The Indian institutional system is the only clear winner in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections. Till late Tuesday evening, almost the entire television-viewing audience believed two things. First, BJP president Amit Shah was considered invincible. Second, the Election Commission was seen to be politically subservient. As events eventually rolled out through late night into the early hours of Wednesday, neither did Mr Shah remain unvanquished, nor did the EC prove to be so spineless. This underscored one law — anything which goes up comes down sometime — and one trait of retired, or retiring, bureaucrats — who after spending decades in a supine position, rediscover overnight their spine immediately after appointment to quasi-judicial bodies. Ahmed Patel may have been elected but he did not “win” because he could not keep his flock together. Past animosity with Shankersinh Vaghela may have hastened the split in the Congress but Mr Patel triumphed the moment the EC ruled that two legislators had violated Rules 39A and 39AA of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. The rules unequivocally state that no elector can show her or his marked ballot paper to anyone else besides the authorised representative of their political party. They voted for the BJP-backed candidate and if their vote was counted, the size of the electoral college would have risen. Consequently, the magic figure would have been revised to 45 votes, one more from what Patel polled.
The third candidate would have been elected thereafter on second preference votes and on this count, Congress turncoat Balwantsinh Rajput stood a clear chance of romping home. But Mr Shah need not look grudgingly at Nirvachan Bhavan and accuse CEC A.K. Joti and his fellow commissioners of not returning the favour bestowed by appointing them. The way the BJP lined up its brass at the EC office, including law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Arun Jaitley with dual charge of finance and defence was blatant pressure tactics. This attempt to coerce the EC into allowing the ballot of the two MLAs has to been seen in conjunction with repeated efforts of the BJP to undermine institutions. But Mr Shah’s bête noire would have still lost had only the BJP attended to the grievance of party MLA Nalin Kotadia. The Keshubhai Patel loyalist declared that he did not vote for the BJP candidates because the party did not address problems faced by his Patidar community. The outcome may have been different had the ire of the Patels been addressed. The Rajya Sabha results have not just raised questioned about Mr Shah’s electoral brilliance and tactical invincibility but has also raised a fundamental question about the social coalition that will back the BJP in the impending Assembly elections due later this year.
Undoubtedly, the most high-voltage Rajya Sabha election, it was proof that Mr Shah was dead serious when he told partymen some months ago that every election counts, and no poll is small or insignificant. The manner in which he left no stone unturned to ensure Mr Patel’s defeat throws up two pointers. First, Mr Shah does not believe in any adversary having a smooth ride into any elective body even if her or his victory has been there for the taking for long. Second, the viciousness with which he fought this contest suggests that Mr Patel was targeted because of his proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and that his defeat would have severely undermined her position. However, no one should expect the Modi-Shah duo to relent in their targeting of the Congress and its president specifically. On the contrary, this defeat will rankle and unless the Congress rediscovers spring in its step, the BJP leadership will be more focused in targeting Mrs Gandhi and her close associates, including family members. The Congress must immediately confront a long-standing internal issue, which is cause for concern. For years, from when Rahul Gandhi’s future elevation as party supremo became clear, a faultline exists between the old guard and younger leaders patronised by the scion.
The victory in Gujarat will strengthen old-timers, be it Mr Patel himself — ties between him and Mr Gandhi are none too cordial, it is believed — or people like Ashok Gehlot, who as the party’s Gujarat affairs in-charge, played a not so insignificant role in managing the election. Ties between Mr Patel and Mr Gehlot date to their days as Sanjay loyalists and they have weathered many a storm together within the Congress. With the Rajasthan Assembly elections due next year, he must be immediately named as the party’s chief ministerial candidate if the party has to have a realistic chance of ousting the BJP. Mr Gandhi must withdraw Sachin Pilot from the state as he is not a big draw with the masses. But prior to this, the Congress must put up a fight. True, that Rajya Sabha elections do not impact people as there is no mass involvement, but frenetic television coverage ensured the entire episode being beamed through the state. The Congress must work on the cracks in the BJP’s social coalition that became visible. For long relegated to moving pieces in the Congress durbar, it would be prudent to involve Mr Patel as the past personal truce that once existed between him and Mr Modi has ended.
Two lasting images of the entire episode was the resigned look on Mr Shah’s face when he sat in the counting centre with party associates and the contrasting energy demonstrated by Congress leaders when they marched to the EC office in New Delhi adequately armed with arguments. For once, the party, barring Mr Gandhi’s brigade, made the battle for Mr Patel’s seat as its own. On the other side, a weakness in Mr Shah’s armoury has been detected. Both he and Mr Modi have a propensity for converting political contests into high-pitched media events, a long tradition in Gujarat’s politics. It does not always benefit, as this episode proved.