Congress spooked by BJP's last-minute gambit in election for Rajya Sabha seats from Maharashtra

Kumar Ketkar

New Delhi: The BJP has fielded an additional Rajya Sabha candidate in Maharashtra, signalling what the Congress fears are potential problems for its nominee Kumar Ketkar who should otherwise have been elected unopposed.

Ketkar may well now be haunted by visions of the defection drama that preceded last year's Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections, where Sonia Gandhi's political secretary Ahmed Patel just scraped through.

It was Sonia Gandhi who decided the candidature of Ketkar, a veteran journalist who is not a party member but has been publicly defending the Congress and opposing the Sangh ideology.

Six seats are up for grabs in Maharashtra, whose House strength of 288 has been depleted by death and illness, leaving 41 votes as the winning number. All the six candidates fielded till Sunday - three from the BJP and one each from ally Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party - were expected to sail through without a contest.

But the BJP has now forced a vote with its last-minute nomination of the state women's commission chairperson, Vijaya Rahatkar, as its fourth candidate.

"The BJP, which has 122 MLAs, is barely in a position to get three candidates elected but the fourth has been brought in with a sinister design," a Congress source said.

The Congress had 42 votes but veteran Patangrao Kadam's death a few days ago and the indisposition of Swarup Singh Naik have brought its effective strength down to 40.

The Sena has 63 MLAs, but the Congress does not expect to receive its surplus votes despite the smaller partner's anger at the BJP. Besides, although Ketkar has excellent personal relations with several Sena politicians, his strident public stand against radical Hindu politics could come in the way of an understanding.

The BJP cannot win the fourth seat even with the excess Sena votes, but there are smaller parties and Independents to tap. The Nationalist Congress Party's 41 votes will be good enough for its candidate Vandana Chavan.

Former Congress politician Narayan Rane is a BJP candidate, and at least two Congress members - his son Nitesh Rane and an old loyalist - are expected to vote for him. This means the Congress can count on just 38 votes, 3 short of requirements.

The lone CPM member and the Peasants and Workers Party of India's three legislators are inclined towards the Congress and can make up the shortfall. But the Congress fears the BJP's famed "manipulative skills".

"Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has started calling the disgruntled among our legislators," a Congress politician said from Mumbai. "There are five or six members whose loyalties are suspect."

Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, which has two members, may balk at going with the BJP. Then there are seven Independents. But getting their support would need deft political management from the Congress leadership.


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