Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections: an unseemly contest

Having converted a routine biennial Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat into a prestige issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party has created the perception that it lost a high-stakes battle. It won the two seats it was expected to and lost only the one it was meant to, given the respective strengths of the BJP and the Congress in the State Assembly. The BJP had enough legislators to get its president, Amit Shah, and Union Minister Smriti Irani elected. However, the party decided to make an open secret of coveting the third seat by luring away Opposition MLAs and banking on cross-voting. Ultimately, the Congress candidate, Ahmed Patel, won the seat in the first round itself, getting the required 44 votes. With two votes declared invalid by the Election Commission, the required votes came down from 45 to 44. The EC demonstrated independence and institutional strength amidst tremendous pressure mounted on it by both parties. It passed a clear order on sound legal grounds to invalidate the votes of two Congress MLAs, who had voted for the BJP, for showing their ballots to persons not authorised to see them. There is a precedent recorded last year in Haryana for violation of the secrecy clause, but the vote was then rejected by the Returning Officer on the spot, whereas in this case the paper was placed in the ballot box. The EC invoked statutory rules on voting procedure as well as its plenary powers under the Constitution to direct the Returning Officer to segregate the two votes and count the rest.

This bitter contest is a lesson on how Rajya Sabha elections should not be fought. The House derives its legitimacy from the fact that elected representatives of the people in State Assemblies constitute the electors. It is an abuse of this scheme for political parties to encourage cross-voting. When their strength in the Assembly is known, it is unseemly to field an extra candidate and force a contest. The run-up to the vote saw attempts to win over rival legislators and counter-poaching tactics. The Congress packed off its 44 MLAs to a resort in Bengaluru, where it is in power. This was followed by an income tax raid on a Karnataka minister. All this lent the impression that the BJP would stop at nothing to deny the Congress a seat. This was compounded by the fact that the Congress had nominated Mr. Patel, a close confidant of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and a power centre in the party. This gave the election the colour of a proxy tussle between the BJP and Congress leaderships. The ultimate outcome is a morale booster for the Congress at a time when it seems to lack vibrancy and vitality. As for the BJP, it should serve as a reminder that the pursuit of unquestioned political supremacy at the cost of democratic norms most often boomerangs.

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Printable version | May 3, 2021 5:28:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/unseemly-contest/article19458924.ece

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