In Rajasthan, Congress flies, BJP reels as Ashok Gehlot works his magic

The Congress’s victories in the Rajya Sabha elections in Rajasthan on Friday further cemented Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s position as the tallest leader in the state at present.

The Congress successfully got all three of its candidates — Randeep Singh Surjewala, Mukul Wasnik, and Pramod Tiwari — elected to the Rajya Sabha while staving off competition from BJP-backed media baron Subhash Chandra who contested as an independent. BJP veteran Ghanshyam Tiwari was also elected to the Upper House from Rajasthan.

While the Congress had numbers to get two MPs elected and the BJP one, it was easier for the ruling party to win the third seat compared to a second for the BJP. That is because the Congress had the support of 126 MLAs, at least on paper, and 41 votes were needed to elect an RS MP, thus leaving the ruling party with three votes to spare.

The Congress was initially breathing easy, but things changed with the nomination of Subhash Chandra on May 31, the last day of filing nominations. Usually a step ahead of his opponents, Gehlot wasted no time in working towards bringing the party’s MLAs together before Chandra or the BJP could “lure” them. With airtight arrangements and tracking of each of the 126 MLAs, Gehlot prevented even a single MLA from turning to the other side. The win had all the markings of his political strategising.

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On June 1, the Congress started herding its MLAs together as part of a follow-up to last month’s Nav Sankalp Shivir. While the meeting was planned days in advance and had no connection to the Rajya Sabha polls, several MLAs gave the meeting a miss, worrying the party.

Over the next few days, the party was shaken out of any remaining bit of complacency as some MLAs and a minister started to openly question the government over several issues and went on to arm-twist the Gehlot-led administration. It was the biggest but not the only issue that the CM faced.

While initially the idea was to shift the party’s MLAs to Udaipur on June 3, the legislators started moving to a resort there beginning June 2 itself. However, there were still several MLAs who did not turn up in Udaipur and missed the June 3 “deadline” for checking in at the Taj Aravali resort. Then, Gehlot zeroed in on individual MLAs and assigned his aides the job of bringing them back into the fold.

Unexpectedly, on June 3, the Minister of State for Sainik Kalyan, Rajendra Gudha, leading a pack of six disgruntled MLAs attacked the CM saying that he talked a lot and it would be better if he sat down and “worried” instead. The following day, late at night, Gehlot met all six MLAs for over an hour, assuring them that their concerns will be addressed. By the afternoon of June 5, Gehlot himself was accompanying them in a charter aircraft to Udaipur.

The same day, pre-empting horse-trading attempts, Cabinet Minister for Public Health Engineering Department and the Congress’s chief whip Mahesh Joshi wrote to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) of Rajasthan, urging it to “initiate” an inquiry into any such efforts before the polls.

“Luring or buying the MLAs or anyone in a corrupt manner, or influencing the elections in an inappropriate manner, comes under the category of crime as per the Constitution.” This includes the exchange of money. The one who gives money or takes money in a corrupt manner, both come under the category of cognisable offences,” Joshi wrote in his letter, which was also submitted later to the Election Commission of India.

The intention of the letter was to warn MLAs still playing truant and the BJP that there could be an ACB inquiry if horse-trading occurred.

With the two Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP) MLAs in the state Assembly unhappy about unfulfilled promises, Gehlot met both of them on June 7 along with some tribal leaders. The legislators later pledged support to the Congress.

Amidst all this, Gehlot also personally met MLAs who were unwell, including those hospitalised, to ensure their votes on polling day. The CM met Bhanwarlal Sharma in Jaipur on June 1, Om Prakash Hudla in Udaipur on June 5, and Balwan Poonia in Jaipur on June 9. All of them turned up to vote for the Congress candidates.

Behind the scenes, the Gehlot government addressed the concerns of the still unhappy legislators such as independent MLA Ramila Khadiya and Congress MLA Rajendra Singh Bidhuri. This allegedly included transfers of certain local officers on the MLAs’ demands.

On June 9, the legislators were flown back to Jaipur and taken straight to a resort in Amer tehsil on the outskirts of the city. In an receiving move, internet services were suspended for hours in the tehsil, apparently to prevent MLAs from making or calls over the internet.

On polling day, with voting beginning at 9 am, Congress MLAs turned up early to vote for the candidates. While Gehlot voted first, he made some former BSP MLAs now with the party vote immediately after him. Reason? The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a case against them the same day. The top court, however, did not hear the case. After casting his vote, Gehlot also acted as a polling agent of the party.

For the Congress, Gehlot perhaps reserved the best for last. In the run-up to the elections, Subhash Chandra had boasted that some Congress MLAs would vote for him. But the tables turned as the BJP’s Shobharani Kushwah, asked to vote for Chandra, ended up cross-voting for Pramod Tiwari of the Congress, leaving both Chandra and the Opposition party red-faced.

Reacting to the cross-voting, Chandra said, “When I can expect others to cross vote for me then it is not surprising if a BJP (MLA) also does that.” He left Jaipur even before the results were declared. When the results came, the Congress’s candidates had polled exactly 126 votes — the number of party and supporting MLAs. While a vote of a Congress legislator was rejected, Kushwah’s vote kept the Congress score at 126.

Elected to Parliament, Pramod Tiwari told reporters, “We used to hear that Ashok Gehlot is a magician, and today he worked his magic…”

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