Did Congress candidate collude with BJP? The mystery behind the unopposed Surat win

The polling for Lok Sabha elections in Gujarat’s Surat was scheduled to take place on May 7. But weeks before, a BJP candidate was declared the unopposed winner.
Mukesh Dalal (left) and Nilesh Kumbhani
Mukesh Dalal (left) and Nilesh KumbhaniGobindh VB
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In Gujarat’s Surat, polling for the general elections takes place on May 7. But weeks before, a BJP candidate was declared the unopposed winner from the Lok Sabha constituency.

That man is Mukesh Dalal, announced the winner on April 22, the last day for withdrawal of candidature. The announcement led to a flurry of media reports, protests and bewilderment on how Dalal apparently won the election even before Surat’s ‘dance with democracy’.

His victory included the cancellation of the nomination of the Congress candidate, Nilesh Kumbhani, and its ‘dummy’ candidate Suresh Padsala. Eight others then withdrew their candidatures, including the BSP candidate, paving the way for Dalal’s victory.

The Congress has now approached the Election Commission seeking its intervention to set aside the “order passed by the Returning Officer cancelling Mr Kumbhani’s nomination, directing restoration of his candidature from the Surat Lok Sabha constituency; or in the alternative, [accepting] nomination of the backup candidate for the INC, Suresh Padsala”.

But how did this happen? 

A collusion?

Rumour has it that Kumbhani colluded with the BJP to allow Dalal’s victory. It’s impossible to independently verify this, but there were suspicions leading up to April 22.

Kumbhani filed his nomination on April 18. He filed three forms, listing four tekedars, or proponents/proposers. Tekedars are usually trusted party workers but Kumbhani’s included Ramesh Bhai Bapchand Bhai, Dhamelia Dharavil Dhirubhai, and Jagdish Bhai Nanjibhai Savlika. Ramesh is Kumbhani’s business partner, Dhamelia his nephew, and Jagdish his brother-in-law.

Typically, a proponent accompanies the candidate while filing their nomination. The process is usually captured on video, with election officials quizzing the proponent as well. When Kumbhani filed his nomination at the district magistrate’s office, his proposer was not captured on camera. It’s unclear why.

Next, the Congress’s ‘dummy’ candidate – usually propped up by a political party to pit them against rivals. We learned that Kumbhani used pressure to select the ‘dummy’ candidate for Surat – Sureshbhai Padsala – even though his party had initially picked Dinesh Savalia, the Surat city working president of the Congress. He allegedly argued with Savalia before insisting that Padsala stand instead.

“Padsala was associated with Congress but close to Kumbhani,” Savalia told us. “You can say they were close-knit.” Like other candidates, Padsala too had proponents – and Savalia claims they were all “close to Kumbhani”.

Finally, sources said that Kumbhani “lost touch” with his party the day Dalal was declared the winner. His house in Surat is locked; the watchman on duty said the family had left for a wedding four days ago.

There were also peculiar goings-ons at his office in Yogi Chowk. On the night of April 21, his belongings were allegedly removed. Hoardings bearing his name were also removed and tossed into an open field nearby. 

Times don’t add up 

There are other peculiarities with Kumbhani’s process.

On April 20, he and other candidates in Surat were summoned by election officials to scrutinise nomination papers – a routine process. They were expected to submit themselves at 11 am but Kumbhani didn’t show up. At 11.42 am, the BJP’s candidate, Dineshbhai Jodhani, the former deputy mayor of Surat, submitted through his agent a handwritten complaint alleging one of Kumbhani’s proponents needed to be “investigated”.

Hoardings for Kumbhani dumped near his office.
Hoardings for Kumbhani dumped near his office.
The complaint submitted by Jodhani of the BJP.
The complaint submitted by Jodhani of the BJP.

By 1 pm, Kumbhani’s four proponents – Ramesh Bhai Bapchand Bhai, Dhamelia Dharavil Dhirubhai, Vishal Bhai Chimanbhai Koladia and Jagdish Bhai Nanjibhai Savlika – arrived with four affidavits. They claimed the signatures on both Kumbhani and Padsala’s nomination forms were not theirs. 

We have copies of the four affidavits which contain dates, times and serial numbers. Vishal’s stamp paper was purchased at 10.46 am on April 20, Jagdish’s at 10.48 am, Dharmelia’s at 10.50 am, and Ramesh’s at 10.51 am. The serial numbers of all four affidavits are consecutive, indicating they were purchased together.

It’s unclear how they realised their signatures were forged, since the Election Commission does not make public any information on proponents. 

We asked the district magistrate, Saurabh Pardhi, what happened. He said the BJP candidate’s election agent asked to see the file of the Congress candidate. “After looking at it, he said the signatures of the proposers didn’t look correct and that something is wrong, we must get it checked. I then gave the time of 1 pm.”

Crucially, all four affidavits were notarised by a BJP leader named Kiran Ghoghari, who is also a lawyer.

Why would a BJP leader notarise affidavits for four proponents of a Congress candidate? And when BJP candidate Dineshbhai Jodhani lodged his complaint at 11.42 am, how were all four affidavits ready to go prior to 11 am?

Jodhani told us that as an election agent of the BJP, “it was my responsibility so I lodged a complaint”.

How did Jodhani know the four proponents’ signatures were purportedly “forged”? He said, “Four people had come and said the signatures weren’t theirs.”

When did these four people appear? When did they file their complaint? Jodhani refused to respond. “If you ask too many questions, there will be trouble,” he said, and shut down any further conversation.

The vanishing of Kumbhani

So, the four proponents of the Congress candidate arrived with their affidavits. Soon after, the election officer wrote a letter to Kumbhani which said, “Your proposer has stated that he has not signed at the time of nomination. You present your case by 4 pm.” The letter was officially handed over to Kumbhani’s election agent Bhautik Koladia.

What would a person do? They’d possibly hand the letter over to their political party to figure out what to do next.

Not Kumbhani. He allegedly did not pass on this information to either his party or its leaders. Instead, the news was leaked from the district magistrate’s office, after which a handful of Congress leaders – including Ajay Gondalia and Zameer Sheikh from the legal cell – arrived at the DM’s office. Kumbhani did not arrive.

“We kept calling Kumbhani,” said a Congress leader who had been at the DM’s office. He said Kumbhani finally arrived after 2.30 pm, claimed his four proponents were unreachable, and said he would keep trying to contact them. 

The Congress leader said they quizzed Kumbhani – were his proponents being threatened or hidden away? Kumbhani replied in the negative. At the urging of Congress workers, he later filed an application at Umra police station saying three of his proponents were “missing”. 

He then allegedly left at about 5 pm saying he was going to “find” his proponents. Congress workers told Newslaundry he went “missing” after that.

‘Would we not believe him?’

Kumbhani was gone. His proponents were gone. The DM gave the Congress until 9 am on April 21 to present its case. At the appointed hour, the Congress allegedly told the DM that the BJP was “involved” and “in touch” with the missing proponents. 

District magistrate Saurabh Pardhi was dissatisfied. He told us, “In front of Congress agents, their lawyers and agents of other candidates, I asked on video camera whether anyone had threatened them. Is there any kind of fear? He said, ‘We have brought the affidavit of our own volition.’ We gave a day’ time on the Congress agent’s demand. The proponents’ side arrived but the signatures on [Kumbhani’s] documents and nomination papers didn’t look the same to me. After which the nomination was cancelled.”

Crucially, April 22 was the last day to withdraw nominations. Eight candidates – seven independents and one from the BSP – withdrew their nominations. 

Independent candidate Baraiya Rameshbhai Parsottambhai told us he withdrew his candidature because he had “important work at home”. “I have come to my village in Bhavnagar. There was wheat harvesting work,” he said. 

Jayesh Bhai Mewada, who also withdrew his nomination, told us: “When everyone withdrew, I did too. There is no point in talking about it now.”  He then cut the call. 

We asked the Congress party why this had happened. Why were Kumbhani’s relatives listed as proposers? 

Dansukhbhai Bhagwati Prasad Rajput, the district chief of the party, said, “The party had given the ticket only after trusting Nilesh Kumbhani. If he says that ‘this is my brother-in-law and my assistant’, would we not believe him? He had brothers-in-law and nephews, that's why we let him go. When the Congress president has given him the ticket, there is no question of us not trusting him.”

Dinesh Savalia, the district president of the party, said, “As the time goes by, we feel that Kumbhani was doing all this in collaboration with BJP leaders. While leaving from here, he said that he is going to the high court but after April 22, Kumbhani or dummy candidates are not in touch with us.”

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