If you are a Congress MLA from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, chances are you are currently sequestered in a resort - or will be soon - with leaders doing a head count twice a day.
If they are enjoying this downtime, they have one person to thank: Home Minister Amit Shah has launched Operation Lotus (the nth edition) to break Congress legislators ahead of the crucial Rajya Sabha polls on June 19. Congress leaders and local journalists claim nine-figure offers are being offered in the MLA sweep-stakes.
Behind the scenes, the story gets more complicated. Gujarat has seen eight MLAs resign from the Congress since March; this comes after Jyotiraditya Scindia checked out of the party in March, taking 24 MLAs with him, thereby dismantling the government of Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh.
In Rajasthan, the Congress is the ruling party with a comfortable majority - it has 107 MLAs plus the support of 12 independents. Yet, the MLAs have been moved to a resort on the outskirts of Jaipur where electricity is hit-and-miss, causing much discontent.
Sachin Pilot, who is the Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan as well as the head of the Congress state branch, told me he has won every election assigned to his care, and that he certain he will deliver two of three Rajya Sabha seats "It is simple," he said, "we have been asked by Sonia Gandhi, Congress President, that Rajasthan needs to send these two people to the Rajya Sabha and we will do it."
Rajasthan has three Rajya Sabha seats up for election. The Congress is contesting two, based on the number of MLAs it has. The BJP has also put up two candidates, though its MLAs can ensure the victory of only one. So the "extra" candidate from the BJP means cross-voting is required. Which is why the Congress MLAs are prize material.
I asked Pilot that if he is so confident about winning the seats for both Congress candidates, why are the MLAs tucked out of sight? "I don't know. I don't think it was required," he laughed. That could be interpreted as a diss of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, with whom he does not share an exemplary working relationship. I also asked about the persistent talk that he is set to do a Scindia by defecting to the BJP. Pilot said that's trash talk but also said it is rooted within the party - a possible second diss of Gehlot.
Rajasthan Congress MLAs were ferried in buses to the resort even as they protested that they would prefer to be in their constituencies to show on-the-ground leadership during pandemic. However, off they went, and this evening, they will be addressed at the resort by senior party leaders from Delhi including Randeep Singh Surjewala and Avinash Pande, who holds charge of Rajasthan for the party.
Sources say that some insecure leaders in Rajasthan have created a imaginary crisis to then emerge as the Hercules who saved the party and government - these are sources in the Gehlot camp, of course.
This is as juicy as politics gets. And it showcases Gehlot's insecurity with his deputy Pilot, who aspires to Gehlot's job and has made no secret of it. The Congress high command is regularly sent gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from both camps. The Congress party is spooked by the Scindia switch and it suits the older leaders to portray the younger lot as an ambitious lot who will quit to advance their careers (perhaps only in the Congress is ambition considered a drawback). "We have takers," a young Congressman said to me. "Why is the BJP not gunning for Anand Sharma and K C Venugopal?"
Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, former Chief Minister, is parked in Bhopal, doing his best to lure back at least some of the MLAs who Scindia towed with him to the BJP. Scindia, hospitalized with Covid-19 in Delhi, is reportedly in regular video touch with the MLAs to ensure they don't "ghar wapsi" (homecoming) back to the Congress.
The trouble for Scindia is that the BJP local leadership and cadre aren't exactly welcoming of the Congress defectors. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan called Scindia a "Vibhishan" (Ravan's brother who switched sides to advise Ram) and has pointedly accommodated only two Scindia loyalists in his cabinet.
In Gujarat, it's no secret that Congress MLAs are in daily negotiations with the BJP. Shah is taking special interest in this Operation Lotus - he wants to avenge the 2017 election of Congress senior Ahmed Patel who outwitted him to return to the Rajya Sabha. With the Congress unravelling faster than a ball of wool being pawed by a kitten, the BJP will likely win all three Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat.
The BJP plus allies need about 30 more seats to move into a majority in the Upper House. 18 seats get decided on June 19. Little wonder that there's so much "give-and-take" doing the rounds right now.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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