The high-voltage political drama in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections culminated with Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s victory for the third seat, coming as a blow to the Bharatiya Janata Party on their home turf despite the triumph for Amit Shah and Smriti Irani.
The much-needed boost for the Congress came after the Election Commission of India (EC) rejected the votes cast by two rebel Congress MLAs for allegedly showing their ballots to BJP chief Amit Shah in violation of rules. The final go-ahead for counting to begin came late at night after several rounds to the EC office in Delhi by delegations from both the Congress as well as the BJP.
The poll panel passed the order after viewing the video recording of the voting process, saying two electors – Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavjibhai Patel – had "violated the voting procedure and secrecy of ballots."
The EC asked the returning officer (RO) of the Rajya Sabha poll in Gujarat to reject votes cast by the Congress MLAs who had shown their ballot papers to persons other than their authorised party agent.
Three delegations each of the Congress and BJP made a dash for 'Nirvachan Sadan', the EC headquarters, within a span of two hours, with the former demanding that the votes of Gohil and Patel be declared invalid, and the latter insisting that counting be taken up "immediately".
The poll panel, finally, accepted the Congress's contention and asked the Returning Officer to reject the votes of its two MLAs and proceed with the counting.
That the contest for three Rajya Sabha seats would go down to the wire had become clear the very day when Balwantsinh Rajput, the Congress chief whip in the state Assembly until a few days ago, defected to the BJP and was fielded to take on Ahmed Patel, the high-profile political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
On Tuesday, hours after the votes had been cast, Congress took the issue of alleged impropriety by its MLAs to the EC, setting off dramatic developments as delegation after delegation of the two parties made a beeline for the Nirvachan Sadan.
Congress leaders Randeep Surjewala and RPN Singh also produced a video of the poll proceedings to the Commission and demanded that votes of Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavjibhai Patel be cancelled as per law since they violated the "secrecy of ballot".
According to the rules, voters for the Rajya Sabha elections have to show their ballots to authorised representative of their respective parties before casting them.
Terming Congress' objections as "baseless", a delegation of BJP leaders, including Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, approached the EC demanding immediate counting of votes, contending that validity of votes once put in ballot boxes cannot be questioned.
Prasad said the Congress was acting out of fear of losing the poll, in which its senior leader Ahmed Patel is locked in a tight fight with a Congress rebel fielded by the BJP.
Immediately after the visit of the high-profile BJP team, Congress heavyweight P Chidambaram led another delegation to the EC.
After the meeting, Chidambarm told reporters, "If the BJP is so confident of winning the election then it must abide by the law. And the law is very clear. If the ballot is seen by a person other than the authorised person then it is liable to be rejected. BJP was beneficiary of this law on June 11, 2016. How was law changed in one year. These two ballot papers must be rejected."
He was apparently referring to the Rajya Sabha election in Haryana in which BJP-backed independent candidate Subhash Chandra had defeated Congress-supported candidate R K Anand after votes of several MLAs were declared invalid.
Surjewala alleged that the two legislators, instead of showing their ballots to party's election agent, displayed it to BJP president Amit Shah and Union Minister Smriti Irani, which he said, "should not be accepted".
Apart from Rajput, five other Congress MLAs had also quit with two joining the BJP with him, bringing down the Congress's strength in the 282-member House to 51 from 57.
Of these, seven, including former chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, did not join the 44 MLAs the Congress had packed off to a resort on Bengaluru outskirts. Vaghela had resigned from Congress ahead of the exit of the six MLAs. He also quit as leader of the opposition, but retained his Assembly membership.
The other six MLAs who did not join the 44 lawmakers in Bengaluru were his camp followers and were learnt to have voted for BJP.
The desertions effectively brought down the number of Congress MLAs supporting Patel to 44. Of these, Gohil and Patel apparently voted for BJP. Ahmed Patel, however, was said to have got the votes of one of the two NCP MLAs, with the other going to BJP, and that of Chhotu Vasava, the lone JD(U) MLA.
A candidate in the current polls needs to garner 45 votes for a straight win.
The BJP, with 121 MLAs, has fielded party chief Amit Shah and Union minister Smriti Irani as its first two candidates, who will sail through. Rajput, its third nominee, has BJP's 31 surplus votes and the those of Vaghela and MLAs supporting the Kshatriya strongman.