NEW DELHI: It went down to the wire like a nail-biting T20 match, but with a vexatious umpiring dispute in the crucial last over. In the end, Ahmed Patel was saved from a technical knockout late night on Tuesday. The reticent and powerful political secretary to Sonia Gandhi all but sealed his victory, in a blow to the BJP, after the Election Commission invalidated two votes of the Shankersinh Vaghela camp.
With swirling claims and counter-claims, the contest for one Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat was turned into the most high-profile electoral battle of recent months, as if it was the last fortress that would decide the fate of the sultanate. With a fog of doubt enveloping events in Gandhinagar, by evening the drama shifted to Delhi, where both BJP and Congress fielded all their big guns before Nirvachan Sadan.
Some of the best political-legal brains in the country lined up in a blitz of high-profile representations before the Election Commission all through the evening, with obscure technical rules being contested.
After Randeep Singh Surjewala led a delegation of Congress spokespersons, the BJP fielded one led by Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. The Congress followed up with one more led by P. Chidambaram, and the BJP via another big one led by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley this time.
Before that, voting in the morning saw a fragmented, confusing flux marked by cross-voting and inner-party splits. Besides the two votes that came to be disputed, one out of 44 Congress MLAs, Karamshi Patel, voted against his party and for the BJP’s Balwantsinh Rajput, ironically an Ahmed Patel protégé.
Also, the NCP presented a fractured picture: one of its two MLAs, Kandhal Jadeja, apparently voted BJP despite party supremo Sharad Pawar talking of a whip. The other, Jayant Patel Bosky, is said to have voted for Ahmed Patel. So did the lone JD-U MLA, Chhotubhai Vasava.
Congress, BJP rushed to Election Commission three times each
Counting was delayed for seven hours after Congress went to the Election Commission demanding the cancellation of votes of its two MLAs for showing ballots to BJP chief Amit Shah. Three delegations each of Cong and BJP met EC within two hours, with the former demanding the votes be declared invalid, and BJP pushing for immediate counting
And the lone JD-U MLA, Chhotubhai Vasava, disputed his own party’s national spokesperson
K C Tyagi who claimed the party’s vote went to the BJP. Vasava, who runs a panchayat with the Congress in Ahmed Patel’s stronghold Bharuch, insisted he voted for the Congress.
But the centrepiece was the violation of rules by two MLAs of the seven-member Vaghela camp, which had announced its separation from the Congress but not formally resigned.
Raghavji Patel and Bholabhai Gohel showed their ballot papers not just to the Congress polling agent Shaktisinh Gohil — as mandated by the rules, because they are still formally with the party — but to a BJP polling agent too.
In 2016, a similar dispute had arisen during an RS poll in Haryana, where Surjewala, an MLA in the state, had his vote invalidated for showing it to someone other than the party’s polling agent. The Congress wanted this precedence to be followed. The BJP initially claimed no such violation had happened, but EC officials gave their verdict after studying the footage.
The Congress said it had complained to returning officer D M Patel, who is the Gujarat assembly secretary too, by 9.30 am itself and filed a written complaint by 11.30 am. But the vote was allowed to be dropped in the ballot box — a contentious decision, says the complaining party — and they took the fight to the EC in Delhi only when the returning officer had not examined the footage, as promised, by evening.
Why the fate of those two votes was vital is because Ahmed Patel’s victory or defeat hinged on a wafer-thin margin. After six Congress MLAs had resigned, the overall numbers had come down. Ahmed Patel now needed 45 votes — or a fraction above 44, to be precise. So he needed all 44 Congress votes, plus one more.
The cross-voting by Karamshi Patel left him with 43 Congress votes, and critically dependent on whether Vasava of JD-U and NCP’s Bosky had indeed voted for him, which could not be known till the results are declared because they are not bound to show the ballot paper to anyone outside their own polling agent.
The other problem Ahmed Patel faced is that there is a system of second preference votes that kicks in if he was short of a clear majority. Balwantsinh Rajput had 31 votes left over in the BJP’s kitty (after 46 each were devoted to Amit Shah and Smriti Irani’s elections).
If one added the seven MLAs of the Vaghela camp and the rebel NCP vote, it would have gone up to 39. With a larger number of MLAs likely having plumped for Rajput as a second preference, the prospect of that getting added in the event of Ahmed Patel not having a clear number is what led to panic in the Congress camp.
Hence the frantic attempts to get those two votes invalidated. With those two gone, the numbers have tilted decisively in favour of Ahmed Patel, and the drama ended favourably for the man who is known as the ultimate backroom manipulator.