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BJP, Congress & BJP again? What is Shankersinh Vaghela up to in Gujarat

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 20 April 2017, 17:33 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

What is Shankersinh Vaghela up to? This is the question flummoxing political observers who are keeping a hawkish vigil on the developments in the all-important poll-bound state of Gujarat.

Vaghela's actions in the last one month have left the Congress leadership, both in the state as well as the Centre, stumped. His meeting with the BJP president Amit Shah around three weeks ago got tongues wagging on the outcome.

At the same time, there have been assertions from him to make the Congress high command declare him the campaign in-charge and the party's chief ministerial candidate for the Assembly polls scheduled to be held towards the end of this year.

The latest in the series has been a demand from the 36 of the total 57 Congress MLAs to the party high command to declare Vaghela, popularly known as Bapu, as the chief ministerial candidate at a meeting held at his bungalow on Tuesday night in the presence of All India Congress Committee general secretary Gurudas Kamat.

There is already a massive campaign being carried out by Vaghela's supporters on Facebook under the name – Bapu for Gujarat CM. This has videos of Vaghela being presented with a larger than life persona:

Vaghela supporters also did a facebook live on Tuesday afternoon.

Among those who attended the meeting at Vaghela's residence were prominent MLAs Mohansinh Rathva, Indranil Rajyaguru, Kamaniba Rathod, Anand Chaudhary, Punabhai Gamit, Chandrikaben Bariya and Ramsinh Parmar.

They told Kamat in clear terms that if the Congress wants to win the Gujarat /assembly polls, the central leadership will have to make Bapu the face of the campaign and also the campaign in-charge.

Punjab model for Gujarat

Dariapur MLA Gyasuddin Sheikh, who is close to Vaghela, told Catch, “We just want the party to follow the Punjab model in Gujarat which is to promote a strong regional leader as the party' face in the poll battle. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh himself has endorsed this line after having led the party to victory in the Punjab polls. The reason why he needs to be made the campaign in-charge is that the leaders from outside the state do not understand the intricacies of Gujarat in terms of its regional, class and caste dynamics.”

He said that the party may make anyone the chief minister after winning the polls but it must enter the battle arena with Vaghela as the face.

Vaghela's supporters also want that a Patidar MLA, preferably Paresh Dhanani from Amreli or Raghavji Patel from Jamnagar, be made the Leader of Opposition after Vaghela vacates the post.

“This will help the Congress in two ways. One it will help the party make inroads into the Patidar community and secondly the party can expand its base in urban areas. As of now we only have three of the 57 MLAs from the urban areas,” pointed out Sheikh.

Vaghela's supporters point out that the Congress must fight the polls under a strong leadership because they are going up against prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah combine.

In fact, there is a strong view among many political observers in Gujarat that Vaghela is the best bet for the Congress and that Vaghela can deliver provided he is given a free hand.

What's favouring Vaghela's odds?

With his RSS background, Vaghela understands BJP's, particularly Modi's, politics very well and knows how to counter it. And his political rivalry with Modi goes back to more than two decades.

Vaghela is best remembered for the split that he had engineered in the BJP in the mid-1990's to have become the chief minister at a later stage. It was after the BJP had won 121 of the total 182 seats in the 1995 polls that most of the elected leaders wanted Vaghela to be the chief minister.

But the party chose to make Keshubhai Patel chief minister and it is alleged that Modi had thrown his weight behind Patel at that time to ensure that Vaghela's support-base got eroded.

A few months down the line, Vaghela had rebelled against the BJP leadership with the support of 47 MLAs which led to the replacement of Keshubhai with Suresh Mehta as a compromise while Modi was temporarily banished from Gujarat.

Vaghela then lost the 1996 Lok Sabha polls from Godhra only to leave the BJP while bringing down the Mehta government and the floating the Rashtriya Janta Party. He then went on to become the chief minister for a short while with Congress support in 1996.

But continuing political turmoil saw him being replaced with Dilip Parikh and a subsequent mid-term poll that brought back Keshubhai Patel as the chief minister. Meanwhile, Vaghela merged his party with the Congress.

A solid opposition

Despite Modi's return to Gujarat and his consistent rise to the post of the prime minister, Vaghela has been the most vocal leader to have taken on Modi in the state on every possible issue.

However, Vaghela's detractors have been raising the issue of his RSS background and his not being a 'born Congressman' and they have always ensured that he does not get a free hand.

The way Vaghela can function can be seen from the episode of his launching the Shakti Dal with its Danda Sena to take on the anti-social and anti-national elements after he had quit as the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee chief following the party's rout in the 2002 Assembly polls.

This had ruffled the feathers of the Congress high command with Congress President Sonia Gandhi asking him to convert the Shakti Dal into a NGO.

This reporter was a witness to the impressive Shakti Dal launch at the Navrangpura Cricket Stadium in 2004 where the activists had marched in blue uniform carrying batons as Vaghela inspected the march. The Shakti Dal had to be disbanded after a lot of opposition coming in from the then leader of opposition and former Congress chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary.

The story now

Coming back to the present scenario, Vaghela has done a 'U' turn on his being a potential chief ministerial face from the Congress.

A month ago, he had said that he was not interested in the post. Sources said that this had led to a turmoil amidst his supporters who got him to change his stance on the grounds that such a decision would ensure his supporters not getting any tickets to contest the forthcoming polls.

This led him to tell media persons on the Hindu calendar's new year day that he would meet them in the chief minister's chamber on Gudi Padwa next year.

After this came the meeting with Amit Shah which led to the speculations of Vaghela going back to the BJP fold. Rumours are afloat to the extent that the BJP might make him a union minister ahead of the Gujarat polls.

“There is a strong feeling that he might go back. Otherwise, why would he be embarrassing the Congress with such regularity? This is the third time (the meeting at his house) that he has demonstrated his strength,” said a senior media person covering the state government.

But there have been strong denials coming from Vaghela camp on this issue.

“The BJP has been trying to poach our leaders. They want to try the Uttarakhand model here. But there is no substance in these rumours. No one is leaving the Congress,” said Sheikh.

Even veteran political commentator RK Mishra feels that Vaghela would never return to an organisation led by his arch rival Modi.

“What would he gain there except humiliation. Look at what has happened to the likes of Narhari Amin who have been reduced to being a nobody,” he said.

He further pointed out that by acts like that of Shah meeting Vaghela, the BJP is trying to sow seeds of discord amid the Congress ranks.

As of now, everyone is keenly waiting for Vaghela's next step and the Congress high command's reaction. One thing is for sure, that minus Vaghela, the Congress would be reduced to a party without its sheen in Gujarat.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 20 April 2017, 16:30 IST