In 1st major poll amid Covid, voting for 20 RS seats today

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New Delhi: Elections to 20 vacant Rajya Sabha seats will be held on Friday amid fears of poaching that have prompted political parties to move their lawmakers to hotels and resorts in some states. They will be the country’s first major voting exercise since the Covid-19 pandemic prompted sweeping measures in March to ensure social distancing to check its spread.

The seats include four each from Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh; three each from Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan; two from Jharkhand; and one each from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, and Meghalaya.

Nearly 1,000 legislators will vote across these states. Health departments of these states oversaw the preparations for the elections. The Election Commission has also appointed a nodal officer for each state to ensure Covid-19 guidelines are followed.

Eight Congress legislators have resigned from the Gujarat assembly since the Rajya Sabha polls were first announced in February and reduced the party’s strength to 65 from 79 in 2017. It has forced the Congress to put up its legislators in resorts in Rajasthan’s Mount Abu and Ahmedabad.

The Congress needs the support of five more legislators to help both its candidates Shaktisinh Gohil and Bharatsinh Solanki to win. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has 103 members, needs two extra votes to ensure the victory of the three candidates it has fielded--Abhay Bhardwaj, Ramilaben Bara, and Narhari Amin. The role of Bharatiya Tribal Party’s two lawmakers, the sole Nationalist Congress Party and independent lawmaker Jignesh Mevani’s will be crucial in determining the final outcome of the polls.

The ruling BJP is set to win two seats in Madhya Pradesh as the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, which have 2 and 1 lawmakers respectively, as well as two of the four independent legislators pledged support to the party on Thursday. The BJP has fielded former Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sumer Singh Solanki while Congress Digvijaya Singh and Phool Singh Baraiya.

The Madhya Pradesh assembly’s effective strength is 206. The BJP with 107 and Congress with 92 members can win a seat each easily as 52 first preference votes are needed for a win. For the third seat, the BJP has an advantage as it has more first preference votes and the support of four of the seven legislators from smaller parties and independents.

State BJP leader Dr Hitesh Bajpai said, “We are going to have support of all the non-Congress MLAs and our candidates will win the election comfortably. This is why Congress is worried.”

State Congress president Kamal Nath said in the CLP meeting on Thursday, “The MLAs are to undergo a training once again so that there is no mistake during voting on Friday. The Rajya Sabha election result should be a message for those who betrayed the party and toppled a democratically elected government of Congress.”

Congress’s two candidates, KC Venugopal and Neeraj Dangi, are expected to win from Rajasthan as the party enjoys the support of a total 125 legislators, including independents and those from smaller parties. The BJP has 72 legislators and can easily win one seat as 51 votes are required for that. The BJP has fielded Rajendra Gehlot and Onkar Singh Lakhawat.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has accused the BJP of trying to poach Congress lawmakers and offering up to Rs 30 crore to some of them. The Congress has lodged a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau and Special Operations Group against the BJP. The BJP has denied the allegations.

Both the parties have kept their lawmakers in hotels and given them training on how to vote.

In Jharkhand, ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief Shibu Soren is set to win his seat. Jharkhand BJP president Deepak Prakash is pitted against Congress’s Shahzada Anwar for the second seat from the state. “Our win is certain,” Prakash said. He accused the Congress of playing “dirty politics” as it does not have the numbers to win.

Senior Congress leader and rural development minister Alamgir Alam said, “The party’s chances will depend on MLAs deciding to cross vote. The party is in touch with a few opposition MLAs and independents,” he added.

A candidate needs 27 first preference votes to win a seat in Jharkhand. The JMM has 29 lawmakers and the BJP 26. All India Jharkhand Students Union party has two legislators and has been a BJP ally.

The BJP has put up its legislators at a private university hostel from where they will go to the assembly on Friday to vote.

The ruling YSR Congress Party is poised to win all four seats given its strength--151 in the 175-member House-- in the Andhra Pradesh assembly.

The BJP-led coalition government in Manipur was dealt a blow on Wednesday after three of its legislators resigned and a key alliance partner withdrew its support two days before the election to the lone Rajya Sabha seat from the state.

Before the crisis, the BJP-led government had 39 lawmakers in the 60-member House. The Opposition had 21. To win the Rajya Sabha seat, a candidate requires 26 votes. (With PTI inputs)

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