New Delhi: The Election Commission of India, in a midnight order Tuesday, ruled in favour of the Congress party when it invalidated the votes of two rebel Congress MLAs for the election of three members from Gujarat in the Rajya Sabha. This ruling came as a huge boost for Ahmed Patel – political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi – who was contesting for his fifth term in the upper house.
With six MLAs deserting the party right before the elections and constant political manoeuvering by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress was seen struggling to retain the only possible seat it could win in the run-up to the polls. As BJP has a comfortable majority in the assembly, the two BJP candidates – party president Amit Shah and cabinet minister Smriti Irani – in the fray were assured victory. For the third seat, the contest was between Patel and Balwantsingh Rajput, who defected from the Congress to the BJP on the eve of the election.
Locked in a personal battle against the Amit Shah, political observers made the Rajya Sabha election sound like a prestige issue for both Patel and his party. With the ECI rejecting the votes of rebel Congress MLAs, it appears, Patel may eventually win the third seat in the state but not without a nail-biting finish.
Soon after the voting finished at around 4 p.m on Tuesday amidst chaotic scenes, the Election Commission was forced to stop counting votes and intervene on the basis of a complaint that the Congress raised. The party demanded that the votes of two Congress MLAs – Bhola Bhai Gohil and Raghav Bhai Patel – be invalidated as they had shown their votes to the BJP president. The law permits the MLAs to show their ballot paper to their party’s counting agent but not to other representatives in an otherwise secret voting process.
The ECI took almost five hours to reach a decision after diligently examining the video footage. Through these crucial hours, both the Congress and the BJP argued their cases with the ECI, following which the commission ruled in favour of the Congress party.
“The commission has viewed the video recording of the votes cast by the two said MLAs and it has been observed therefrom that the said two electors violated the voting procedure and secrecy of the ballot papers cast by them when they exercised their right to vote,” the ECI order said.
“Therefore,” it further noted, “having regard to the above constitutional, legal and factual position, the Commission hereby directs under article 324 of the constitution read with Section 66 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, rules 39A and 39AA of the Conduct of the Election Rules, 1961, and all other powers enabling it in this behalf, the returning officer to reject the votes cast by the said two MLAs, namely, Shri Bhola Bhai Gohil and Shri Raghav Bhai Patel at the time of counting of votes by segregating the ballot papers concerned.”
Interestingly, the objection raised by the Congress’s counting agent Shailesh Bhai Parmar was rejected by the returning officer at the time of voting. According to the EC order, the returning officer, while seeking permission for the counting of votes, had informed the EC that he had rejected Parmar’s objection only after examining the video recording and complaints from the Congress.
However, the EC nullified the returning officer’s decision. Two delegations from the Congress, comprising senior leaders Randeep Surjewala, R.P.N. Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad, met the commission to contend that the returning officer had “improperly” rejected the party’s objection and that the two MLAs had violated “the secrecy of votes by not complying with the voting procedure.” They also urged the EC to verify the truth by probing the video proceedings of the voting process.
The BJP, too, sent two delegations, led by Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, to the EC to press its case. The EC said that the BJP was of the view that the returning officer was the statutory authority to conduct the polling and counting process, and has, therefore, the power to “decide the validity of ballot paper” and that the EC had no power to intervene in the case.
After hearing both the appeals, the commission decided to examine the video footage itself and ruled in Congress’s favour.
“The rules related to the controversy in the present case are Rule 39A and 39AA. A combined reading of the two rules will show that an elector at the Rajya Sabha election has to show his marked ballot paper to the authorised representative of the political party to which he belongs, before inserting the ballot paper into the ballot box. The rule is very clear that the elector has to show his ballot paper to the authorised representative of his party and to no one else. In the case of independent members of the assembly, he is not to show his ballot paper to anyone at all,” the ECI order said.
Balwant Sinh Rajput, a Congress rebel, was contesting on a BJP ticket against Patel. The Congress party, alleging that the BJP was indulging in horse-trading, had transported 44 MLAs to a Bangalore resort. Patel, who required 45 votes, needed only 44 votes to secure his seat in the upper house after the EC rejected the votes cast by two MLAs. When the votes were counted, that is precisely the number of votes he had.
The Gujarat assembly has 182 members who form the Rajya Sabha electorate but six seats are lying vacant at present. After the rejection of votes by two MLAs, the strength of the electorate has further been reduced to 174.
Until a fortnight ago, the Congress had 57 legislators in Gujarat but fell to only 51 after six MLAs defected. Out of the 51, around seven MLAs were seen as rebel leader Shankar Sinh Vaghela’s supporters and were expected to vote for the BJP. With another two cross-voting, the chances of Patel appeared weak as he would have had to rely entirely on the votes of one Janata Dal (United) MLA, two legislators of Nationalist Congress Party and one member of the Gujarat Parivartan Party to finish at the third position.
Though the Congress failed to keep its house in order ahead of this crucial election, the EC order in the face of the BJP’s aggressive tactics came as much-needed relief. With Patel elected, the BJP will have much to explain about its alleged back-seat driving in the Rajya Sabha election, which unfolded more like a Machiavellian political drama than a democratic exercise.