By Amulya Ganguli
The BJP’s tactics of weaning away dissenters from other parties to boost its own position has suffered a jolt during the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat. The party must have congratulated itself when as many as 13 MLAs switched sides from the Congress to the BJP in the state, raising the possibility of a defeat for Ahmed Patel, the quintessential backroom operator who is known to be close to Sonia Gandhi.
Patel’s defeat would have been the icing on the cake for the BJP in the aftermath of its success in breaking the Bihar mahagathbandhan and welcoming chief minister Nitish Kumar into its parlour. But the fates decreed otherwise.
An inadvertent mistake of two rebel Congress MLAs of showing their ballot papers to someone in the BJP, probably Amit Shah, to prove that they had voted against Patel led to the cancellation of their votes and enabled Patel to make it to the victory stand.
The episode may be minor one in the context of the overall battlefield where the BJP is seen as winning hands down. But the BJP has only itself to blame if Patel’s success is hogging the headlines because it had placed undue emphasis on defeating him.
When the issue of the MLAs displaying their supposedly secret ballot papers went to the Election Commission, the BJP pulled out all the stops to try and convince the electoral body that nothing untoward had happened. Even Arun Jaitley was among the big guns who went to the commission late in the evening to argue the BJP’s case.
But to no avail. The rebel MLAs were found to be in the wrong and Patel sailed through by one vote in a nail-biting finish. The effect of his success could be seen in the glum face of Amit Shah as left the counting arena. Given the strained personal relations between the BJP president and Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary which made commentators describe the contest as a grudge match, the interaction – or the lack of it – between the two when they enter the Rajya Sabha will be something to watch.
There is little doubt that for the Congress, which is facing an “existential crisis”, according to Jairam Ramesh, one of its senior leaders, Patel’s victory and the rebuff to Amit Shah’s ambition to push the Congress further down are bound to be relished by the 132-year-old Grand Old Party.
To what extent Patel’s success will affect the Congress’s prospects in the forthcoming assembly elections in Gujarat is difficult to say. But it will undoubtedly make the Congressmen walk with a spring in their steps. Considering how the party men would have worn woebegone faces if Patel had lost, the morale-boosting impact of his victory is easy to understand.
There hasn’t been any good news for the Congress lately. For one, it is back to square one where the leadership is concerned because it is obvious that Sonia Gandhi will have to continue to play a leading role as a campaigner in the elections to the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assemblies this year despite her indifferent health, because Rahul Gandhi is simply not measuring up to expectations.
Even if he is elevated to the party president’s position by the end of the year, the Congress will still have to depend on Sonia Gandhi to address the rallies and talk to senior politicians in the non-BJP camp who appear reluctant to interact with Rahul.
Sonia Gandhi’s task will be all the more strenuous because the possibility of an opposition alliance taking shape at the centre appears remote. Her party, therefore will have to be in the forefront to offer leadership when the number of those willing to follow is likely to be embarrassingly small.
Before what happened In Gandhinagar on Tuesday/Wednesday night, the BJP must have thought that all is well. After the setback, however, its poaching tactics directed at opportunistic politicians in Bihar, Tripura and Gujarat will be seen as what it is – a cynical exercise in luring the greedy with no concern for political morality.
As it is, the BJP has major problems on its plate such as the agitation by the Marathas in Maharashtra for reservations in jobs and education which echoes similar demands voiced by the Patels not long ago in Gujarat which are still simmering underground.
The reason why quotas are sought in government employment is that enough opportunities are not available in a time of the so-called jobless growth because of the increasing recourse to automation in the industries.
Since Narendra Modi’s electoral success has been based on the promise of rapid development, the party cannot afford to falter when the BJP will have to cope with the anti-incumbency factor in next year’s assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Given these problems, the BJP turned to fine-tuning the caste card in U.P. and securing legislative majorities in Bihar and elsewhere by wooing susceptible opponents. But the case of Ahmed Patel has shown that it cannot always win. (IPA Service)