Congress gets Patel face saver: But BJP still sits pretty while Congress desperately searches for a new narrative and identity

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There are three kinds of Patels in Gujarat, goes an old joke oft-repeated by Ahmed Patel’s detractors in the state. Kadva Patels, Leuva Patels and Ahmed Patel. Laced with the irony and exaggeration that is the hallmark of sharp political innuendo, it was meant both as a dig at his vote catching abilities and, equally, as a backhanded compliment to his formidable soft skills as the master mover and shaker behind Sonia Gandhi’s Congress throne.

It’s not for nothing that Patel, the primary instrument and shaper of the Congress president’s politics since at least 2001, has kept his seat in Parliament almost continuously for three decades (1977-1989 in Lok Sabha; 1993-present in Rajya Sabha). BJP’s failure to prevent him from winning his fifth Rajya Sabha (RS) term, despite throwing everything it had into the contest, has certainly given Congress a face saving and temporary reprieve after a string of recent reverses.

The question is: can this victory mark the beginning of a possible Congress revival or is it simply the last gasp of the old order? Was elevating a mundane RS election that few, except the most avid political junkies, would even have noticed in the past, into a high stakes battle for prestige at the highest levels of both parties worth it?

First, in an election that reduced the pursuit of power on both sides to a ruthlessly simple victory-loss calculus, the only real winner in terms of systemic morality was the Election Commission. At a time when allegations of Rs 15 crore being the supposed going-rate for MLAs were vitiating Gandhinagar’s air, Congress chose to respond to Shankersinh Vaghela’s second political rebellion in Gujarat with tactics that ironically, he himself had pioneered in his first rebellion 22 years ago (against BJP). If Congress’s gambit of flying 44 of its MLAs to Bengaluru’s Eagleton resort – like Vaghela’s 1995 flight to Khajuraho – raised questions of strong-arm tactics, the sheer timing of IT raids against a Congress Karnataka minister raised troubling questions about the possible misuse of state power.

In the end, only EC came out with its reputation further enhanced. By rejecting legal arguments presented by a battery of senior ministers and accepting the P Chidambaram-fronted Congress delegation’s argument that two of its MLAs had indeed violated election rules, EC has risen further in stature in the eyes of the average Indian. From Arvind Kejriwal after the Delhi MCD poll to Mayawati after BJP’s UP sweep, opposition leaders have been making a habit of taking potshots at EC. This decision should put a stop to all that.

It also definitively ends all scurrilous speculation about EC’s impartiality based on the premise that both election commissioners were appointed in the current NDA government’s tenure and chief election commissioner A K Joti once served as Narendra Modi’s chief secretary in Gujarat. The EC decision has once again underscored the robustness of our constitutional system of checks and balances.

Second, in a country where Rajya Sabha contests have long been in the nature of fixed matches, BJP can’t be faulted for ending the practice of underhand deals between opposing parties for contests involving key leaders. BJP’s electoral ruthlessness under the Modi-Shah regime is not new. At least one mathematical analysis of the RS poll’s fiendishly complex system of voter-weightage shows that Patel may still have ended up carrying the day even if the two MLAs had not been disqualified. Yet, the fact that BJP came so close to defeating Patel in what should have otherwise been a safe contest is a portent for the future.

Third, while the result is definitely a reprieve for Congress, this may have very little impact on upcoming state assembly elections. Theoretically speaking, 2017 should be Congress’s best chance to regain power in Gujarat after two decades. Even at the height of Modi’s Gujarat hegemony, Congress consistently polled a vote-share around the 40% mark in every assembly poll from 2002 onwards to 2012. Since 2014 though, bereft of Modi’s teflon hand in Gandhinagar, BJP’s traditional Patel constituency, as symbolised by the Hardik Patel agitation, has been up in arms over reservation.

Disparate caste-based opposition movements led by Jignesh Mevani (Dalits) and Alpesh Thakore (OBCs) have flowered. Yet, while BJP has consistently been making important political course corrections on the ground, Congress in Gujarat 2017 looks almost exactly like Congress in 2002. Its top state leadership has basically remained a closed and ossified group of five leaders – Vaghela, Bharatsinh Solanki, Sidharth Patel, Arjun Modwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil. Vaghela’s rebellion has only weakened the party further. It remains a divided house and the absence of a new and energetic leadership means it is still rudderless.

BJP, conversely, has been ruthless about winnability. It switched Anandiben Patel with Vijay Rupani in the CM’s chair in August 2016 and has had three state party presidents in the last 2 years alone: RC Faldu, Rupani himself and now Jitu Vaghani. It is this kind of nimble footedness that allowed the party to recover in gram panchayat elections in December 2016, where its candidate even won in Una, last in the spotlight over atrocities against Dalits.

Fourth, Rahul Gandhi’s absence from action at a time when the prestige stakes were so high was glaring. Congress’s old guard has got a fillip with the Patel result but its older leaders are not vote magnets. Rahul’s leadership has been unable to deliver so far and the party is still desperately searching for a new narrative and identity. The Rajya Sabha result does not change this basic reality.

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