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Monday, July 13, 2020

Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections: The field of candidates, where things stand, and what is at stake

Ahead of the vote, political activity has picked up pace in Gujarat, and three Congress MLAs have resigned in the past few days, adding to the desertions seen earlier in March.

Written by Aditi Raja , Edited by Explained Desk | Vadodara | Updated: June 22, 2020 2:53:10 pm
gujarat rajya sabha elections, gujarat elections, gujarat rs election candidates, gujarat congress mlas, gujarat rajya sabha election date, gujarat bjp, express explained Congress MLAs and leaders attend CLP leader meeting ahead of the Rajya Sabha election after two party MLAs gave their resignation to Gujarat Assembly Speaker, at the Congress headquarters in Ahmedabad on Thursday. (PTI)

Elections to 18 Rajya Sabha seats, which were postponed after the global Covid-19 outbreak, will be held on June 19.

Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh have four seats each to fill; Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan three seats each; and Jharkhand two. Elections will also be held for a seat each from Manipur and Meghalaya.

Ahead of the vote, political activity has picked up pace in Gujarat, and three Congress MLAs have resigned in the past few days, adding to the desertions seen earlier in March.

The Congress now has 65 MLAs in the 182-member House, 12 fewer than the 77 seats it won in the 2017 elections to the state Assembly. These 65 MLAs were on Saturday (June 6) packed off to three resorts in Ambaji, Rajkot, and Vadodara to secure them from BJP attempts at “poaching”.

Here’s the big picture on what is happening, and why.

The return of political activity

Elections to four Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat were due on March 26. Due to retire on April 9 were Chunibhai Gohel who belongs to Junagadh district, Shambhuprasad Tundiya from Ahmedabad, and Lalsinh Vadodia from Anand district (all from the BJP), and the veteran Congressman and AICC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry.

Ahead of the elections, five Congress MLAs resigned from the Assembly, and the Congress herded the remaining 68 to a resort, Hotel Shiv Vilas in Jaipur in Congress-ruled Rajasthan, to protect its votes.

But then the coronavirus struck, the country went into a national lockdown on March 24, and all elections were postponed.

After the Election Commission announced June 19 as the fresh date for the election, the Congress’s problem of desertions returned. Two MLAs — Akshay Patel from Karjan in Central Gujarat and Jitu Chaudhary from Kaprada in South Gujarat — resigned on June 3, reducing the party’s Assembly number to 66.

More were rumoured to be quitting — and on June 5, a third MLA, Brijesh Merja, tendered his resignation to Speaker Rajendra Trivedi, and also gave up his primary membership of the Congress party.

The resignations from the Assembly matter in the Rajya Sabha election because with the total number of MLAs coming down, the number of votes needed for a candidate to win also comes down, as per the formula.

The votes both BJP and Congress want

The Gujarat Assembly, whose strength is 182, is currently left with 172 MLAs (not counting the Speaker) — of which 103 are from the BJP, 65 Congress, 1 Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), 1 Independent, and 2 Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP).

Each candidate needs 35 votes to win. As of now, the Congress is four votes short of winning two seats, while the BJP needs two more votes to retain its three seats — assuming that both parties are able to get their entire flock to vote for the official candidate.

There are four votes in the Assembly which both parties are eyeing to bridge the shortfall.

Two of these are MLAs of the BTP, which was founded by MLA and tribal leader Chhotu Vasava and his son Mahesh following a split in the Janata Dal (United), which Chhotu earlier represented. Chhotu is believed to have helped the veteran Congressman Ahmed Patel enter Rajya Sabha in 2017 by voting in his favour, when he was still with the JD(U).

However, the equations between the Vasavas and the Congress have changed since. Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections last year, the Congress tried to strike a deal with Chhotu by proposing that he contest on the hand symbol — but he did not agree, and put up candidates in seven seats, leading to a triangular contest.

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In the 2019 Rajya Sabha elections, in which External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was a candidate, the father-son duo voted against the Congress, although they denied it in public. Two Congress MLAs, Alpesh Thakor and his associate Dhavalsinh Zala too, cross-voted — and later quit the party and joined the BJP. However, they lost the byelections to their old seats to candidates of the Congress.

The third vote is that of Kandhal Jadeja, the NCP MLA from Kutiyana who has been voting for the BJP since 2017.

In 2019, in spite of a whip issued by the NCP state president Shankersinh Vaghela to vote for the Congress, Jadeja, according to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, had voted for the BJP. Which way Jadeja’s vote will go this time is likely to be decided on the state of Congress-NCP relations in Maharashtra, where they are partners in the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi. It is significant that one of the BJP candidates in the election, Narhari Amin, and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar are known to be close, having worked together in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

The fourth vote up for grabs is that of Jignesh Mevani, the Independent legislator who is a fierce critic of the BJP, and very close to the Congress’s Hardik Patel. Mevani is the Congress’s safest bet. Congress leaders are also hopeful that some BJP MLAs might cross-vote.

Why the Rajya Sabha election is important

Of the seven seats Gujarat has in Rajya Sabha currently, four are held by the BJP, and the rest by the Congress. The Congress delivered its best performance in Gujarat in years in 2017, when it won 77 seats, the most since 2002. The party had hoped to leverage this tally to increase its numbers in the Upper House, but it has been losing both MLAs and ground to the BJP ever since.

The Rajya Sabha elections had been a tame affair until August 2017, when Ahmed Patel faced a fierce contest from a Congress turncoat, Balwantsinh Rajput, whom the BJP nominated as its third candidate for the three vacancies. The other two seats were won by then BJP national president Amit Shah and Union Minister Smriti Irani.

The 2020 RS elections are looking very similar to the one in 2017, when the party had far lower numbers in the state Assembly.

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Back then, Congress Leader of Opposition Shankersinh Vaghela had led the rebellion by quitting weeks before polling day, and six MLAs had followed him — leading to a close contest between Ahmed Patel and Rajput. Rajput has challenged Patel’s election in the Gujarat High Court, and the case remains pending.

However the Congress’s improved score in the Assembly elections that followed in December that year when it won 77 seats, against the BJP’s 99, gave it a better chance in the next Rajya Sabha election in 2019, where Union Minister Jaishankar was contesting.

The Congress and BJP fielded two candidates each for the two seats that had fallen vacant after Shah and Irani won elections to Lok Sabha.

At the time of this election, the Gujarat Assembly had 175 MLAs — 100 of the BJP, 71 Congress, 2, BTP, 1 NCP and 1 Independent. The equations have changed after some MLAs won Lok Sabha seats vacating their Assembly seats. However, the two Congress candidates, Gaurav Pandya and Chandrikaben Chudasama, got 70 votes each, against BJP candidates Jaishankar who got 104, and Jugal Thakor who got 105 votes. Mevani had voted for the Congress in this election.

Congress leaders feel that after North Gujarat and Saurashtra, the BJP has now turned to break the party in Central Gujarat.

“They are preparing for the upcoming local body polls which are due later this year. It is not just about the RS seat but also the fact that many of these MLAs have a rural stronghold, and the BJP has performed dismally in the local polls in 2015. For Rajya Sabha, the BJP obviously aims to ensure that the Congress has as few seats as possible to even contest. So, with only one seat to fight for the Congress now, the BJP will also try to have as many MLAs within the Congress who are willing to vote against the party. It is about prestige and numbers,” a senior leader said.

Central Gujarat has been a Congress bastion, where the party has comfortably won in Assembly elections. However, the BJP has been gaining ground here, and would like to capitalise on its poaching of three Congress heavyweights in 2017 following Vaghela’s exit.

The BJP’s not-so-unknown closeness to the NCP, which has a small presence in the state but has a significant role when voting numbers matter, is also a factor at play. The party is looking at a stronger hold on Anand district, which has been a Congress bastion and is home to Bharatsinh Solanki as well as GPCC President Amit Chavda, and feels the NCP’s support can help its cause, which could also be a reason why the NCP replaced Vaghela as its state unit president to appoint former MLA from this district Jayant Patel alias Boskey.

The Congress party has seen the district slowly slip away over the last three years. The BJP has also been wishing for complete control over Amul Dairy, which had been under Congress control for several years, until former Congress MLA from Thasra Ramsinh Parmar, the chairman of Amul, defected to the BJP ahead of the 2017 RS polls.

The candidates in the election

The BJP has nominated the well-known lawyer Abhay Bhardwaj from Rajkot, and former government officer Ramilaben Bara, a tribal from Sabarkantha, as its candidates, while the Congress candidates are national spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil and former Union minister Bharatsinh Solanki. However, the equations changed when the BJP announced a third candidate in Narhari Amin, a former Congress veteran and a Patidar, who had joined the party in 2012.

The Congress will have to fight not just the BJP but also the disenchantment of its ranks with its leaders. Most leaders within the party feel that the decision to continue with the current state executive despite protests from district leaders has contributed to the defections.

Dilip Bhatt, former district president of the Vadodara Congress, says that the party’s leaders are “extremely unhappy” with the GPCC, especially the leadership of its president Amit Chavda, who is “disconnected” from the grassroot workers, and who has been accused multiple times by different leaders of being inaccessible.

“We have made it clear that we don’t see Bharatsinh Solanki as a leader (although he has been a GPCC president). We want Shaktisinh to be elected to RS,” Bhatt told this paper.

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