A CONGRESS ‘SUL­TAN’ WINS THE BATTLE

India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

It was a vic­tory snatched from the jaws of de­feat. Many in the Congress had al­ready braced them­selves for the lat­est de­mor­al­is­ing re­verse—with the loss of Ahmed Pa­tel’s Ra­jya Sabha seat. But the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion was a white knight, rid­ing to the Congress’s res­cue lit­er­ally at the mid­night hour, as Au­gust 8 be­came Au­gust 9 and the most se­nior lead­ers of both the BJP and Congress worked their phones and bit nails.

The EC rejected as in­valid two votes by Congress rebels, leav­ing Pa­tel need­ing 44 in­stead of 45 votes to win a fifth term in the up­per house. He got 44, pre­cisely what he needed. No won­der Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi said, “Thank god for the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.” In June last year, the party had been on the other side, be­rat­ing the EC for declar­ing 12 of its votes in­valid in the Ra­jya Sabha elec­tion in Haryana.

Pa­tel is Gandhi’s po­lit­i­cal sec­re­tary, a staunch loy­al­ist and ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial of the party’s so-called old guard. But if Pa­tel had pow­er­ful friends, he had also made pow­er­ful, un­for­giv­ing en­e­mies. Chief among them is BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah. He had spent three months in jail in 2010 on charges re­lated to the al­leged killing of Sohrabud­din Sheikh in po­lice cus­tody five years ear­lier. Shah’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer was dam­aged, al­beit tem­po­rar­ily, and he held Pa­tel re­spon­si­ble for what he be­lieved to be a UPA-led witch hunt against him and Naren­dra Modi, then Gu­jarat chief min­is­ter.

Shah, elected on Au­gust 8 to a first Ra­jya Sabha term from Gu­jarat, made it his mis­sion to un­seat Pa­tel, has­ten­ing the lat­ter’s po­lit­i­cal demise and fur­ther­ing the prospect of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. Shah’s thirst for re­venge, thirst to hu­mil­i­ate Pa­tel, turned a hum­drum po­lit­i­cal event into an epic con­test. And so in­stead of re­flect­ing on a bruis­ing cam­paign, in­clud­ing un­seemly in­ter-party squab­bling, the Congress is cel­e­brat­ing as if re­born. Pa­tel, ob­servers say, was as vis­i­bly moved by the re­sult as any­one had ever seen him. Gu­jarat is his home state and de­fend­ing his seat had be­come about pres­tige, about his con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal rel­e­vance, never mind that the Congress it­self has been a non-fac­tor in Gu­jarat since Modi be­came chief min­is­ter in 2001.

De­feat, Pa­tel knew, would also em­bolden those within the Congress ea­ger to see his hold on the reins of party power loos­ened. Some had in­ter­preted Ra­jya Sabha mem­ber and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh’s com­ment about Con­gress­men still be­hav­ing like sul­tans though their sul­tanate had gone as a dig at Pa­tel. Ramesh is a close con­fi­dant of Congress vice pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi, con­spic­u­ously miss­ing from Pa­tel’s cam­paign. Rahul has also been un­wel­com­ing to Pa­tel pro­teges such as Hi­manta Biswa Sarma, who switched to the BJP last year.

“Rahul be­lieves in one kind of pol­i­tics and Pa­tel prac­tises an­other,” a young Congress Lok Sabha MP ex­plains. He asked to be quoted anony­mously, adding there was “no per­sonal en­mity be­tween the two, just a dif­fer­ence of ap­proach”. This has meant the Congress has been di­vided and fre­quently in­de­ci­sive, un­sure of it­self in the wake of elec­toral de­ba­cles and the de­ser­tion of sev­eral stal­warts. Sarma’s de­fec­tion, for in­stance, cost it the As­sam assem­bly poll last year. Any chance of suc­cess in the Gu­jarat elec­tions in De­cem­ber, though, ap­pears to have de­parted along with vet­eran leader Shankersinh Vaghela who quit the party in July.

This sham­bles has been presided over by an ab­sen­tee high com­mand. “There is no con­sen­sus be­tween Rahul and So­nia on how to han­dle dis­grun­tled lead­ers,” says a Congress gen­eral sec­re­tary. “She is still re­cep­tive to Pa­tel’s coun­sel but nei­ther mother nor son want to ap­pear at odds.” For now, though, Pa­tel can breathe a sigh of re­lief. He has his Ra­jya Sabha seat back. Now he has to find a way to work with Rahul Gandhi so that the Congress can cap­i­talise on some unan­tic­i­pated mo­men­tum.

Gu­jarat for Pa­tel was about pres­tige; the Congress has been ab­sent since Modi took over in 2001

SHAILESH RAVAL

HARD WON

Ahmed Pa­tel af­ter he was de­clared win­ner

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