The contest for the three Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat presented a dispiriting snapshot of India’s democracy, redeemed only by the last frame. The Congress roused itself from its general political stupor only to ensure the indirect re-election of a backroom potentate. The BJP raised the stakes in unprecedented ways and appeared bent on crossing the bounds of fairplay in order to defeat Ahmed Patel. There were floor-crossing Congress MLAs and the party herded the rest of its flock to the safety of Congress-ruled Karnataka to protect it from a predatory BJP. Towards the last, as the drama shifted to Nirvachan Sadan in New Delhi, the Election Commission intervened. Votes of two Congress MLAs who had allegedly violated the voting procedure and secrecy of ballot papers were invalidated and Patel won the seat. But look closer and it is clear that the BJP is the loser but the Congress did not win — and the EC has proved yet again the difference that an upstanding institution with a sense of its own role and responsibility can make.
The BJP headed by Amit Shah, who has just completed three years as party president, and who is now elected from one of the three Gujarat seats to Rajya Sabha, is said to be a new BJP. There has been evidence aplenty of a party more purposeful and indeed, more successful, with a greater hunger to win. Yet, in these RS elections in Gujarat, the defections of Congress MLAs to the BJP, and the timing of income tax raids on a Congress crisis manager involved in safeguarding party legislators from alleged BJP lures, have raised a troubling question: Just how far is the BJP willing to go, to win? Gujarat RS elections have only reinforced the unease sparked by the backroom manoeuvres through which the BJP has managed to form governments in states it had lost in the elections to other parties, be it Manipur, Goa or Bihar. Its large mandate in 2014 gave it a position of dominance, but the BJP seems to show little deference to the checks and restraints that also come with power in a constitutional framework.
It was left to the Election Commission to serve a valuable reminder of the countervailing institution. Once the RS poll theatre shifted to its office in Delhi, it used the powers vested in it by Article 324 of the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. It demanded video footage of the voting, and struck down the Returning Officer’s decision on the breach of procedure and ballot secrecy by two Congress legislators. But most of all, it drew upon an institutional memory and rich legacy left behind by the ECs that have gone before — of ensuring a level playing field, of being the fair and impartial arbiter of polls. On Tuesday night, the EC talked back to the BJP delegations which insisted that it had no power to intervene in the RS poll in Gujarat. In the end, that is the only voice worth remembering from a very noisy episode.