The BJP has lost face after the Gujarat setback. And Amit Shah now has to scramble for excuses to cover his errors
“We are moving towards a Congress-free Gujarat. All three candidates of the BJP will win tomorrow,” Bhupender Yadav, the BJP’s general secretary in charge of the state, said on Monday. The Rajya Sabha election to three seats from Gujarat had been a high-stake battle ever since the nomination papers were filed. The BJP was in a capacity to elect two MPs, but it fielded three — Amit Shah, Smriti Irani and Balwantsingh Rajput. The plan was to stop the re-election of Ahmed Patel, one of the close aides of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and Yadav’s comment, a day ahead of the polls, suggested that the BJP was in hubris that its plan would succeed.
Patel later said BJP President Shah “has a personal grudge against me which is why they are going all out using the most underhand means that I have ever seen in my 40 years of politics to ensure that I lose.” We don’t know what the reason for the grudge is. Patel as political secretary to Sonia Gandhi was one of the key strategists of the UPA during the 10 years the alliance was in power. The CBI under the Congress government had launched a probe into the murder of alleged gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi in November 2005. Shah had to resign as Gujarat home minister in July 2010 after the CBI charged him with kidnapping and murder. Shah may have wanted to send a message to Sonia Gandhi by defeating Patel in his own state in an election that he would otherwise have easily won.
The BJP had tried to manipulate Rajya Sabha elections earlier as well. It fielded an extra candidate without having the required numbers in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and in Uttarakhand, but failed in each time. Last year, the party won two Rajya Sabha seats in Jharkhand defeating a united Opposition with the help of cross-voting. But in Gujarat, the stakes were higher. Shah himself had turned the election into a “prestigious battle” and party leaders kept saying that Patel would lose. A series of moves the BJP has taken since the nomination papers were filed suggest that the party top brass had made a big bet on the vote. The Congress had started showing signs of internal rebellion well before the vote. In the July 17 Presidential election, at least 11 Congress MLAs voted for Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP candidate. In the current Assembly, the Congress has 51 MLAs. And it needed at least 44 votes to elect Patel to the Rajya Sabha.
Two days after the Presidential election results were announced, Shankersinh Vaghela, the BJP-turned-Congress leader in Gujarat, quit the party along with his supporters. In the following days, the Congress lost seven of its MLAs. There were allegations about horse trading and poaching. The Congress flew 44 of its legislators to a Bangalore resort. The BJP didn’t stop there. The government sent Income Tax sleuths after the Congress MLAs to Bangalore. Both the resorts where the legislators were staying in and the house of Karnataka minister D.K. Shivakumar, who was overseeing the MLAs’ stay, were raided. And of this 44, the BJP managed to get the support of a couple more legislators for its third candidate during the election on August 8.
Still, Amit Shah couldn’t defeat Ahmed Patel. It was clear after the Election Commission disqualified the votes of two Congress rebel MLAs for violation of norms that Patel was on a path to victory. There were reports from Gujarat late in the night that the BJP was putting pressure on the Election Commission not to start counting after the disqualification, citing some alleged violations by other MLAs. A number of Cabinet ministers, including the so-called number two in the government, Arun Jaitley, had met EC officials in Delhi several times. Still the EC held its ground. After 2 am in the morning of August 9, the formal announcement came that Patel, along with Shah and Irani, was elected to the Rajya Sabha.
Where did Amit Shah, the so-called master tactician, err? First, the BJP leadership underestimated the resolve of the Congress, which has been weakened in a series of electoral defeats after the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle, to fight back. Shah and Co. may have thought that they could easily poach Congress MLAs and defeat Patel. They were partially successful. At least nine Congress MLAs voted against Patel in the election. But for the Congress, it was a do or die battle. They knew why Patel was being targeted. And Sonia had despatched the old guards of the party to fight it out. Ashok Gehlot, the general secretary in charge of Gujarat, was actively involved in strategizing the Congress plans. The Congress showed compatibility as well as resolve to fight the ruthless BJP, something that was missing in the party in recent years. Second, while rushing to break the opposition, the BJP failed to keep its house in order. BJP MLA Nalin Kotadia admitted later that he voted for Patel. So did the JD(U) MLA, Chhotu Vasava, defying the instructions from Nitish Kumar, who recently joined hands with the BJP, indicating that Nitish’s empire has already started showing cracks. Third, Shah and others completely failed to foresee the impact a failed bet could have on the BJP and the Congress. If they did, they wouldn’t have gone this far in the first place.
The BJP has lost its face now. The Congress finally fought a battle and won it. Sonia Gandhi can hold her head high, at least over this election. Shah may have realized that he can’t always win, not even in his home state. But the next big question is whether a rejuvenated Congress can build on the momentum the Rajya Sabha poll has generated and take on the BJP with the same vigour and strategic resolve in the upcoming assembly elections. For every party that’s on a slide needs a bouncing point from where it can script a comeback. This could be the Congress’, provided the party is serious about its own future. And it should be grateful to Amit Shah for the opportunity.