The victory of Congress leader Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections from Gujarat has assumed special significance because of various factors. More than anything else, it was a test case for the Election Commission (EC) of India, and the poll panel has come out with flying colours. The entire nation must feel proud of the impartiality of the EC displayed once again in conducting elections independently and fearlessly, irrespective of which party or alliance of parties is in power at the Centre.
The return of Patel to the Upper House with just the minimum number of 44 votes required for winning the crucial poll was almost impossible had the EC not performed the way it did, proving true to its impeccable image. Here one is reminded of former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, whose strictness in ensuring free and fair elections gave birth to a new expression called the “Seshan effect”.
The "Seshan effect" had led to disciplining those contesting polls, resulting in less noise, cleaner walls and a limited use of "money power". It led to the emergence of a new era of campaigning, requiring new strategies like door-to-door canvassing by contestants.
The BJP’s dirty tricks department was overactive to defeat Patel, but nothing worked mainly because of the fairness of the EC. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was quite justified when she remarked, "Thank God for the Election Commission."
When the voting was over on August 8, few people were sure of Patel getting the fifth term as a Rajya Sabha member. There were reports of cross-voting with some legislators with their leader Shankersinh Vaghela having left the Congress at this crucial juncture. Senior Congress leaders, however, did not lose all hopes of winning this prestigious battle of the ballot with the BJP doing all it could think of to get Patel trounced.
With faith in the impartiality of the EC, the issue of two Congress MLAs having shown their ballot papers to BJP representatives was brought to the poll panel to get their votes nullified. The EC viewed the matter with the seriousness it deserved. After going through a video-recording of their action these legislators were found to have violated the rule of secrecy and they were, therefore, disqualified by the EC. This resulted in the effective strength of the House getting reduced to 174 legislators with the number of votes required for emerging victorious coming down to 44 from 45, as was the case originally. By all calculations, it appeared that Patel could not get more than 44 votes which he ultimately secured to register victory against all odds.
The Congress strength had been considerably reduced with veteran leader Vaghela leaving the party along with his supporters at a time when assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Gujarat later this year. No one knew how many more legislators might desert the Congress ship, now seen as sinking owing to the weight of its own misdoings.
Though before Vaghela’s exit the Congress strength in the assembly was 60 MLAs, within a few days before the Rajya Sabha polls its number in the House got reduced considerably. Patel actually got only 43 Congress votes and one vote was cast in his favour by either a Nationalist Congress (NCP) MLA or the sole legislator belonging to the Janata Dal (United). But who exactly cast the lucky vote remains a mystery.
The NCP leadership claims that the party’s two MLAs had specific instructions to vote for Patel, a senior political aide of Congress President Sonia Gandhi who has maintained friendly relations with many leaders belonging to other parties. But the NCP’s claim cannot be accepted on its face value as one of its MLAs made it known that he defied the guidelines from his party leadership and did not vote for the Congress candidate. The NCP admitted it, but asserted that the other MLA belonging to the party did cast his vote for Patel. It is, however, doubtful if he really did it. In that case, the number of votes Patel ultimately got would have been 45.
The calculations for a tally of 45 votes are based on the fact that the lone JDU legislator, Chhotu Vasava, a long-time friend of Patel, too had pledged his support for the Congress leader. He has asserted that he did honour the promise he had made to his friend Patel and there is no reason to doubt it. As he has been quoted to have told the media, ''There is no reason not to believe me. Ahmed Patel is an old friend and I had assured him my vote. And I have voted for him."
While who is lying is difficult to prove, there is no doubt about the fact that Patel would have been out of the Rajya Sabha without the fiercely unbiased role played by the Election Commission with the BJP’s top leaders leaving no stone unturned to influence the functioning of the poll panel. Thus, it is an occasion to celebrate the unblemished conduct of the EC by one and all.
The high-voltage Rajya Sabha election exposed the BJP’s shamelessness in allegedly trying to bribe and intimidate Congress MLAs which forced it to herd its flock to a resort near Bengaluru. The Congress appeared to be demoralised by six of its lawmakers resigning from the party to join the ruling BJP.
As Patel expressed his feelings through a series of tweets, “This is not just my victory. It is a defeat of the most blatant use of money power, muscle power and abuse of state machinery.”
He added through another tweet, “BJP stands exposed of personal vendetta and political terror. People of Gujarat will give them a befitting reply in this year’s election.”
At the end of it all, the BJP has proved by its actions that it does not hesitate in making the mistakes which the Congress did when it was the ruling party in most of the states. The way the saffron party tried to use the money power to defeat Ahmed Patel because of his closeness to Sonia Gandhi was rarely seen before. Is this how it intends to change the political culture in the country?
(The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.)(Published on 14th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 33)