Ahmed Patel, Political Secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the party's top strategist is in the fight of his life with BJP chief Amit Shah over his re-election from Gujarat to the Rajya Sabha. "Shah has a personal grudge against me which is why they are going all out using the most underhand means that I have ever seen in my 40 years of politics to ensure that I lose. Money power, muscle power, you name it - they have deployed it," he told me in an exclusive interview.
He was referring to the collection of MLAs or state law-makers who migrated last week from the Congress to the BJP ahead of the Rajya Sabha election on August 8. Gujarat has three seats in the race - Mr Shah and union minister Smriti Irani will easily win two; Mr Patel is running for the third. Six Congress legislators have exited the party; to prevent a larger contagion, the Congress has flown nearly 40 others to a resort in Bengaluru where they will remain till the party deems it's safe for them to return to Gujarat to vote in the election.
Like other Congress leaders, Mr Patel, 67, and in search of a fifth term of the Upper House, says that the BJP is hitting below the belt, using threats or the promise of big rewards to swing defections in its favour. Speaking to me on Sunday evening, Mr Patel said he does not know what the BJP chief has against him. "Please ask Mr Shah. I don't know. I have never done anything to personally harm him," he said.
If Mr Patel is unable to win his election, the BJP will hit multiple targets - there's the obvious benefit of embarrassing its rival in a top leader of the Congress losing what should have been an easy contest from his home state; the party's morale, meh to begin with, will sink further; and more MLAs may therefore move over to the BJP ahead of the state elections for Gujarat that are due by December.
Mr Patel now has a very narrow lead over what he needs to be re-elected.
The BJP is headed for another victory in the state that it has governed uninterrupted for nearly 22 years. But punishing the Congress further while expanding its own hold - Mr Shah has called Mission 150 to urge the BJP to improve on its current standing of 121 seats - will be a big step forward in his plans for a "Congress-Mukt Bharat
" (a Congress-Free India).
Just last week, the BJP succeeded in removing the Congress in Bihar, where the party was a member of Nitish Kumar's government. He chose to junk his alliance with the Congress and regional leader Lalu Yadav to resurrect an older relationship with the BJP. Mr Patel said it's typical of the BJP to use political connivance to appropriate governments in states where it did not win the popular vote. "Modi and Shah are so power hungry. Look what they have done in Bihar. They did not have a single MLA in Arunachal, yet they have formed the government. They can go to any extent. They are seeing power for the first time in the centre and that is why they are going all out, using any means to keep it."
He also refuted the charges made by some BJP leaders of putting his own needs above those of the people of Gujarat, who are coping with massive floods. At a time like this, law-makers should be in their constituencies, tending to relief and rescue operations, not sequestered at a Bengaluru hotel, critics including Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani have said. "Rupani is Shah's puppet," countered Mr Patel. "Do I need to respond to him? I pity him. Let him worry about his party. We had to take the MLAs (to Bengaluru) because they (the BJP) don't follow any norms. They were harassing them. I am camped in Gujarat and am ensuring flood relief and so are the MLAs."
He also claims that he had told his boss, Sonia Gandhi, that he did not want a fifth term of the Rajya Sabha, but when she told him that she had nominated him, "I had to contest."
"Power hungry are those people who engineer riots to get in to power. Who engineered communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh to get in to power? If I was greedy for power, I would have been a minister since Rajiv Gandhi's time. I have been offered plum ministries four times - twice by Dr Manmohan Singh - yet I never accepted (them) as I wanted to work for the party," he said.
Mr Shah reportedly harbours resentment against Mr Patel because he blames the previous Congress-led national government for his imprisonment in 2010 on charges of murder based on the Gujarat police killing a petty criminal allegedly on his orders while he was Gujarat Home Minister. Mr Shah's party said at the time that the CBI's charges were influenced by the Congress-led government.
In the BJP chief's plan to squeeze further the Congress in Gujarat, he has found a willing accomplice in Shankersinh Vaghela. In 1996, the 77-year-old left the BJP to join the Congress. This year, he was denied his request to be named the Congress' Chief Ministerial candidate. Enraged, Mr Vaghela demonstrated his strength by ensuring 11 Congress MLAs voted against the party in the election for President of India last month. Now, he is luring MLAs away from the Congress and towards the waiting BJP. Mr Patel said he had offered that Mr Vaghela could have his Rajya Sabha seat, but his party turned down the proposal. He also insists that if a defeat follows, it should not be seen as mismanagement by or a reflection of the leadership of Mrs Gandhi and her son, Rahul. "I am contesting as a candidate not as secretary to the congress president. How are the two linked? Please don't involve her or my Vice President Rahul Gandhi in this," he said - typical Congress parlance that aims to cocoon the party's First Family from any blame for missteps.(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.