Already facing flak from a cross-section of party leaders for its choice of candidates in the biennial Rajya Sabha polls, the Congress party is now staring at the possibility of at least two of its nominees losing the election due to possible cross voting by a section of party MLAs.
The entry of Essel Group chairman Subhash Chandra and ITV managing director Kartikeya Sharma as independent candidates backed by the BJP has put at risk the victory prospects of Congress nominees Pramod Tiwari and Ajay Maken in Rajasthan and Haryana, respectively.
Four Rajya Sabha seats in Rajasthan and two in Haryana are up for elections on June 10. The Congress, which has 108 MLAs in the 200-member Rajasthan assembly and claims it also enjoys the support of 21 other independent legislators, has fielded Randeep Surjewala, Mukul Wasnik and Maken for the three seats. The BJP, with 71 MLAs, has named Ghanshyam Tiwari as its candidate.
To win, each candidate in Rajasthan requires a minimum of 41 first preference votes. As such, the Congress was hoping that while Surjewala and Wasnik would win on the strength of 82 party MLAs, Pramod Tiwari will get elected by securing votes of the remaining 26 Congress legislators as well as the 13 independent and other MLAs from smaller parties such as the RLD and CPM.
Chandra puts a spoke in the wheel
Chandra’s entry in the poll fray changes this calculation drastically. It also brings back memories for the Grand Old Party from the 2016 Rajya Sabha polls when the Zee TV founder had contested the election as an independent from Haryana. Chandra had bagged the seat the Congress was hoping to win because votes of 12 of its MLAs were disqualified on grounds of using a different ink to mark the ballots.
The BJP, which will have 30 excess votes after ensuring Ghanshyam Tiwari’s victory, has said it will back Chandra’s election bid. The controversial industrialist, who will be pitted against Pramod Tiwari in the contest, will then require just 11 more votes to win.
The Congress’s decision to not field a single Rajasthan local for the Rajya Sabha polls has already riled a section of party MLAs as well as those who are extending outside support to the Ashok Gehlot government. The candidature of ‘outsiders’ aside, several party MLAs have also been upset with Gehlot’s style of functioning while others who are loyal to the chief minister’s intra-party rival, Sachin Pilot, have also been sulking over the Congress high command’s continued dithering in effecting a change of guard in the government. The Federal had reported last week various instances of Congress MLAs as well as independent MLA and Gehlot’s advisor Sanyam Lodha, speaking out against the state government on various issues.
The BJP and Chandra, say sources, are counting on the simmering discontent within the Congress legislative party against the Gehlot government and the party high command’s choice of Rajya Sabha candidates, to deliver a shock defeat for Pramod Tiwari, a veteran Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh who has been fielded from the state on the insistence of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
If Chandra’s candidature is giving the Congress jitters in Rajasthan, Kartikeya Sharma’s entry in the poll fray is doing the same for the GOP in Haryana.
The situation more dire in Haryana
The Congress legislative party in Haryana is an even more divided house than Rajasthan, with several party lawmakers reportedly unhappy with the perceived surrender that the Gandhis have made before former chief minister and current Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Senior party MLA Kuldeep Bishnoi has been striking a rebellious chord ever since interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi rejected his claim for heading the Haryana Congress and named Hooda confidant Udai Bhan as the state unit chief.
In the 90-member Haryana assembly, the Congress has 31 MLAs. To ensure Maken’s victory, the party need a minimum of 30 first preference votes. The BJP has 40 MLAs and has an ally in Dushyant Chautala’s Jananayak Janata Party (JJP) which has 10 legislators. The saffron party also claims to have support of seven independent MLAs.
The legislative strength of the Manohar Lal Khattar government guarantees a victory for BJP candidate Krishan Panwar. As in Rajasthan, the BJP in Haryana plans to transfer its excess votes to the independent candidate Kartikeya Sharma and has assured him that JJP MLAs as well as independents supporting the Khattar government will also vote for him. This means, at least at the face of it, the ITV boss already has the assured support of 27 MLAs (10 BJP, 10 JJP and 7 independents) and will need just three more votes to make his Rajya Sabha debut.
This is where the Congress and Maken’s ride gets choppy. What makes things even more worrying for the Congress in Haryana is that not only is its legislative party divided on factional lines – pro- and anti-Hooda groups – but Kartikeya Sharma also happens to belong to an influential political family that was once within the Congress fold and continues to enjoy support of several party lawmakers even today.
The 40-year-old Kartikeya is the son of controversial former Congress leader Venod Sharma and the son-in-law of former Haryana assembly Speaker Kuldeep Sharma. His mother, Shakti Rani Sharma, is currently the mayor of Ambala, while his brother is Manu Sharma, who was convicted to serve a life sentence for the 1999 murder of Jessica Lal but was released from jail in June 2020.
Though Venod Sharma is now a member of the BJP, he continues to enjoy significant clout with several Congress MLAs; something that the BJP is hoping would help Kartikeya shore up the additional votes he needs to defeat Maken in the Rajya Sabha poll.
Results crucial for presidential elections
A defeat for Maken and Pramod Tiwari in the Rajya Sabha polls will go beyond a poll humiliation for the Congress as the party’s low bench strength in the Upper House will have a direct beneficial impact for the BJP in the presidential polls due in July and, more importantly, also bring the GOP precariously close to losing its claim on the post of Leader of Opposition.
The Congress’s tally in the Rajya Sabha is already at a historic low of 29 seats. Of these, nine MPs are set to retire between June and July. The crisis-ridden party that was hoping to win 11 seats in the current round of Rajya Sabha polls for 57 seats is already down a berth as its senior ally, Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), turned down Sonia Gandhi’s request to field a joint candidate from the Congress.
If the Congress loses a seat each from Rajasthan and Haryana too, its tally in Parliament’s Upper House will be down to just 28 seats – just three more than the number it needs to retain its claim on the Leader of Opposition’s post in the Rajya Sabha; a post that it has not been able to claim in the Lok Sabha since 2014 due to its disastrous poll performances.