Narrow win for Congress leader, triumph for Indian democracy

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Veteran Congress leader Ahmed Patel retained his Rajya Sabha seat for a fifth term in a cliffhanger on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

As Indians were celebrating the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement against British rule on Tuesday, his party was fighting a tough poll battle in his home state, Gujarat.

After a day and night of dramatic political twists, Indian National Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s mentor and close aide Ahmed Patel was declared the winner of one of three seats being contested for the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) at around 1:40am on Wednesday. To win the third seat, Patel managed to get the required 44 votes in a cliffhanger poll marred by cross-voting, invalid votes, allegations of horse trading, abuse of power, personal vendettas and late-night protests before the Election Commission (EC).

Many who were following the developments wondered why Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were making a spectacle of themselves over a lone parliamentary seat. For the parties, however, the election was crucial.

For Congress, it was a do-or-die battle, as the futures of the party and its top leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were at stake after a series of electoral defeats in state assembly polls. The party saw Tuesday’s election as a litmus test ahead of assembly elections in Gujarat state later this year. It also came as an opportunity for Congress to lift the sagging morale of its workers.

Patel’s victory became a matter of prestige for Congress especially after top party leader Shankersinh Vaghela quit ahead of the election and six of its lawmakers joined the BJP. This forced the party to move 44 of its lawmakers to a luxury hotel in Congress-ruled Karnataka to prevent further defections.

The Rajya Sabha election was crucial for the BJP too as it wanted to decimate Congress by defeating the most powerful person in that party after Sonia on its home turf.

BJP chief Amit Shah, who also won a Rajya Sabha seat (46 votes) along with federal minister Smriti Irani (45 votes), strongly believed Patel was behind his arrest and imprisonment in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh “encounter” case. Shah wanted to  celebrate his rival’s defeat on Wednesday when he was completing three years as party president.

(“Encounter” is a term used in India “to describe killings by the police or the armed forces, allegedly in self-defense, when they encounter suspected gangsters or terrorists”, according to Wikipedia. Sohrabuddin Sheikh, an alleged gangster, died on November 26, 2005, while in police custody.)

The BJP was facing  hurdles in clearing bills in the Rajya Sabha, where it was outnumbered by the opposition until recently. The party thought election of three BJP lawmakers from Gujarat to the upper house would make passage of bills easier. Moreover, it thought Shah’s maiden entry would send a strong message to all on who will lead the country after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Now that the results are out, some lessons have to be learned. Congress views Patel’s surprise win as a big blow to the BJP’s overconfidence, arrogance and money power. For them, it proves the BJP is not invincible and Congress can win more seats through efficient management and quick thinking. Patel would have lost the seat if the party had not petitioned the EC against two of its lawmakers who showed the ballot papers to unauthorized persons after cross-voting for the BJP. The EC studied the complaint and videos provided by Congress and rejected the two votes.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s absence during the night of high drama is significant. It may be an indication that all is not well between him and Patel. The question raised is whether he wanted Patel to lose the seat. But old guards presented the case against the BJP well before the EC.

In the final analysis, Congress and the BJP were both losers in the election for the third seat. Patel scraped through thanks to the invalid votes of two turncoats and cross-voting by two lawmakers, one each from the BJP and Janata Dal (United).

The BJP has to introspect and correct itself if it wants to perform well in the Gujarat state elections.

In the fight by political parties over a seat, the EC emerged as the clear winner as it refused to be intimidated by their delegations and acted without fear or favor. Ultimately, democracy was the winner of the day.

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