21 years later, it’s deja vu for Vaghela

Virendra Pandit Gandhinagar | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on March 22, 2017

Shankarsinh Vaghela’s move has given rise to speculation that he may return to the BJP   -  PTI

Congressman withdraws from race for CM post in poll-bound Gujarat, as he did in 1995

In 1995, when the BJP first came to power in Gujarat with a majority, Shankersinh Vaghela had ‘withdrawn’ from the race to become Chief Minister.

A few months later, he flew 48 BJP MLAs to Khajuraho, thanks to the hospitality of then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, the Congress’ Digvijay Singh. When he returned to Gandhinagar, he became the CM with Congress support for around two years.

On Monday, Vaghela once again announced his ‘withdrawal’ from the race. This immediately revived old memories and triggered new speculation.

Bapu’s many shades

The 77-year-old Vaghela has arguably been among the State’s most colourful politicians.

“Bapu”, as he is fondly known across the political spectrum, Vaghela was a BJP strongman in 1995 and an architect of the party’s big victory.

Today, in the intensely faction-ridden Congress, he is the tallest leader and currently Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, which is set to face elections this year. In the UPA-I regime (2004-9), Vaghela also served as Union Textiles Minister.

Ever the outsider

While still in the BJP, he was suspected of being a closet Congressman; in the Congress, Vaghela’s “social” ties to the RSS-BJP camp has had many doubting his allegiance to the party. Almost two decades after he merged his Rashtriya Janata Party with the Congress, Vaghela continues to be painted an “outsider” by the other two groups in the Gujarat Congress (the “original” one led by party President Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, and the Janata Dal group led by former CM Chimanbhai’s son Siddharth). Vaghela is known to publicly touch the feet of BJP veteran Keshubhai Patel, whom he had once revolted against.

On Monday, while addressing the Congress’ nearly 1,500 Vidhan Sabha ticket aspirants in presence of AICC in-charge Gurudas Kamat and others, Vaghela, announced his “withdrawal” from the CM’s race, taking others by surprise. He said winnability must govern the party’s ticket distribution and that the MLAs should elect their CM.

Since his speech came a couple of days after he had met Sharad Pawar in Ahmedabad, Vaghela clarified that the intent of the visit was to discern if the NCP chief would want to forge an anti-BJP platform in Gujarat. He also denied veering towards the NCP or any other party.

Reacting to Vaghela’s ‘withdrawal’, State BJP President Jitubhai Vaghani said it was immaterial as the Congress is nowhere in the electoral race to form a government in the State.

But why?

Vaghela’s words have triggered speculation. Is Bapu, finally, trying to cosy up to his former party? He is the only leader from the RJP days who is yet to return to the BJP fold.

Despite some anti-incumbency, the big wins in recent elections have strengthened the BJP in Gujarat as well. The agitations of Hardik Patel et al have lost steam. Neither Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, nor the Congress, seems to be a match to the ruling BJP. So Vaghela, at 77, has few chances of becoming the CM again. Even if the Congress wins, he could be stopped in the tracks by other intra-party factions.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once mentored by Vaghela himself, had asked party men to set their sights on winning at least 150 seats in the 182-member Assembly. Even in the strongest saffron wave, the Congress has been winning around 50 Assembly seats in Gujarat. The BJP could, therefore, reach its goal only by poaching into the Congress to bring its tally to 150. Also, the NCP’s decision to contest 80-odd Assembly seats in Gujarat would only harm the Congress.

In the past, the BJP has neutralised intra-party rebellion by accommodating Bharat Patel, son of former CM Keshubhai Patel. There is some speculation if Vaghela’s son, Mahendrasinh, who is a Congress MLA, would contest on a BJP ticket.

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Published on March 22, 2017
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