Gujarat RS polls: Congress, BJP battle over Patel reaches EC

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New Delhi : A high-pitch battle broke out between the BJP and Congress on Tuesday night over the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat where Sonia Gandhi's political aide Ahmed Patel was facing a tough contest against all-out efforts by the saffron party to stymie his attempts at seeking a fifth term.

High drama marked the day-long developments during polling in Gandhinagar where two Congress MLAs defied and voted for the BJP along with cross-voting by an NCP legislator that could threaten Patel's chances. The fate of the vote of a JD-U MLA was unclear with his party General Secretary claiming that it went to the BJP while the lawmaker said he had voted for Patel.

BJP President Amit Shah and Union Minister Smriti Irani are the other two candidates in the election whose victory is certain, given the BJP numbers in the 176-member Gujarat assembly. The fight is over the third seat for which the BJP has fielded a Congress defector Balwantsinh Rajput.

Patel needs 45 votes to win the election. He appears to have got 42 of the 44 Congress MLAs who were taken to Bengaluru and the votes of an MLA each of the NCP and JD-U. Patel's fate rests on the votes of two Congress MLAs who defied the party and also showed it to the other three candidates in violation of election rules.

This started a battle with the Congress approaching the Returning Officer for cancellation of the two votes that resulted in deferring of counting that should have started at 5 p.m. The battle shifted to the Election Commission in New Delhi where both the parties deputed their top legal eagles to get the counting process under way in accordance with what they contended was the right procedure.

Both the parties' delegations met the Election Commission thrice in a space of three hours. 

After a two-member Congress low profile delegation met the Commission, a battery of senior ministers headed by Arun Jaitley met the poll panel and accused the Congress of trying to stall the process because it was staring at defeat.

The BJP delegation told the commission that under Article 324 of the Constitution no authority can interfere with the election process once the voting is completed and the ballots are put inside the box.

Briefing media after the meeting, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Power Minister Piyush Goyal said if any party has any complaint then only an election petition in courts is the course left for the aggrieved.

Prasad said the Congress had no objection in the morning and did not ask for keeping aside the two impugned votes or ask them to be declared as tendered. 

"We repeatedly told the Election Commission not to order an enquiry on Congress' demand. We told them clearly that once the ballots are cast and the box is closed you (Congress) can go to courts and move an election petition," Prasad said.

This was followed by a high-powered Congress delegation led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, calling on the Commission to reject the votes of the two party MLAs, who had showed their ballots in the Rajya Sabha election to BJP leaders on the precedent set by it in Haryana and Rajasthan.

Briefing the media, former Minister P. Chidambaram said there was videographic evidence of the ballot papers of the two Congress MLAs being shown to persons other than those authorised to see it.

"This is violation of the conduct of election rules read with election circulars and instructions sent by the Election Commission in the past. There is a precedent of a ballot paper of a Congress MLA being rejected on June 11, 2016 in Haryana because it was seen by persons other than authorised," he said. Chidambaram also cited a similar case in Rajasthan in 2000.

In Gujarat, Chidambaram said, there is ample evidence to show that the two votes were seen by two or three persons other than authorised persons obviously because the votes were in BJP's favour.

"The Election Commission cannot follow any precedent other than those set in 2016. Our information is that the Returning Officer is rightly awaiting the Election Commission's instructions. The only constitutional authority in this matter is the Election Commission which has the right of conduct and superintendence of the elections under the Constitution. The Returning Officer is only an officer."

A visibly tired Patel told reporters in Gandhinagar that he was confident of his victory. "I am an optimist, I am confident." 

Rejecting BJP's claims, he said the Congress lodged complaints with the Returning Officer earlier in the day but he did not take any action.

The veteran leader, who had smooth run in getting elected last four terms, is fighting his career's toughest electoral battle with his back to the wall.

Needing 45 first preference votes for a clean victory, Patel's day began with shockers -- from rebel leader Shankersinh Vaghela, who along with five of his supporters, cross-voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Not only this, the maverick Vaghela, who had quit on his birthday on July 21, claimed the confidence that Patel had reposed in the 44 Congress MLAs who were flown to Bengaluru to prevent "poaching" from the BJP, was misplaced.

Patel has been banking upon the "unflinching support" of the 44 MLAs, two from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and one of Janata Dal-United.

However, one NCP MLA, Kandhal Jadeja, touched the feet of BJP chief Amit Shah when he arrived to vote and exercised his franchise for the BJP before he left for Vaghela's residence "for a luncheon meeting".

The other NCP MLA, Jayant Patel Bosky, is believed to have voted for Patel and so has Janata Dal-United's Chhotubhai Vasava.

But a strong tribal leader of South Gujarat, Vasava of the JD-U said he voted for the Congress because the BJP has been looting the state for the last 20 years and he was opposed to his party chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar joining hands with the BJP.