Gandhinagar: It's a big, big exhale for the Congress after top leader Ahmed Patel managed his re-election to the Rajya Sabha, but the victory is also a curious whodunit.
- Ahmed Patel, top Congress leader, wins Rajya Sabha seat
- He won a total of 44 votes, 43 reportedly from his own party
- Sharad Pawar's party claims it provided 44th. But so do others
To win, Mr Patel, who is the top aide to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, needed 44 votes. He got 44. It was that tight. And it wasn't without "a foreign hand" - his victory rests on cross-voting by a lawmaker from another party.
The Congress had 43 legislators that stuck by the party. Another two were disqualified after the Congress pointed out that they broke the rules by showing their ballot papers to a BJP representative - that was crucial for Mr Patel, because with their removal, the overall strength of the house was reduced and he needed fewer votes to win: 44.
43 came from within the Congress. So who cast the crucial 44th vote that ensured Mr Patel's triumph, however slender?
Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party or NCP has two legislators in Gujarat. The party has accepted that one of them defied its stated support for Mr Patel but insists the other stuck with party instructions and backed him.
If that is the case, then somebody is lying. Because the lone legislator in Gujarat from the Janata Dal (United) or JD-U, which is led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, says he too voted for Mr Patel. Which means Mr Patel should have got 45 votes, not 44. ''There is no reason to not believe me. Ahmed Patel is an old friend and I had assured him my vote. And I have voted for him," said the JDU lawmaker, Chhotu Vasava.
The big concern for the Congress is whether Mr Pawar's party ditched it with both legislators in fact voting against Mr Patel. Though Mr Pawar is a long-time ally of the Congress and was a member of its earlier national government, there are repeated reports of his growing understanding with the BJP. If that fructifies, it will blow another hole through the group of anti-BJP parties who are trying to find a way to work together ahead of the 2019 election. The first whack to that 18-party front came when Nitish Kumar exited it last month to hitch his wagon to the BJP; they now run Bihar together.
What could allow Mr Pawar plausible deniability is that a BJP lawmaker, Nalin Kotadiya, claims that he voted for the Congress in a revolt. His party has denied his pronouncement, alleging that he voted for its candidate but is changing his stand for public consumption because his community, the Patels or Patidars, are angry with the BJP and would turn on him if he admits he stood by the party.
The Patidars, traditionally loyal to the BJP, have been galvanized by young leader Hardik Patel, 24, against the party because it has not succeeded in including them among the groups that get reservation quotas which guarantee them state jobs and seats in colleges.
Mr Patel's re-election followed a month-long drama which included his party's lawmakers being sequestered for a few days at a Bengaluru resort to prevent them from being poached by the BJP, whose chief, Amit Shah, was accused of scheming big-time to orchestrate Mr Patel's defeat, which would have been a plus-size loss of face for the Congress ahead of the state election in December.