BJP feels the ‘Rajya Sabha’ blues in Maharashtra despite courts, resorts and horse trading

This time it was BJP's turn in Maharashtra to herd their MLAs together before the Rajya Sabha election as the party works overtime to wrest an extra seat in the Rajya Sabha

BJP feels the ‘Rajya Sabha’ blues in Maharashtra despite courts, resorts and horse trading

Sujata Anandan

When I began my career as a political correspondent, elected members of the legislative assembly from all political parties would disappear soon after the withdrawal of nominations for the Rajya Sabha. Even when the ruling party-- those days the Congress-- had a clear majority, there was the fear of cross voting by MLAs for a consideration.

The “consideration” was usually offered by businessmen or even newspaper barons who were wannabe politicians. In those days they wore safari suits, wined and dined not just the legislators but even journalists to get favourable, if completely overestimated, reports about themselves into print. And more often than not they succeed in breaking a couple of extra votes from ruling party legislators.

Soon the parties themselves began wining and dining their own legislators, sending them to resorts and offering them every luxury in the meantime. This soon became the norm during confidence votes in the legislature -- remember how the BJP in its initial years in Gujarat had sent its MLAs to Goa and they were caught on camera playing with a football in a swimming pool in their trunks? Until then these illustrious legislators had only been seen publicly in pristine dhotis or pyjamas. It caused a scandal but, of course, BJP eventually won that confidence vote.

Maharashtra took to this resort politics with great enthusiasm. As late as the 2000s when Vilasrao Deshmukh was leading a minority government in Maharashtra, he found some of his trusted MLAs had disappeared almost overnight. But then the Congress was in alliance with the NCP and it was incumbent upon the latter to save the government. So they began an exercise in ferreting out the places where these kidnapped MLAs could have been stowed and Jitendra Awhad, now an NCP minister in the government led by the Shiv Sena, discovered they were not at a five-star resort but at Raj Thackeray’s Matoshree Club in a Bombay suburb. He stormed the club unarmed and brought out the MLAs almost single-handedly. While Deshmukh was grateful, Pawar was furious. Awhad had gone in unprotected – what would have happened had Raj Thackeray’s men opened fire, Pawar raged at Awhad.

One does not know if Pawar recalled the incident when BJP grabbed four of his MLAs in October 2019 and flew them away to a fivestar hotel in Gurgaon in the hope to secure more numbers in the Assembly. But this time their rescue was authorised by Sharad Pawar himself and it was a daring rescue if ever there was one.

It was a young student from Haryana, Sonia Doohan, who made good use of her Haryanvi linguistic skills and connections to discover which room the MLAs were in. Two of the four were brought safely down to the swimming pool area but the BJP smelt a rat before the other two were rescued. While fortunately no arms were used, there were fisticuffs and both NCP MLAs were injured and left bleeding. But Sonia nevertheless managed to bundle them into a car and drove as though her life depended on it towards Delhi.

Indeed, her life depended upon it for the Haryana police gave her a chase. She hit the Delhi borders in the nick of time and the Haryana police returned disappointed. The MLAs were quickly ushered aboard a waiting flight and brought to Pawar’s presence in Mumbai. Since then, Maharashtra has been stable (no pun intended) with regard to horse trading but it has broken out again this month with seven candidates in the fray for six seats to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra.

Maharashtra had avoided horse trading during the last few elections to the Rajya Sabha by persuading surplus candidates to withdraw from the fray. When Pawar first put up his daughter to contest for the Rajya Sabha in 2007, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray compelled the BJP to withdraw its extra candidate in favour of Supriya and she was elected unopposed.

BJP, in the current equation, could win two seats comfortably while the three MVA allies could win one each. But both BJP and Shiv Sena gunning for the sixth seat, for which there were seven candidates, both pulled out all stops. Even BJP secured all its MLAs, including the lone MLA belonging to Raj Thackeray’s party. NCP aimed to defeat one of its defectors who is BJP’s surplus candidate in the fray.

While the election is still 24 hours away when this column is being written, an early signal or omen was when BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis was quarantined due to Covid.

Will the result be a game changer?

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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