GANDHINAGAR / BENGALURU: The Congress has sequestered 40 of its legislators from Gujarat in faraway Bengaluru as it tries to prevent more defections ahead of crucial elections in which Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, is seeking to return to the Rajya Sabha. Six Congress legislators, all loyal to veteran politician Shankersinh Vaghela, have resigned since Thursday, with three joining the BJP. The rebellion is seen as Mr Vaghela's revenge after his exit last week from the Congress, which refused to project him as its presumptive chief minister in assembly elections later this year.
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The Congress has left behind in Gujarat four senior MLAs to plan strategy and six more Mr Vaghela loyalists expected to quit or vote against Ahmed Patel on August 8, when elections for three Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat will be held. This includes Mr Vaghela, who is still an MLA and his son Mahendrasinh Vaghela.
The Congress calculates that to secure Ahmed Patel's re-election, even if six more legislators quit the party and assembly, it needs 43 to support it. The party could shift its 40 MLAs out of Eagleton Resort near Bengaluru to Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, sources said, as it tries to keep them out of the reach of Mr Vaghela and the BJP.
The BJP, which has a big majority in the Gujarat assembly, will easily win two of the three seats and has for these nominated its party chief Amit Shah for his debut in parliament and union minister Smriti Irani, whose Rajya Sabha term ends next month.
For the third seat, to challenge Ahmed Patel, the BJP has fielded Balwantsinh Rajput, a senior leader and Mr Vaghela's close relative who quit the Congress and immediately joined the BJP this week.
By quitting the assembly, the Vaghela loyalists have reduced the strength of the House, which means that while Ahmed Patel will need fewer votes to win (currently 45), so will Mr Rajput, who is already assured of 31 of the BJPs extra votes.
Sources said the gameplan is to have some more Congress MLAs loyal to Mr Vaghela resign to further bring down the number of votes needed by each candidate - which benefits Mr Rajput the most - and also ensure that some others vote against the Congress candidate next week as happened in the presidential election, when 11 Congress MLAs voted for Ram Nath Kovind instead of the opposition's candidate Meira Kumar.
With every vote now important, the Congress is hoping that a rebel BJP legislator Nalin Kotadiya could cross vote in their favour. Mr Kotadiya had declared after the election for President that he voted for Meira Kumar. He is a Patel leader who has been supporting activist Hardik Patel, the face of the Patel or Patidar agitation in Gujarat for reservation in government jobs and colleges.
The Congress has also been counting on two legislators from Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and one from the Janata Dal United (JDU) who had earlier promised to support Ahmed Patel. But with JDU boss Nitish Kumar dumping the Congress in Bihar to partner with the BJP, its MLA is likely to switch sides too.
As the Congress herded its legislators into a commercial flight at Ahmedabad airport close to midnight yesterday, senior Gujarat Congress leader Naresh Rawal told NDTV that the party had been forced to fly them out because the BJP "government in Gujarat is harassing them and forcing them to cross over".
The BJP has rubbished that charge with union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad saying that the decision of senior Congress leaders to quit the party shows that the Congress is a "sinking ship" with Sonia Gandhi and her son and deputy Rahul Gandhi unable to hold their party together.