No single election for a Rajya Sabha berth has perhaps been the subject of so much speculation as Ahmed Patel’s attempt to be a member of the Council of States for the fifth consecutive time next week. Patel has been the political secretary to Sonia Gandhi for the past 16 years, and during this period has virtually controlled the organisation, being its most important functionary outside the family. Therefore, the high profile election to the Upper House from Gujarat has become a matter of prestige for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has ensured that Patel’s passage to the Rajya Sabha would either be effectively blocked or at least would not be, under any circumstances, smooth.
Gujarat has three Rajya Sabha seats that have fallen vacant this year, and the BJP, which enjoys a strength of 122 in the 182-member Assembly, is assured of two clear seats that would go to party chief Amit Shah and Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani. However, for the third seat, the BJP has put up a Congress rebel, Balwantsinh Rajput, who filed his nomination on the same day he joined the saffron brigade, so as to offer a stiff challenge to Patel. Normally, political parties follow an unwritten understanding of allowing the Rajya Sabha elections to be unanimous, but with four persons in the fray for three seats, a fierce contest is on the cards.
The polls have assumed great significance because the Gujarat Assembly elections are due before the end of the year, and therefore, if Patel gets defeated in the high-voltage confrontation, the Congress would receive a major setback to its chances in the state, which has continuously been espousing the BJP for nearly two decades. Going by the numbers, the Congress should not have had any difficulty in retaining the seat, but the decision of senior leader and former Union Minister, Shankarsinh Vaghela, to exit from the party has created absolute uncertainty, given that six out of the 57 Congress MLAs have already departed and more are likely to follow. In order to win comfortably, the party required 46 first preference votes, but the fluidity of politics in the state has put all calculations on shaky ground.
Sensing that the BJP could poach some of the MLAs, Patel and Ashok Gehlot, the Congress general secretary looking after Gujarat, have sent the legislators to a resort in Karnataka, thereby creating an impression that the Congress high command was now personally involved in ensuring the victory of the political secretary. Subsequently, the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad has sought to clarify that the Gujarat poll was like any other election and therefore to link it to the Congress president would be both unfair and inaccurate.
The run-up to the final showdown has already claimed a casualty, with senior Karnataka leader D.K. Shivakumar, who was personally looking after the Gujarat MLAs, being raided by Central enforcement agencies in connection with cases pertaining to unaccounted wealth and assets. Shaken by the developments, Patel has described the government and BJP’s actions as the result of a personal vendetta by Amit Shah and his associates. The BJP, on the other hand, has stated that there was nothing personal, and if the Congress MLAs were deserting their party, it was because of their disillusionment with their leadership. So far as Shivakumar was concerned, for quite a while now, he had been under the radar of the enforcement agencies.
With the battle being fought on a very volatile pitch, the outcome has become critical for both sides. If Patel loses, it would be seen as the defeat of Sonia Gandhi, whose reliance on her political secretary is well known, and also a cause of disenchantment among a large section of party cadres and leaders who have been marginalised by Patel. On the other hand, if he were to win the seat, it would be construed as a major defeat for both Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, who have invested much of their time in planning the strategy for this particular election. Thus, the verdict would determine whether the discerning and perspicacious Patel would get the better of Modi and Shah, equally astute and shrewd politicians in their own right.
Within the Congress, which has been imploding since the 2014 Parliamentary elections, when many of its leaders like Birendra Singh, Jagdambika Pal and Rao Inderjit Singh exited to join the saffron brigade, the result of the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections would be of primary interest. Patel, due to his proximity to the Congress president, had been instrumental in deciding the course which the party took during the better part of Sonia Gandhi’s tenure. He was feared by many of his party colleagues since he enjoyed the complete trust of his boss who would not hesitate, for a single moment, to inform him of any complaint she received against him.
In 2010, a senior former Cabinet Minister, who met the Congress president and expressed certain grievances against Patel, was shocked when he received a call from him on his cell phone, minutes after he left 10 Janpath, and much before he made it to his car. Patel, reportedly, demanded to know why he had spoken out against him, thereby sending an unequivocal message that the political secretary was privy to everything conveyed to the party chief.
While it may be wrong to blame Patel for the induction of “outsiders” and the marginalisation of “insiders” in the Congress, since the final call was always that of Sonia Gandhi, yet in common perception he was perceived to be the most consequential figure in every action of the top leadership. He was ever on board whenever any paramount decision was made, and both his admirers and adversaries within the Congress acknowledged that he was, in real terms, the de-facto president of the party.
Patel’s overriding importance lies in the fact that even Rahul Gandhi, who has had reservations about him, was unable to sideline him and old timers have stated that he, perhaps, enjoyed far greater clout than what R.K. Dhawan and M.L. Fotedar had during Indira Gandhi’s tenure.
Therefore Patel’s victory is paramount for determining the future of the Congress. His success would be a reflective triumph of the Sonia Gandhi genre of politics, and his defeat, if that happens, would usher in a new order in the life of the 132-year-old party.