Polling begins for three RS seats from Gujarat; Ahmed Patel faces close contest

Ahmed Patel
Ahmed Patel
Polling began here this morning in the crucial biennial elections for three Rajya Sabha seats from Gujarat in which senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel is facing one of his toughest electoral battles against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is determined to deny him a fifth consecutive term in the Upper House of Parliament.
Voting, which  began at 9 am, will end at 4 pm. Counting of votes will be taken up at 5 pm and the results are expected shortly thereafter.
The run-up to the elections has been marked by high political drama and all indications are that today's exercise will see a nail-biting finish.
The BJP is contesting all three seats up for grabs and has fielded its president Amit Shah, Union Minister Smriti Irani and Mr. Balwant Singh Rajput as its candidates. Mr. Rajput was the Congress' chief whip in the state legislative assembly until recently and is one of the six Congress MLAs who had resigned from the party on July 27 and 28. Mr. Rajput and two others had joined the BJP on July 27 and was named as the BJP's nominee for the third seat the same evening.
With the resignation of the six MLAs, the effective strength of the House has come down to 176. The strength of the Congress in the Assembly has come down to 51. A candidate requires one-fourth of the total votes plus one to get elected -- 45 votes in the present situation.
These developments came only a few days after Mr. Shankarsinh Vaghela, one of the seniormost Congress leaders in the state, who was leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and is a former Chief Minister and Union Minister, parted ways with the Congress on July 21.
Soon after casting his vote today, Mr. Vaghela told journalists that he did not vote for Mr. Patel. "I have to say that I did not vote for my friend Ahmedbhai, and I regret that. But when it is clear that Mr. Patel that will not win, there was no point in wasting my vote on him," he said.
However, he did not indicate who he had voted for or whether he had exercised the "None of the above" (NOTA) option. "You will come to know that in the evening," he said.
While dissociating himself from the Congress at a function to celebrate his 77th birthday here on July 21, Mr. Vaghela had made it clear that he was not joining the BJP. He claimed the Congress had actually expelled him the previous day, something which the party denied.
"They expelled me 24 hours ago because they were not sure about what I would say here today...Vinashkale vipareet budhdhi," he had said on that day. 
"I am freeing myself from the Congress. I have resigned as the Leader of the Opposition. I will resign as Congress MLA after the (August 8) Rajya Sabha elections," he told the cheering crowd.
He said he had assured Congress President Sonia Gandhi that he would not betray her trust. He said he had told her that he would not join the BJP.
Mr. Vaghela, who had turned a rebel within the BJP nearly two decades ago, had floated his own outfit, the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP), which he finally merged with the Congress 17 years ago. 
The Congress said Mr. Vaghela had wanted to be appointed as the Gujarat Congress chief, a demand that the party could not accept. 
Voting underway for Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections
Mr. Vaghela's move had come just a day after the results of the Presidential election, which indicated that about 11 of the 57 Congress MLAs in the state then had voted for NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind and against the Opposition nominee Meira Kumar.
By fielding Mr. Rajput, a relative of Mr. Vaghela, as its third candidate for the Rajya Sabha, the BJP is hoping to attract some votes from the Congress MLAs and try and prevent the re-election of Mr. Patel.
Mr. Patel, however, was confident that he would win. Apart from the Congress MLAs, he is counting on the support of two NCP MLAs and one of the Janata Dal (United). 
Amidst fears of alleged poaching attempts by the BJP, the Congress had moved 44 of its MLAs on July 29 to a resort near Bengaluru in Karnataka, a state ruled by the party.
The MLAs returned to Gujarat yesterday morning and were taken to a resort near Anand, about 80 km from here. They travelled to Gandhinagar today to cast their votes.
Apart from his four terms in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Patel has also served three terms as a member of the Lok Sabha from Bharuch constituency in Gujarat.
Mr. Shah is seeking entry into Parliament for the first time, while Ms. Irani is looking for a second consecutive term in the Upper House. 
Given the numbers in the Assembly, the BJP can easily get two of its candidates elected. Similarly, if there is no cross-voting, the Congress can also get one candidate elected.
The Congress has accused the BJP of using "money and muscle power" to engineer defections of its MLAs and complained to the Election Commission about the events in Gujarat.
The MLAs' stay in the Eagleton resort was not without drama. On the one hand, the BJP mounted strong criticisim of their travel outside the state when it was reeling under heavy  floods. On the other hand, Karnataka Energy Minister D. K. Shivakumar, who tasked by the Congress to look after the MLAs, found himself being raided by Income Tax officials. The Congress protested, saying the raids were politically motivated, while the Income Tax Department insisted they were part of an ongoing investigation against Mr. Shivakumar.
The latest developments have acome only a few months ahead of the elections to the State Assembly, expected to be held late this year. The Congress has been out of power in the state for more than two decades.


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