With the Rajya Sabha polls slated for June 19, another ‘Amit Shah versus Ahmed Patel’ bout is in the offing, particularly in Gujarat where deserting MLAs have shrunk the Congress' ability to win two seats. Besides Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also fielded an extra candidate each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to keep the Congress on edge.
In Karnataka, the buzz is on a new arrangement of sorts between erstwhile allies, the Congress and the Janata Dal(S), for former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda to make it to the Upper House.
Elections will be held for 24 Rajya Sabha seats: four each in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka, three each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, two seats in Jharkhand, and one each in Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
Winning the Rajya Sabha polls is crucial for the BJP to gain majority in the Upper House, so that its legislative agenda moves unhindered unlike in previous years. Currently, in the 245-member Rajya Sabha, the BJP has 75 seats, while the Congress and its allies have 73. Though the BJP has had the support of other parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, the ruling party wishes to stand tall on its own.
The Gujrat Rerun
In 2017, Patel, the political adviser to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, won the Rajya Sabha poll in Gujarat only after the election commission invalidated the votes of two rebel Congress MLAs. The matter is pending in the high court.
Patel’s victory upset then BJP chief Shah who had worked behind the scene to defeat Patel. Weeks before the polls in 2017, Congress Leader of Opposition Shankersinh Vaghela resigned, and six MLAs followed him. This upset Patel and his chances of winning — it was seen as Shah’s ways of getting back at one of the most powerful Congress leaders, who had him sent to jail for few months in the Ishrat Jahan case.
In December 2017 assembly polls, the Congress won 77 seats against the BJP’s 99. Though stung by reduced numbers, the BJP retained power.
In the next Rajya Sabha elections in 2019, when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was contesting, two Congress MLAs, including its much-touted OBC face Alpesh Thakore resigned.
Cut to 2020, when Patel’s close aide and Congress spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil was named party nominee, along with former Union minister Bharatsinh Solanki, the BJP went for Abhay Bhardwaj, well-known lawyer from Rajkot, and Ramilaben Bara, a tribal woman officer from Sabarkantha, as its candidates. Shah decided to strike again at Patel as the BJP announced a third candidate in Narhari Amin, a former Congress veteran who had joined the party in 2012.
Preparation by the BJP had been in the offing since March when the polls were announced. Between then and now, eight Congress MLAs have deserted the grand old party to arm the BJP to win a third Rajya Sabha seat — when it could have won just two.
The desertions in the faction-ridden Congress has brought its number down to 65 while the BJP’s has gone up to 103. Each Rajya Sabha candidate needs the support of 37 MLAs. There is fear that more Congress MLAs may shift sides. Hence, some Congress MLAs from Gujarat have been shifted to a resort in Rajasthan, and few are kept at resorts in Rajkot and near Anand in Gujarat.Scindia holds magic in Madhya Pradesh
In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia shocked the Congress by pulling down the 15-month-old Kamal Nath government by ensuring the desertion of 22 Congress MLAs.
Before the defection of 22 Congress MLAs and their resignation, the Congress had the numbers to win two Rajya Sabha seats, while the BJP could have won just one seat. The Congress, which came to power in the state in 2018 after 15 years, has now only 92 MLAs while the BJP has 107 MLAs.
As 52 MLAs are needed for a Rajya Sabha seat, the BJP may easily win a second seat and senior leader Digvijaya Singh may be the sole winner for the Congress. The BJP has two candidates — Scindia (who is expecting a ministerial berth in the Modi government) and Sumer Singh Solanki.Ashok Gehlot may stall BJP plans
Though there is a lot of speculation that the BJP may gain from the rivalry between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot, Gehlot is expected to hold the fort.
AICC general secretary KC Venugopal, believed to be close to Rahul Gandhi, is one of the two Congress candidates. The BJP has fielded Rajendra Gehlot as their first candidate, while OS Lakhawat is the second BJP candidate.
The Congress has 107 MLAs in the assembly, while the BJP has 72. A candidate needs 51 votes to win a seat. This means that the Congress can easily win two seats and the BJP one. However, the BJP has fielded a third candidate to create trouble for Congress, counting on 21 independents.
Pilot’s supporters are, of course, unhappy with Gehlot, but will they risk playing truant in the polls to benefit the BJP? Hardly likely, say Congress insiders.
COVID-19 may have changed a lot of things, but politics in India and the old political rivalries that seek to settle scores at the first opportunity remains the same.Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.