What one Rajya Sabha election says about Indian politics | Analysis
The humbling of Ahmed Patel, the hunger of Amit Shah, and the signal to the Gujarat electorate is clearUpdated: Aug 03, 2017, 18:25 IST
Rarely has a single Rajya Sabha seat been so fiercely contested. And rarely does the contest over a single seat in the upper house of Parliament demonstrate so much about Indian politics.
Ahmed Patel’s struggle for political survival in the face of the BJP onslaught and ambition to deprive him of a victory reveals the fragility of power; the expansionist urges of the ruling dispensation; the decay of the opposition; and the state of our institutions.
First, the only way to understand this contest is to go back to the 2004-14 period. Ahmed Patel, as the political secretary of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, almost ran India. He had a key role in appointing ministers, picking MPs, influencing top government appointments from heads of intelligence organisations to those holding constitutional offices. He had control over the party treasury, coordinated with allies, framed plans to weaken the opposition, and much more.
And that is why the fact that Patel today is fighting one of his most important battles – not to reclaim the power he once enjoyed, not to bring the glorious period of the Congress back but to win his own seat – says something about how democracy has a way of humbling the powerful, of how power is fragile: it is a lesson even those at the peak of their power today would do well to heed.
But that was then. Why is Ahmed Patel being given a run for his money now?
There are four explanations.
The first goes back to the way Narendra Modi and Amit Shah do politics. Every election matters, winning every election matters, and the party’s sole focus has to be to acquire power, expand its strength and win as Shah memorably put it everything ‘from the Parliament to the Panchayat’. In the old days, there was a nudge nudge wink wink understanding between top leaders of parties- they would make concessions to enable political space, or at least a parliamentary seat, for each other. All those elite compacts are dead under Modi-Shah. Everything is up for grabs.
The second explanation is Amit Shah’s personal anger at what he perceives was the cynical role played by Patel in framing charges against him. Whether Shah was actually involved in giving a green signal for extra judicial executions in Gujarat as home minister is not relevant here. What is relevant is that in Shah’s head, he was hounded by Patel and the rest of the UPA regime — which even led to imprisonment and exile from Gujarat.
The third explanation is that given the difficulties that the BJP faces in the Rajya Sabha, every seat matters. The only real obstacle to the BJP’s move from dominance to outright hegemony is the fact that it does not enjoy a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The UP win will improve its numbers gradually; the Bihar acquisition will strengthen its numbers; the elevation of a party loyalist, M Venkaiah Naidu, as Vice President and thus chair of the Rajya Sabha will help. But every seat matters, and the third seat from Gujarat will help too.
And finally, remember Gujarat is headed for elections. The BJP’s social coalition in the state had indeed fractured with the Patidar agitation. The party has had two CMs post Gujarat, and neither Anandiben Patel nor Vijay Rupani have been particularly impressive. But instead of Congress leveraging this, look at what’s happening.
A tall leader of the party, Shankersinh Vaghela, has already quit. MLAs have resigned. Others have had to run off to Karnataka. The party’s most powerful export to Delhi in recent times, Patel, is seen as struggling. Another defeat would have a debilitating impact on the party morale, among cadres, and send a signal to voters that the Congress was not a serious party at all.
And it is to achieve these objectives that the BJP has unleashed all its power – and institutions under its control – to ensure the defeat of Patel. It is difficult to believe that the I-T raids on the Karnataka minister hosting the Gujarat MLAs are a mere coincidence. The BJP can cynically turn around and say that the Congress misused institutions too. This is true. It is also true one does not need to look hard to find those with unaccounted wealth in the Congress. But for now what is true is that the BJP has shown no desire to make institutions autonomous, away from political influences, and has sought to replicate the same practices. In its desire to acquire power, it has conveniently forgotten the distinction between using legitimate means and using instruments it has due to its position in power.
Irrespective of the final outcome in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha election, the victor is clear.
By putting a man who was once among the most powerful in India in a spot, by revealing his hunger and ambition yet again, by fracturing the Congress and exposing its vulnerabilities, and by sending a signal to the Gujarat electorate that there is only one party that is in the game, Amit Shah has already won this round.