Vaghela's exit puts Ahmed Patel's famed managerial skills to test
Ahmed Patel was once considered the most powerful man in India. But Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political secretary will now find it extremely hard to secure a fifth consecutive term in the Rajya Sabha from his home state of Gujarat, in the wake of the recent political developments that have stumped all parties.
The resignation of former Gujarat Chief Minister and Congress stalwart Shankersinh Vaghela from the party has jeopardised Patel's return to the Upper House. Taking veiled digs at Patel himself, Vaghela blamed him for the mess the party is in the state, where it has been out of power for nearly two decades.
It is most likely that Vaghela, along with more than a dozen legislators, could vote against Patel in the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls on 8 August, when three seats are up for grabs from the state. Vaghela made his intentions clear on Friday, when he announced that he would resign from the Assembly after 8 August.
Top leaders' meet
It is now a foregone conclusion that the cross-voting from Congress legislators during the Presidential election was the handiwork of Vaghela. During the polls, Opposition candidate Meira Kumar received only 49 votes, despite Congress having 57 members in the state Assembly.
In the wake of these developments, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi met senior leaders from Gujarat on Saturday in the presence of Patel, to chart the future course of action. Among those present included state in-charge Ashok Gehlot, Gujarat state Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki, and senior leaders Rajeev Satav, Arjun Modhwadia, and Jagdish Thakor, among others.
During the course of the meeting, discussions focussed on the current political situation in the state, Vaghela's exit, cross-voting during the Presidential polls, and the strategy for the Rajya Sabha polls.
The onus has been put on Patel to use his negotiating skills and backroom strategies to woo back Congress legislators from Vaghela faction, and ensure their support in favour of Congress's candidate in the Rajya Sabha poll.
“Patel was the most powerful man in the 10 years of UPA, and doled out many favours to many of these legislators who are supporting Vaghela. A leading negotiator, he swings into action in times of crisis, and the political crisis in Gujarat has yet again given him the opportunity to showcase his skills. He is a political manager par excellence, and I am sure he will succeed in attaining that,” said a Congress leader from Gujarat.
Support of more than 20 MLAs
It is being speculated that Vaghela has the support of more than 20 MLAs, who could have cross-voted during the Presidential polls. However, there is no way to be sure of how many candidates from individual parties cross-voted, since it was a secret ballot. But cross-voting would not be that easy during a Rajya Sabha poll, since a whip would be issued, and anyone defying it could be debarred from contesting any elections for the next six years.
In these circumstances, the likelihood of Vaghela floating his own party with the help of his supporters is not being ruled out. This would certainly be on Vaghela's mind, since he had formed the Rashtriya Janata Party after splitting from the BJP in the 1990s, only to merge with the Congress later.
If he has support of more than 19 MLAs, the anti-defection law would not apply to Vaghela and his supporters. “They could also abstain from voting, which could make matters worse for Patel, since it would give an opportunity to the BJP to stake claim for the third seat as well,” said the Congress leader.
If he does float a new outfit, the likelihood of BJP dissidents joining Vaghela right before the Assembly elections could be a huge boost for the veteran leader.
The plot thickens
As the political plot thickens in Gujarat, nothing is being ruled out, including the possibility of the BJP extending support to Vaghela for the Rajya Sabha elections. In addition, there have been rumors that BJP president Amit Shah had offered Vaghela a Governor's post and a ministerial berth for his son, if he rebelled.
Patel's woes are compounded by the fact that two NCP legislators also attended Vaghela's rally on Friday.
With Vaghela's exit, Patel's return to the Rajya Sabha has become trickier and has put Patel's remarkable managerial skills to the test. It remains to be seen whether this high-profile backroom operator, who likes to work in complete anonymity, will be able to weave his magic one more time.