Another Modi Vs Vaghela Clash On Cards In Gujarat
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was straddling Gujarat(April 16-17) on a two day high voltage, mass connect programme his political rival Shankersinh Vaghela upped the ante to demonstrate his claim to be named as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress to take on the BJP in the state assembly elections due this year end.
In a meeting chaired by the Gujarat Congress in-charge Gurudas Kamat, which went late into the night on Monday, 36 of the 57 Congress legislators in a House of 182 advanced the plea that leader of the Congress Legislature Party, Vaghela be declared the chief ministerial face of the party and responsibility for the elections be handed over to him. The meeting was convened in the absence of the state party chief Bharatsinh Solanki. Kamat has since been replaced by former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot as in-charge of Gujarat at the head of a three person team.
‘Bapu’ as Vaghela is fondly called seems to have taken a page out of Punjab Congress leader Amrinder Singh’s political copy book. In the run up to the Punjab Assembly elections, Singh had made it clear to the Congress high command that there should be absolute clarity in terms of leadership and command as the party takes on the Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD)-BJP combine. He had made it abjectly clear that he intended to lead the party into the poll battle or else would fend for himself. The party high command gave in to his demand and in hind sight the Punjab victory proved to be the lone saving grace for the party in the face of a white-wash in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and inability to form governments in Goa and Manipur despite emerging the single largest party. Amrinder Singh is on record having said that the time has come for the party to support their own strong regional leaders if it seeks to win back the states.
Vaghela, then in the BJP, is still remembered for the ‘khajuraho episode’ when he pulled the rug from under the first BJP government in Gujarat led by Keshubhai Patel in 1995 airlifting a large number of the ’rebel’ BJP legislators to the exotic Madhya Pradesh destination to demonstrate his strength. Patel was unseated and replaced by Suresh Mehta in a compromise worked out by party veteran Atal Bihari Vajpayee but it proved short lived and Vaghela ultimately quit the BJP to emerge as chief minister heading a regional party with outside support of the Congress. He subsequently joined the Congress after his regional outfit failed to do well in the state Assembly elections that followed, bringing Keshubhai Patel back to power in 1998.
Though at one point,Vaghela had ruled himself out of the 2017 chief ministerial race but was forced to retrace his steps under pressure from his supporters, who feel that such a step would be detrimental to his following. To keep up the pressure, Vaghela supporters have been running a ‘Bapu for CM’ campaign though it has not been taken kindly to by other leaders who fancy their chances with the backing of Ahmed Patel, the political advisor to party chief, Mrs Sonia Gandhi.
The fact, however remains that Vaghela is the only leader in the Gujarat Congress with a statewide following and grassroots appeal.
Veteran Keshubhai Patel, Vaghela and Narendra Modi were the threesome that built the BJP in Gujarat but Vaghela fell out when Modi cast his lot with Patel to undercut him. Vaghela left the BJP and he and Modi remain bitter political rivals to this day.
Nobody knows the danger Vaghela poses to the BJP boast of bagging 150 seats this time, than Prime Minister Modi who remains hands-on in all matters relating to Gujarat. As part of a strategic move, the BJP is seeking to build on the inherent insecurity around Vaghela’s RSS roots to ensure that he is not given a key role in the forthcoming elections in the Congress.
Speculation that he may return to the BJP has been traced back to the ruling party in Gujarat. A story doing the rounds was that Vaghela has negotiated for a ticket from the BJP for his son Mahendrasinh. To lend further grist to the rumour mills, BJP chief Amit Shah chose to come calling on Vagela who is the Leader of the Opposition, in his Vidhan Sabha chamber in the company of chief minister Vijay Rupani. However the old political warhorse saw through the game and made it abjectly clear that neither was he contemplating joining the BJP nor his son. ”let it be known loud and clear that my son will not join the BJP as long as I am alive, thereafter I cannot say”, he stated on record.
Vaghela is however clear in that if the Congress wants to make a fight of the impending poll battle in the state, it should go with a clearly established commander, fully empowered to take decisions.
He has also come out strongly for harnessing Prashant Kishor who had performed similar duty for Modi in the 2014 elections and Nitish Kumar in the Bihar elections as well as Congress in the just concluded Punjab polls.”The BJP is back to it’s old game of trying to poach Congress leaders to make a splash.”I had called a meeting at my home where at least 20 party legislators informed in-charge Gurudas Kamat how they had been approached by the BJP”, Vaghela said.
According to the leader of the Opposition, the BJP is resource-rich and will fling everything at it’ s command to retain Gujarat. It cannot afford to lose the prime minister’s home state. Moreover their efforts for the 2019 general elections will receive a fatal setback if they lose Gujarat. For Congress this is the best possible opportunity with discontent against the BJP at its peak.”We should follow the Punjab example. If Iam named the chief ministerial candidate, it will become easier for me to strategise for I know the opposition like nobody else does”, says Bapu clearly inclined to take on the mantle.
With the Congress in Gujarat seen as a party of too many leaders with little influence beyond their own constituencies, the ball now rests in the court of the party high command, not known for clarity and speed in decision making going by it’ s past record. It is now clear that Prime Minister Modi will lead the BJP charge to retain Gujarat. Congress has no better bet than Vaghela.
Is another Modi Vs Vaghela contest on the cards? Time will tell!