Déjà vu for Vaghela

With vow to repeat Punjab in Gujarat, Congress leader Shankersingh Vaghela has withdrawn from CM race and demanded free hand as it was given to Capt. Amrinder

By Asit Manohar

In 1995, when the BJP first came to power in Gujarat with a majority, Shankersinh Vaghela had ‘withdrawn’ from the race to become Chief Minister.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. Recently, Vaghela once again announced his ‘withdrawal’ from the race. This immediately revived old memories and triggered new speculation.

Vaghela’s words have triggered speculation. Is Bapu, finally, trying to cozy 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.

While BJP is in mood for early election in Gujarat, top Congress leadership is busy with ‘selection’, if party sources are to be believed. Gujarat Congress stalwart Shankersinh Vaghela has invoked ‘Punjab pattern’, which brought Congress victory in recent election by empowering the regional satrap, and staked claim to be the party’s CM face in forthcoming elections. Vaghela — who became CM in the state in 1996 by rebelling against the BJP — has sought a free hand from the party high command in the upcoming polls.

“What Amarinder Singh did in Punjab, Vaghela wants to do in Gujarat. He has asked the leadership to be empowered and granted free reign in distribution of tickets. In return, he has promised victory for the party in Gujarat elections,” said a source in the know of the matter. However, talking to Mirror, Vaghela said: “This is speculation and does not hold truth. All the issues related to elections will be decided once party president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi arrive back in India on March 24.” Those in the anti-Vaghela camp within the state Congress said he has been camping in Delhi since two days and is scheduled to meet top leaders of the party.

Top party leadership denied that anything was cooking on this front. Former Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modhwadia said, “What you are suggesting is not true. He (Vaghela) has never talked about becoming the CM or taking over the party in the state.” When asked to comment on the matter, AICC spokesperson and Gujarat MLA Shaktisinh Gohil said: “I am not aware about any such matter. So, I would not be able to comment.” Gujarat Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki commented: “This is media speculation and unnecessary hype over a non-issue.

As such, elections are yet to be announced and the question does not arise. As for Vaghela, he is a very responsible leader.” Solanki had earlier indicated that he was in favour of putting up a CM face for the upcoming elections. Vaghela was earlier in the BJP and played a key role for bringing the party to power in Gujarat in 1995. After Keshubhai was chosen over him as the CM, Vaghela revolted and became CM in October 1996. Later, he floated his own party Rashtriya Janata Party which was then merged with the Congress. At present, Vaghela is Congress MLA from Kapadvanj and Leader of the Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly.

Congress is already witnessing lobbying by top state leaders for being nominated at the CM face of the party in Gujarat polls. Ever since the party hinted at fighting the polls with a CM face, social media campaigns projecting various leaders have become the order of the day in Gujarat Congress. The front-runners in the race are Leader of the Opposition Shankarsinh Vaghela and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Bharatsinh Solanki, according to party insiders. Other probables are national spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil and former state unit chiefs Arjun Modhwadia and Siddarth Patel.

However, Siddarth Patel (son of Chimanbhai Patel who leads the Janata Dal group inside the Congress party in Gujarat) from the Janata Dal faction of late former CM of Gujarat Chimanbhai Patel is said to be reluctant to be picked up as CM face and does not hold much sway over the local unit of the party. “Vaghela and Solanki are the prime contenders as is apparent from their frequent Delhi trips, of late. It remains to be seen who the first among equals becomes,” Congress sources said.