In the end smart management trumped factionalism, ego clashes and a lack of coordination among the allies. The BJP managed to get the better of the Congress in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Haryana in the elections for 16 Rajya Sabha seats that were billed as a show of strength of sorts for the ruling party/coalition governments and the Opposition, particularly in the states that will poll in 2023. The Congress won all the three seats in Rajasthan while the BJP lost the second seat for which it made a play despite lacking the numbers and in a sense, Jaipur was the only source of solace for the Congress.
What are the major takeaways from the polls that were suspenseful because the Congress and the BJP challenged the procedures and took the battle to the Election Commission’s door?
First, Karnataka, which votes in May 2023, will see a triangular contest because the elections to the Upper House marked the end of whatever prospects existed for an alliance between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular). The prelude was marked by an exchange of charges and counter-charges between the Congress and the JD(S) that had entered into a partnership shortly after the last assembly elections in 2018 and formed a coalition government. The government was short-lived after the BJP managed to spirit away legislators from both the parties to cobble a majority of its own. Since then, the erstwhile partners drifted away from each other and ruled out the prospect of a rapprochement. So although it’s premature to declare that the Congress and JD(S)’s alienation will help the BJP in the next election, because the Basavaraj Bommai dispensation is riddled with serious issues principally caused by the power-hungry turncoats, the Congress is hardly placed advantageously. The management of the Rajya Sabha polls showed that the Congress’s two major Karnataka leaders, Siddharamaiah and DK Shivakumar do not see eye to eye on anything.
It may be recalled that in the high stake Rajya Sabha battle in Gujarat in August 2017 involving the late Ahmed Patel’s candidacy, Shivakumar stepped in as a guardian angel and protected the vulnerable Congress MLAs from being poached by the BJP which had tried its best to defeat Patel. Left to himself, Shivakumar might have pulled off a second win for the Congress. Two JD(S) legislators cross-voted, one each for the BJP and the Congress while an Independent MLA too voted for the BJP’s third candidate, Lahar Singh Siroya, once a close associate of BS Yediyurappa, the former CM. The JD(S) which made a play for one seat returned empty-handed.
Second, by bagging all three targeted seats in Rajasthan—an achievement by all standards because the candidates, Mukul Wasnik, Randeep Singh Surjewala and Pramod Tiwari did not belong to Rajasthan and were regarded as “outsiders”—Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister, earned a big reprieve for himself. Gehlot has not had it easy ever since the Congress was installed in Jaipur in 2018. His rivalry with Sachin Pilot, the deputy CM, is well established. It was crucial for Gehlot to see the three candidates through because they are high command nominees. Wasnik was originally part of the G 23 cabal of dissenters, Surjewala is purportedly “close” to Rahul Gandhi while Tiwari owes his candidacy primarily to his daughter, Aradhana Mishra Mona, who is an aide of sorts of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Mona is one of the two in the Congress to keep her seat in the last assembly polls, thanks mainly to the Samajwadi Party not fielding a person in Rampur Khaas, her seat. The BJP, on the other hand, suffered a reversal because one of its MLAs cross-voted for the Congress.
Third, the alliance between the BJP and the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) remains intact. The BJP-JJP saw one of their candidates through and managed to ensure the win of Independent nominee, Kartikeya Sharma, a media baron. The Congress’s lone nominee, Ajay Maken– out on a limb since the party was voted out in Delhi—lost, amid delayed counting because the BJP demanded a recount after it levelled charges against the Returning Officer. Maken’s defeat demonstrated that Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the Congress’s only leader in Haryana, and still a G 23 member, did not put his heart in fighting the battle. An added source of worry for the Congress arises from the speculation that Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi, scion of the late Bhajan Lal and a caste leader, might have cross-voted. Bishnoi has recently expressed resentment with the Congress and has made overtures to the BJP. In the past, he had a brief association with the BJP. Haryana does not look good for the Congress.
Maharashtra is where the BJP made a big killing by trouncing the Shiv Sena in a third seat that was up for grabs. Devendra Fadnavis, the former CM who is still not reconciled to the loss of office to the MVA alliance, fought the election as though it was an assembly poll. The BJP believes that the victory of Dhananjay Mahadik against the Sena’s Sanjay Pawar in the sixth seat will brighten its chances in the forthcoming MLC and civic polls while Sena sources claimed that the dynamics in each election are different and defined by the prevailing circumstances that might have nothing to do with past wins.
The players in the elections left the election management to the state leaders although the respective high commands pulled the strings from their perches. The idea was that the regional leaders and strategists had to earn their stripes to prepare for the battles ahead of them.