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Shankersinh Vaghela: Architect of political coups in Gujarat

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-07-2017 Maulik Pathak

Ahmedabad: Veteran Gujarat Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela’s decision to quit the party has plunged it into a deep crisis ahead of assembly elections in December.

In a reversal of fortunes, just as Vaghela’s exit from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) helped the Congress in the mid-90s, this time around the advantage is for the ruling BJP.

In March 1995, the BJP for the first time in Gujarat won a majority, capturing 121 out of 182 seats and Keshubhai Patel became chief minister. Vaghela, the architect of that victory, then staged one of the biggest coups the party has seen. In September 1995, he flew more than 45 members of legislative assembly (MLAs) to Khajuraho in Madhya Paradesh. These MLAs came to be known as khajuriyas, and those who stayed behind were called hajuriyas (loosely translates to the loyal ones). Upon their return to Gujarat, Vaghela became chief minister with Congress support for around two years by merging his newly formed Rashtriya Janata Party with it.

This year, on his 77th birthday on 21 July, Vaghela, often called ‘Bapu’, told a gathering of supporters in Gandhinagar he will quit the Congress. Brushing aside speculation of his retirement, he said: ‘’Bapus don’t retire.”

He said there was a conspiracy to remove him from the party, adding that he had no plans to join the BJP. Vaghela said the situation was similar to the one that had arisen in the mid-nineties when some of his fellow BJP leaders conspired for his exit from the saffron party.

After his announcement, as many as six Congress MLAs left the party and joined the BJP, a few days ahead of Rajya Sabha elections. The defectors included Congress chief whip Balvantsinh Rajput, who is a relative of Vaghela. Rajput, who is chairman of Gokul Refoils and Solvents Ltd, was nominated as the BJP’s third candidate for Rajya Sabha elections, posing a tough challenge to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, who is looking to be re-nominated for the fifth time to the upper house.

While Vaghela stepped down as leader of opposition from the state assembly, he said he will resign as MLA only after the Rajya Sabha elections. Congress’ Patel needs the support of 47 MLAs to win the Rajya Sabha elections and the party’s strength in the assembly is down to 51.

The Congress has moved as many as 44 MLAs to a resort in Karnataka in a bid to stop any poaching by the BJP.

The BJP, with 121 MLAs in the assembly, has named party president Amit Shah and Union textiles minister Smriti Irani as its two candidates for Rajya Sabha. The party is hoping to win the third seat with the support of defecting Congress MLAs and cross-voting.

“There has been infighting between Congress leaders in Gujarat who failed to read the damage that Vaghela could do to the party. The Congress leaders in Gujarat failed to communicate to the party high command of the crisis that Vaghela’s exit from Congress could lead to. They kept on assuring that Vaghela was no threat to the Congress,” said a senior Congress party leader who did not wish to be named.

The Congress was looking for a revival after agitations by the Patel community and Dalits shook the ruling party which is facing its first election without Narendra Modi as its chief minister.

“The timing of departure of Vaghela is very crucial. Had he left the party a year ago, things would have been different. His decision comes a few months before the state assembly elections and this could do irreparable damage to the Congress. While Vaghela might personally vote for Ahmed, his supporters will join the BJP. This is a master strategy,” said a BJP party official who did not wish to be named.

Notably, at least eight to 11 Congress MLAs, considered to be close to Vaghela, had cross-voted in the 17 July presidential poll in favour of the NDA nominee Ram Nath Kovind.

That Vaghela was the tallest leader for the party can be gauged from the fact that in the 2012 state assembly elections, all senior party leaders including its then leader of opposition Shaktisinh Gohil and state party chief Arjun Modhwadia were defeated by BJP candidates. Vaghela, who fought from Kapadvanj and won, was seen as a saving grace.

As many as 36 Congress MLAs earlier this year supported Vaghela’s nomination as the chief ministerial candidate for Congress, a proposal which was turned down by the party.

On 28 July, Congress MLA from Jamnagar Raghavji Patel told the media that he along with few other Congress MLAs were ready to join the BJP whenever the saffron party asks them to do so.

Infighting has been a major reason why the Congress could not regroup in Gujarat. Congress leaders said Vaghela left the party as he wanted the party’s state chief Bharatsinh Solanki removed from the post, and the party did not agree to this.

Last September, party national spokesperson and MLA Shaktisinh Gohil asked the state leadership to relieve him of the responsibilities given to him related to the 2017 state elections.

A former union textile minister and ex-chief minister of Gujarat, Vaghela had stirred some controversy when during the election campaigning for state elections in 2012, he declared himself as the captain of Gujarat Congress. BJP had been attacking Congress for lack of leadership and his response was seen in that context.

Prime Minister Modi’s relationship with Vaghela goes back to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) days in the mid-eighties when they toured Gujarat together. Both worked for the BJP before Vaghela parted ways with the party in 1996.

BJP president Amit Shah and chief minister Vijay Rupani’s meeting with Vaghela at his Vidhan Sabha office on 30 March had created a buzz that the former chief minister would return to the saffron party. Vaghela had later in the day clarified at a media briefing that he was going to remain with the Congress and was not planning to join BJP.

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