Cross-voting claims, resort politics and Internet cuts

On Thursday, Jaipur Divisional Commissioner Vikas Sitaramji Bhale issued orders suspending Internet services in Amer tehsil for 17 hours till Friday noon. Just hours before the order, Congress MLAs had landed at a hotel in Amer, all the way from Udaipur.

Officially, the reason was a “grave danger” to the security of the MLAs; Cabinet minister Govind Ram Meghwal had supposedly received a Rs 70 lakh extortion call. However, the more obvious reason was to prevent the MLAs from talking to the other side what with BJP-backed Independent candidate Subhash Chandra trying to whip up the numbers.

While the mobile phones were apparently switched on and the MLAs could make regular calls, the legislators suspected that their calls were being recorded. After all, back in 2020, this was how the ‘conspiracy’ to topple the Gehlot government was unearthed, and stopped, with the government later admitting to tapping phones.

BJP state president Satish Poonia, who is also an MLA from Amber, quipped, “Internet shutdown in Amer due to fear of paper leak”.

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The move to suspend Internet services was first and a first during RS polls.

But then, with FIRs, open boasts of cross-voting, arm-twisting of government by ministers and MLAs, police tailing MLAs, MLAs opposing party whip, cases in High Court and the Supreme Court, complaints with the ACB, ED and the ECI , this is perhaps the most aggressive RS election campaign witness by the state.

While the Congress fielded Randeep Singh Surjewala, Mukul Wasnik and Pramod Tiwari, BJP fielded party veteran Ghanshyam Tiwari and is also backing media baron Subhash Chandra, who is contesting as an Independent. The five are in fray for four RS seats.

Two of the Congress’ candidates can sail through to Rajya Sabha while the BJP can get one elected. But since the ruling party has fielded three candidates and the BJP two, both the parties are dependent on votes outside their organizations to win an additional Upper House seat from Rajasthan. The Congress, which has 108 MLAs, needs 15 more votes to win the third seat and claims to have the support of an additional 18 MLAs. The BJP has 71 MLAs in the House and needs the support of 11 legislators to win the second seat. This time around, the issues seemed endless, mainly for the Congress.

While six BSP MLAs had merged with the Congress in 2019 and a case regarding their membership is still pending in the Supreme Court, the BSP had issued a ‘whip’ asking them to vote for the Independent candidate. However, the MLAs stayed with other Congress MLAs and went on to cast their votes with them. In fact, Rajendra Singh Gudha, formerly with the BSP and now a minister of state in the Gehlot government, was the second one to cast his vote after Gehlot on Friday.

Just a week ago, Gudha had led a charge of six MLAs (including four formerly with the BSP) against Gehlot. Talking to mobile, Gudha had said, “Gehlot saheb bolte bahut hain… ke ye kiya, media mein bolte hain. Kabhi baith ke chinta karte toh zyada theek hota (Gehlot sahib talks a lot… that he has done this, he says so in the media. But it would have been better had he sat down and worried).”

However, that seems to have been resolved and the BSP ‘whip’ doesn’t hold any weight. But that is not the case with the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP). BTP state president Dr Velaram Ghogra has issued a whip to the party’s two MLAs to skip voting in the RS polls, while the MLAs have been openly supporting the government conditionally.

BTP MLA from Chorasi, Rajkumar Roat, said, “Friends, stay away from misleading news. We have supported the government over special demands of the tribal dominated region and we will get these fulfilled and will keep them before the people at an appropriate time.”

Then, in perhaps another first for the state in RS polls, a candidate openly boasted about sailing through with the help of cross-voting. At a press conference, BJP-backed Chandra claimed that he had sufficient numbers to sail through with the help of cross-voting, adding that some disgruntled Congress MLAs would vote for him.

In another first, government Chief Whip Mahesh Joshi wrote to the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Election Commission of India against ‘horse trading’ attempts allegedly by the BJP. Joshi’s letters were also seen as being directed internally, to warn party MLAs against voting for the BJP or Chandra.

The BJP made counter-accusations, charging the Congress with allegedly misusing government machinery and submitting complaints to Praveen Gupta, Chief Electoral Officer, and Enforcement Directorate chief Sanjay Kumar Mishra.

Such is the distrust that a lasting image from these RS polls – sharing space alongside images of an MLA in a swimming pool, a magic show involving legislators, and the MLAs at a cultural show – will be that of Independent MLA Sanyam Lodha being trailed by a CID officer and a policeman, as he left the Taj Aravali resort in Udaipur.

Lodha was reportedly just going to the media dome, but the police, of course, didn’t stop tailing him. What makes it remarkable is that Lodha is known to be close to Gehlot himself and is among his advisors.

Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP)’s Hanuman Beniwal was also in news after he ‘successfully’ wriggled his way out of a spot. Beniwal was elected MP in 2019 with the support of the BJP, but parted ways over the farm laws and the subsequent protests. So his party’s stance is currently anti-Congress and anti-BJP.

In a video message, he said, “Our commitment was that we won’t vote either for the BJP or the Congress. The other option was boycotting the polls, but then the people won’t forgive us. Hence we’ve decided that all three RLP MLAs will vote for the Independent candidate.”

The Congress’ firebrand leader and MLA Divya Maderna, with whom Beniwal is locked in a battle of domination over who is the bigger Jat leader in the region, responded saying, “The RLP is the B-team of the BJP. This is an anti-farmer decision.”

She said one of her party’s three candidates, Randeep Surjewala, is from the farmer community and had Beniwal been farmer-friendly, he would have decided to vote in the favor of the Congress candidate.

Then, Independent MLA Om Prakash Hudla, who is known to be on good terms with Vasundhara Raje, was the last one to join the Congress side, marking the support of all 13 Independent MLAs for the Congress, at least officially. While he refused to join the Congress MLAs saying he was “unwell”, he later gave in.

Raje also made news when her bete noire Ghanshyam Tiwari was announced as a party candidate for the RS polls. Tiwari, a hardcore RSS leader, had opposed Raje around the 2013 Assembly elections. But as she won a landsli in 2013 and then the BJP won Lok polls in 2014, he was Sabdelined and went on leave the BJP, formed his own party, forfeited his deposit, joined the Congress, and then returned to the BJP in 2019.

The developments in Rajasthan is a sign of how rapidly the state’s politics has changed in the last few years. Back in 2016, ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls, the BJP had taken its MLAs to a resort for “training” three days before the RS elections. However, it barely made headlines. Then in 2020, BJP and Congress MLAs were again lodged in hotels, ahead of the RS polls.

With the BJP’s persistence finding its match in Ashok Gehlot’s craft, this contest is set to go down to the wire.

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