If Bihar’s business is politics, then Gujarat’s business is business. The sharpest Gujarati minds have usually gone into ‘dhandha’: the stock market ups and downs worry the average Gujarati much more than the stock value of their netas. Which is why the intense political turbulence in the state over the Rajya Sabha elections in the last few days is unusual. For decades, Gujarat politics was marked by an element of political ‘collusion’ between government and opposition where both sides competed but also created space for the other without ugly confrontation. The rise of the BJP in the 1990s and the Gujarat riots of 2002 sharpened the battle lines but there was still a measure of what Gujaratis would term, in keeping with their mercantilist traditions, as political ‘len-den’ (give and take). Even in the mid 90s, when Shankarsinh Vaghela split the BJP and ferreted his MLAs to a resort to Khajuraho, it was primarily a battle for supremacy within a ‘parivar’. All that has changed: now we have the virtual declaration of ‘war’ between the BJP and the Congress in the state akin to what you might see in more battle scarred states like a UP or a Tamil Nadu. Why has one Rajya Sabha seat sparked off a virtual political Mahabharata in Gujarat? Here are five reasons:
A) the seat at stake is that of Ahmed Patel, the Congress’s man for all seasons. Patel is not just another Congress MP: he is Sonia Gandhi’s eyes and ears and has been so as her political secretary for more than a decade (since 2001). He has been a Rajya Sabha MP since 1993 and a three time Lok Sabha MP before that. No Congress politician has arguably had such a sustained period of dominance at the heart of the corridors of power like him (even Pranab Mukherjee has now ‘retired’). A defeat for Ahmedbhai, as he is known to friends and rivals, in this election would be a virtual dagger in the heart of Sonia Gandhi’s inner circle. The battle then is not for just a single Rajya Sabha seat: at stake is the future of Sonia Gandhi’s political pointsperson and through him that of her control and influence over the Congress party. After all, if Congress MLAs don’t hold together for their Supreme Leader’s key aide, then how long before the entire party splits apart and we move even closer to a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat? Which explains the desperate attempt by the Congress to now ferret the ‘loyalist’ MLAs to a hotel in Congress-ruled Karnataka. Already under increasing pressure after the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle, a loss for Ahmed Patel could mark the beginning of the end for the Congress’s first family stranglehold over the party.
B) the Rajya Sabha seat is not in just another state, it is in Gujarat a state which now controls Indian politics through the two most powerful people in Indian politics, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The last time that happened with Gujarat was in the early 40s when Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel were the twin pillars of the Congress (Nehru was the third most important at the time: he had charisma, but didn’t have the Mahatma’s moral power or Patel’s organisational skills). The Modi-Shah duo see Gujarat as their personal fiefdom which is why they virtually ‘imposed’ a puppet chief minister in Vijay Rupani in the state last year. By breaking the Congress ahead of the state elections scheduled for December this year, the Modi-Shah duo hope to consolidate their hegemony over the state. If a Rajya Sabha election can be used as a catalyst to hasten this split in the Congress, then so be it. If it means striking a deal with Mr Vaghela who was once Mr Modi’s arch rival in the state, then so be it. In the Modi-Shah political power playbook, there is no place for morality: the ruthless manner in which the BJP leadership has used the state machinery to intimidate fence-sitting MLAs (a few Vaghela loyalists are easy prey) is a reflection of a political ‘killer instinct’ that the party was perhaps lacking in the past (as also evidenced recently in Bihar) .
C) Rajya Sabha elections, with its secret ballot process, are particularly susceptible to money power and political auctions. There are enough instances in recent years for example where businessmen have ‘bought’ themselves a Rajya Sabha ticket. Now, we don’t know how much money is actually changing hands but to believe that MLAs are switching over without inducement is to delude oneself to the realities of modern day immoral politics. The buzz (and this is based on hearsay and allegations made in public by MLAs) is that a few crores (figures vary from Rs 5 to Rs 20 crores) and a guarantee of an election ticket are on the table. For an MLA, at the end of a five year term, this is akin to an attractive ‘end of season’ sale: make yourself available to the highest bidder to secure your future, politically and financially. That Congressmen are particularly vulnerable at the moment to poaching reveals how the party is seen as a ‘sinking ship’: MLAs are being ‘bought’ because they are looking for alternative options with a sales tag attached.
D) The Rajya Sabha offers the last institutional challenge to the BJP’s monopoly over power. This is the only place where the opposition outnumbers the government even now. All that will change by mid 2018 but till then the Modi government wants to create a situation where the opposition is so demoralised that it can’t raise its voice in the Upper House. Defeat in UP was the first step, the coup in Bihar was the second, a Rajya Sabha defeat in Gujarat will complete the demolition. Already, Mayawati has resigned from the Rajya Sabha, Sitaram Yechury is being denied a third term by his own party, Sharad Yadav is under pressure to switch sides and become a union minister, the Samajwadi party is a house divided, the Dravida parties have been compromised, only the Trinamool Congress is surviving. The opposition is on the ropes, a split in the Congress in Gujarat could be a decisive knockout blow.
E) A defeat of Ahmed Patel would also mean that Amit Shah’s personal ‘revenge’ is complete. Ever since he was jailed in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin encounter case, Shah has been determined to get at his political ‘enemies’. The BJP president is convinced that Ahmedbhai had a key role to play in his arrest. He wants to settle scores by ensuring that the man who he believes set the CBI on him is now denied a Rajya Sabha seat. That Shah himself is one of the candidates from Gujarat who will be elected to the Rajya Sabha for the first time makes the contest an even more enticing prospect. It’s almost as if in one stroke the new order is replacing the old: Sonia’s Man Friday could be toppled by prime minister Modi’s ever-faithful number two. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold.
Post-script: The irony is that the high stakes political games are being played at a time when Gujarat is reeling under its worst floods in recent times. The bitter conflict has meant that the MLAs, especially those Congress MLAs whisked away to Bengaluru, are not in the flood hit areas in a moment of crisis. The BJP may claim the moral high ground, but here is what the greatest Gujarati, Mahatma Gandhi would have done: he would have pushed for postponing the Rajya Sabha elections and urged both Congress and BJP MLAs to work together on flood relief first. Gujarat may never get another Mahatma, but at least can hope for netas who will not sell their souls for a few crores while others readily purchase them. As the popular Bollywood number goes, ‘ganda hai par dhandha hai yeh!’