when asked to comment on reports that the NCP leadership has decided to back BJP in the polls. The Congress, which has been out of power in the state for over a decade-and-a-half now, was rattled by the surprise exit of party stalwart Shankarsinha Vaghela recently.
It was jolted further when its six MLAs, including Rajput, a relative of Vaghela resigned from the Asssembly. Three of them later joined BJP, setting off alarm bells in the party in Gujarat where Assembly elections are due later this year. The beleaguered Congress flew its 44 MLAs to Bengaluru to ward off any threat of “poaching” by the BJP.
However, six of the 51 MLAs still in the Congress, apart from Vaghela, have not put their cards on the table. They were not among the MLAs packed off to Bengaluru. Vaghela, who resigned from the party and as the leader of the opposition, has not quit the House yet, giving the Congress a major cause for worry.
The Congress had faced a major embarrassment in the presidential election when joint opposition candidate Meira Kumar could manage 49 votes when the party’s strength then was 57. A candidate will require 45 votes for a straight win in the poll, and the BJP with 121 MLAs in the truncated 176- member Assembly following the resignation of six Congress legislators, can secure easy victories for Shah and Irani.
The party will be left with 31 surplus votes for Rajput, who will require the backing of rebel MLAs of the Congress and smaller parties to win. Now that he has the support of two NCP MLAs, his task would become a bit easier.For now, Ahmed Patel looks like having the clear backing of 44 Congress MLAs, but even if none of them cross-votes or uses NOTA (None of the Above) option, the Congress candidate will require one additional vote for his victory.
The Congress is also banking on the support of two NCP MLAs, and one each of JD(U) and Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP).
However, NCP leader Praful Patel yesterday said his party had not yet made up its mind on whom to support. The NCP and JD(U) MLAs had accompanied Patel when he filed his nomination. JD(U) MLA Chotubhai Vasava has been saying he will only support those who will give something to his constituency. Keeping his cards close to chest, Vaghela today chose to maintain silence on his choice of candidate for the Rajya Sabha polls, but said Congress nominee Ahmed Patel remained a “friend.”
“Each and every voter is the owner of his vote. The vote is the personal property of an MLA (for the RS polls). Therefore, I do not want to reveal whom I will vote for,” Vaghela told reporters. The 77-year-old veteran said he was no longer in touch with the Congress and dismissed the talk that he was in contact with the BJP.
According to Election Commission officials, a candidate would require one-fourth of the total number of votes plus one to get elected. This would mean a contestant has to muster 45 votes. The MLAs have to give their preferential votes indicating first choice, second, third, fourth (as per number of candidates) or they can choose NOTA, they said.
Meanwhile, Amit Shah, who has helmed the party to spectacular victories in several elections since 2014, is camping in Gujarat strategising on how to get all three BJP nominees win.