BJP feels poll loss more than Amit Shah's win, Patel's victory gives Oppn a boost

(L-R) BJP State President Jitu Vaghani, National President Amit Shah, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, and Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel at Assembly chairperson Ramanlal Vora's residence in Gandhinagar on Wednesday. (Photo:PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union ministers, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief ministers and senior leaders on Wednesday congratulated Amit Shah for completing three successful years as the party president and for his Rajya Sabha debut.

But the celebratory spirit was amiss at the BJP national headquarters — 11, Ashoka Road — and among party members of Parliament (MPs) and ministers who attended Parliament on Wednesday. The loss of a Rajya Sabha seat in Gujarat had caused much pain, or so it seemed.

The BJP had fielded Balwantsinh Rajput, who had defected from the Congress. But Rajput lost to Congress leader Ahmed Patel.

The situation in Ahmedabad was different, with Patel winning his Rajya Sabha seat despite the best efforts of Shah and his lieutenants. The Congress and other Opposition parties finally had something to cheer about. They have been facing a string of losses to the BJP, including in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in March. The coup in Bihar with Nitish Kumar aligning with the BJP was the latest hurrah of Shah.

“The last time I saw BJP leaders this downcast was after their defeat in the Bihar Assembly polls in 2015,” a Trinamool Congress MP said. According to a Congress leader, Patel’s victory, which came against heavy odds, has given the Congress and the rest of the Opposition the confidence that Modi and Shah weren’t invincible.

Patel’s win could also cause convulsions within the Congress, where Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi-led younger leaders are challenging the older guard. A source said the absence of the Congress vice-president from Tuesday’s Congress Working Committee meeting was deliberate. “He claimed he was indisposed. But he was trying to send a message to the old guard that they needed to give him space,” a senior leader said.

However, Patel’s win as well as the fight put up by senior leaders Ashok Gehlot, P Chidambaram and others have strengthened the voice of the old guard. Congress President Sonia Gandhi is now confronted with the challenge of brokering peace and preparing the party for the forthcoming Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh by December.

Circumstances have also offered the Opposition another opportunity to rally forces. Hours after the Election Commission announced Patel’s win at 2.30 in the morning, BJP Lok Sabha member Sanwar Lal Jat died. Jat was an MP from Ajmer, and the seat is now headed for a bypoll. Congress Rajasthan unit chief Sachin Pilot had represented the seat in 2009 and had lost to Jat in 2014. Opposition parties suggested to the Congress that Pilot should contest the bypoll, especially given that he is a hardworking and popular politician and that the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government is said to be losing ground.

The Opposition is also preparing to give tough fights to the BJP in the bypolls slated in Uttar Pradesh’s Phoolpur and Gorakhpur. Phoolpur Lok Sabha MP Keshav Prasad Maurya, now the deputy CM in Uttar Pradesh, and Gorakhpur MP and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath need to vacate the two seats by mid-September. 

The Opposition is mulling fielding a common candidate in Phoolpur, while the BJP is still unsure if it should ask Maurya to vacate the seat and risk an election or shift him to the Centre. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati’s name has done the rounds as the joint Opposition candidate from Phoolpur. But, she is unsure.

For now, all eyes are on Janata Dal (United) rebel Sharad Yadav’s conference on August 17 and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad’s Opposition unity rally in Patna on August 27. Sharad Yadav is on the warpath against Nitish Kumar’s decision to ally with the BJP.

Meanwhile, the Congress president has invited all Opposition leaders for a meeting on the last day of the monsoon session, on Friday. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee is flying down to attend the meeting. 

After he retained his Rajya Sabha seat, Patel said Congress workers in Gujarat should now aim for 125 seats in the Assembly polls, due later this year. “Our next target is to win the 2017 elections,” he said. The Congress also expelled rebel legislators, including Shankersinh Vaghela.

In some embarrassment for Nitish Kumar, Patel thanked Sharad Yadav, who took the initiative to ask the lone JD(U) legislator in Gujarat to vote for Patel. The vote proved crucial for Patel’s win. 

In a development related to Gujarat Assembly polls, the Election Commission on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that it would be able to conduct the polls using electronic voting machines with paper trail. 

But, there were also those in the Opposition ranks who said the battles ahead were more difficult. Former Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah said Patel’s win “should have never been this difficult”. “Introspection and strategy shift warranted. How much more evidence do we require to understand that we Opposition parties are up against a ruthless, finely tuned BJP political machine,” Abdullah tweeted.

In all of this, farmer organisations and trade unions have announced their plans to launch sustained protests across the country against the Modi government’s policies.

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