Congress candidate Ahmed Patel on Tuesday beat the Bharatiya Janata Party nominee in a bitterly fought Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat after late night dramatic developments saw the Election Commission reject the votes of two dissident MLAs of the main opposition party for violating electoral rules.
Voting for the three Rajya Sabha seats was conducted on Tuesday.
Patel, political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi beat Balwantsinh Rajput, till recently the party's chief whip in the state assembly before defecting to BJP, polling 44 votes, in the first RS polls in Gujarat in two decades which saw a contest instead of official candidates of major parties getting elected unopposed. Rajput secured 38 votes.
BJP chief Amit Shah made his maiden entry into the house of elders and so did party nominee and Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani, clinching 46 votes each, an EC official said.
'This is not just my victory. It is a defeat of the most blatant use of money power, muscle power and abuse of state machinery,' Patel tweeted soon after the victory.
"I am happy and I thank my party leadership, my MLAs, party's rank and file who worked like a family. It was a tough election which we won," he said.
A defeat for Patel, apart from being seen as a personal setback to Sonia, would have left Congress rank and file hugely demoralised in a state where Assembly elections are to take place later this year.
In a major reprieve to the Congress, the Election Commission on Tuesday night rejected the votes cast by its two MLAs for violating the 'secrecy of ballots'.
The Commission asked the returning officer for the polls to segregate the two ballots cast by Bhola Bhai Gohil and Raghavji Bhai Patel and proceed with the counting, which was delayed by more than seven hours after Congress' objection.
The order said that while going through the video footage of the polling process, it found that the two had violated the secrecy of ballots.
However, the EC's decision didn't go down well with Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani who said the BJP would legally challenge the decision rejecting the votes of the two Congress MLAs who had backed his party.
Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel also criticised the EC, calling the decision 'wrong'.
"The decision is sad. If the CD of voting is made public, not just us the whole nation will say the decision is wrong," the deputy CM said.
As soon as the counting resumed, it was stalled again, this time by the BJP, which claimed that two more Congress MLAs showed their votes to unauthorised persons in a similar manner.
It restarted after a while and within minutes the Congress workers started celebrating Patel's victory.
Returning Officer D M Patel later announced victory for Amit Shah, Ahmed Patel and Smriti Irani on the three RS seats.
Another startling revelation was made by BJP MLA Nalin Kotadiya, who said that he voted against the BJP after seeing 'the pain of 14 youths who died during the Patidar agitation'.
He himself admitted it in a Facebook post, saying, 'Seeing the pain of 14 youths who died during Patidar agitation I voted against BJP (sic).'
His vote may have probably resulted in the victory of Patel, who won by securing necessary 44 votes.
After the votes of Bhola Bhai Gohil and Raghavji Bhai Patel was declared invalid, the required figure for victory came down to 44 from the original 45.
Earlier in the evening, high drama was enacted at the Election Commission over the delay in start of counting after the Congress approached the poll panel demanding cancellation of votes of the two MLAs for showing the ballots to BJP chief Shah.
Three delegations each of the Congress and BJP made a dash for 'Nirvachan Sadan' within a span of two hours, with the former demanding that the votes of MLAs Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavjibhai Patel be declared invalid, and the latter insisting that counting be taken up 'immediately'.
Congress was the first to move the Election Commission demanding cancellation of votes of its two disgruntled MLAs for allegedly showing their votes to persons other than the authorised party representatives.
Congress leaders Randeep Surjewala and R P N Singh also produced a video of the poll proceedings to the commission and demanded that votes of Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavjibhai Patel be cancelled as per law since they violated the 'secrecy of ballot'.
According to the rules, voters for the Rajya Sabha elections have to show their ballots to authorised representative of their respective parties before casting them.
Terming Congress' objections as 'baseless', a delegation of BJP leaders, including Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, approached the EC demanding immediate counting of votes, contending that validity of votes once put in ballot boxes cannot be questioned.
Goyal told reporters after meeting EC officials that the decision of presiding officers is final.
If neither they nor election observers objected to it when votes were cast, then their validity cannot be questioned now, he said, and demanded that 'the counting of votes be done immediately and results declared'.
Prasad said the Congress was acting out of fear of losing the poll, in which its senior leader Ahmed Patel is locked in a tight fight with a Congress rebel fielded by the BJP.
Immediately, after the visit of the high-profile BJP team, Congress heavyweight P Chidambaram led another delegation to the EC.
After the meeting, Chidambarm told reporters,"If the BJP is so confident of winning the election then it must abide by the law. And the law is very clear. If the ballot is seen by a person other than the authorised person then it is liable to be rejected. BJP was beneficiary of this law on June 11, 2016. How was law changed in one year. These two ballot papers must be rejected."
He was apparently referring to the Rajya Sabha election in Haryana in which BJP-backed independent candidate Subhash Chandra had defeated Congress-supported candidate R K Anand after votes of several MLAs were declared invalid.
Objecting to Congress' contention, BJP leaders also paid a second visit to the commission and insisted on their demand for immediate counting of the votes.
Election is over and the situation of confusion should end, Prasad said, adding that Congress is 'crumbling' and its people are leaving the party.
"The votes cast by these two MLAs are required to be cancelled for the reason of voting procedure violation," Congress said in its memorandum to the Commission.
Surjewala alleged that the two legislators, instead of showing their ballots to party's election agent, displayed it to BJP president Amit Shah and Union Minister Smriti Irani, which he said, 'should not be accepted'.
The BJP has nominated Shah and Irani for two Rajya Sabha seats from the state and they would sail through. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel is pitted against the saffron party's Balwantsinh Rajput for the third seat.
It has become a high-stakes battle for Congress, thanks to infighting and resignations, with the BJP fancying its prospects to win the third seat also, defeating Patel, who is seeking a fifth RS term.
The Congress, alleging that its MLAs were being poached by the BJP, had packed off 44 of them to a Bengaluru resort to keep their flock together.
With ANI inputs.