While the Congress focused on notching up a victory, it ignored other developments. This keeps with its failure to capitalise on the growing disillusionment with the BJP in Gujarat.
Ahmedabad: Amid a nail-biting Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat on August 8, Amit Shah and Smriti Irani won with 46 votes each and Congress candidate Ahmed Patel secured 44 votes, retaining his parliamentary seat.
In the fray for the three seats that were up for grabs were Shah, who contested the Rajya Sabha polls for the first time, textile and I&B minister Smriti Irani, former Congress whip Balwantsinh Rajput, who recently quit the party, and Patel, a senior Congress leader and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary.
For the Congress, wresting a win through Patel after facing multiple setbacks in the run-up to the poll, is the morale booster it has needed for a while. But while Shah and Irani registered easy wins, the fight boiled down to the third seat, which Patel was contesting.
Things started going awry for the Congress two weeks ago when six of its MLAs resigned, including senior leader Shankarsinh Vaghela and Rajput. This prompted the party to save its MLAs from any further poaching by the BJP by flying them to Bengaluru in a haste.
Ignoring its internal conflict lost the Congress six MLAs, but this does not appear to be the end of the discontent. There is resentment against Patel among senior party leaders, say sources in the Congress.
“Patel speaks on behalf of Sonia Gandhi and takes decision on her behalf too but many a times without informing the party chief. When it comes to choosing a Muslim candidate for any election, be it a corporator or MLA, Patel has the last word,” said a Muslim Congress MLA, who requested his name not be made public.
Reportedly, Patel is planning to launch his son, Faisal, who has no political experience and is not a member of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC), as an MLA in the upcoming state assembly election later this year. Patel has reportedly picked the Jamalpur constituency in Ahmedabad, which is traditionally considered to be ‘safe seat’ for the Congress, for his son. Many senior party leaders and sitting MLAs who are eyeing the seat are disgruntled over the issue. On his part, Faisal Patel has strongly denied his father has any plans to launch his son's political career.
“I voted for Patel owing to my loyalty for Congress and not for Patel himself,” said the Muslim MLA, adding that he is unhappy with his way of handling the party's affairs in the state.
On the day of voting for the Rajya Sabha seats, things began to go haywire once again for the Congress as two disgruntled MLAs declared that they had voted for the BJP, leaving Patel scrambling for votes to save his seat.
“I have voted for Balwantsinh Rajput. I want to be in politics but not in Congress and given that there has been always two parties in Gujarat, it’s understandable which party I shall join,” said Raghavjibhai Hansrajbhai Patel.
Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, who also voted for BJP echoed his colleague's words, “Congress has not been heeding to our issues for about a year. We have voted for Rajput.”
Both Raghavji and Jadeja had refused to join the 44 Congress MLAs who were taken to Bengaluru and then brought back to the Ananad resort in Gujarat days before the vote. The duo, said to be from the ‘Vaghela camp’, are among eight other Congress MLAs who cross-voted. The others who also did not go to Bengaluru were Vaghela and his son Mahendrasinh Vaghela, C.K. Raulji, Amit Chaudhary and Bholabhai Gohil.
“Why vote for a losing candidate? Ahmed Patel is sure to lose,” declared Vaghela as he came out after casting his vote.
Noticeably, Vaghela, who is closely related to Rajput, has favoured him and so have the MLAs loyal to Vaghela. The eighth cross vote surprisingly came from Karamsinh Patel, the MLA of Sanand, who was among the 44 who were taken to Bengaluru.
After NCP MLA Jayant Boski Patel voted for the Congress and his party colleague Kandhal Jadeja voted for the BJP, all eyes then turned to Chotu Vasava, the lone JD(U) MLA in Gujarat. Vasava kept everyone guessing till the last moment and was even escorted by BJP MLAs to cast his vote.
“The Nitish-BJP alliance has not affected my voting. In fact nobody asked for my opinion while making such a decision in Bihar. I have known Patel for long time and voted for him,” Vasava told the media after casting his vote.
His decision to vote for the Congress leader led to the expulsion of Arun Srivastava, the JD(U)'s Gujarat general secretary, for not conveying the party's decision to Vasava.
In another surprise, Nalin Kotadiya from the Guajart Parivartan Party, a party that merged with the BJP, voted for the Congress.
“I voted for the Congress for the sake of Patidars. The BJP did not solve problems of the Patidars,” he stated.
The final twist in the drama came after voting closed at 2 pm, resulting in a long delay before the votes were counted.
After the Election Commission invalidated the votes of two rebel Congress MLAs, the BJP obstructed the counting demanding that the tape based on which the votes were declared invalid be released.
The EC's decision came after the Congress demanded the cancellation of Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavji's votes. National leaders from the Congress and the BJP held three round of talks before the decision was made. The decision altered to 44 from 45 the votes Patel needed to win.
Counting finally began at around 1:30 am on August 9, with Patel's victory announced soon after by former GPCC president Arjun Modhwadia.
Lessons for Congress
While the Congress focused on ensuring a win for Patel, it ignored the floods that hit many districts of the state, including Banaskantha, the party’s stronghold.
“Ahmed Patel’s greed to win the RS poll will sink Gujarat Congress,” Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani had said during a visit to the district while the local Congress MLA was flown to Bengaluru.
Even though the Congress won, the party and Patel have been consistently losing ground to the BJP in the state. This calls for some retrospection and introspection ahead of the assembly polls.
The Congress in Gujarat has for a long time not seen any decisive action, required for a party to sustain as a serious opposition.
The party did not capitalise on the opportunities to step up as a strong opposition during the Patidar Andolan in 2015, the Dalit agitation post the Una flogging incident, the agitation led by Alpesh Thakor, or the protests by sanitation and anganwadi workers in 2016, all of which put the BJP under some pressure.
Party sources say that the Congress has slowly but steadily become defunct as it has mostly dependent on some NGOs to play the role of the opposition. “Every debacle followed a change in GPCC president and not meeting with ground workers or local leaders,” a GPCC leader said.
Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.