“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
– As You Like It, Act-II, Scene-VII.
A Rajya Sabha election has suddenly assumed prominence like none other in recent history. In what has virtually become a battle of wits, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel is waging a tough battle to stay the course. Wildcard Shankersinh Vaghela is yet holding his cards close to his chest and nobody is risking a prediction.
Congress had 57 legislators to start with and Patel needed 46 votes at that stage (He needs 45 now). The Congress leadership’s inertia through the span of Vaghela’s rebellion has finally resulted in six legislators quitting and another six on the rebel path. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the party managed to keep the rest of the flock together by bundling them off to Congress-ruled Karnataka.
Babu Bhai, as Patel is affectionately known in Gujarat, is vying for his fifth term in the Rajya Sabha and the BJP has made it a no-holds barred contest. Unlike the days of the Vajpayee-Advani duo, political decorum has been thrown out of the window and when the BJP says “Congress-mukt Bharat” today, they really mean extermination of the party; nothing less.
A defeat for Patel would be construed as a defeat for Sonia Gandhi and the duo of Modi and Shah seem to be working hard to achieve that end. A defeat for Patel would also be psychologically crushing for the Congress in Gujarat which goes to polls in December.
The Supreme Court decision to not grant a stay to use the NOTA (None of the above) option has come as a bolt from the blue for Patel, who was already on a sticky wicket. According to legal experts, a Congress legislator opting for NOTA wouldn’t invite disqualification despite violating the party whip.
The Supreme Court’s rationale for refusing to stay the process to allow NOTA is that the provision has been in place since April 2014 following an Election Commission directive. In the case of the Rajya Sabha elections, if an MLA chooses NOTA, the vote is rendered ineffective. The NOTA option allows an MLA the possibility of a protest vote against his party without voting for a candidate of another party. The principle of a protest vote remains the same for all elections.
But then again, NOTA might be the last thing on the minds of any Congress MLA who has already made up his mind not to vote for Patel, for reasons best known to him. The Supreme Court has ruled in the Kuldip Nayar v Union of India case that open ballot votes in Rajya Sabha elections against the whip will not automatically lead to disqualification under anti-defection provisions of the Tenth Schedule, as it had an entirely different purpose.
What might still turn out to be crucial for Ahmed Patel would be the final decision taken by the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has been giving mixed signals on the eve of the poll. Two NCP MLAs had attended Vaghela’s 77th birthday event when he announced his decision to quit the Congress and it isn’t clear if they would be following the party whip even if the party chooses to support Patel in the end.
Also, it remains to be seen how many among the Congress flock of 44 would vote for Patel tomorrow. Vaghela’s cryptic statement about his 40-year-old equation with Ahmed Patel on the eve of the poll suggests he might still have some aces up his sleeve. But any chances of Patel’s victory looks bleak at this stage, especially due to the presence of a Machiavellian Amit Shah in the rival camp.