Ten days ago, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s 20-minute meeting with Shankarsinh Vaghela, Congress stalwart and the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Gujarat Assembly fuelled intense speculation regarding his ghar wapsi (homecoming). The meeting held in his chamber was described by Vaghela as a “courtesy call”, but the significance of the event was not missed in political circles, particularly because a section of the BJP is interested in holding early elections in the state, which has been under saffron rule for over 20 years and would be pleased if he would join the campaign.
Shah, who represents the Naranpura Assembly seat, had gone to the House on the penultimate day of the budget session and made it a point to call on Vaghela along with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and state party chief Jitu Vaghani. Subsequently, speaking to the media, Vaghela, a former Chief Minister, stated that Shah had ruled out early polls. However, he hastened to add that it could be “Vanchika”, which in RSS parlance denotes doing something that is totally at variance with what is projected.
In the past, Vaghela has shared a close rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was regarded as his “mentor” at one time. The Hindu had, sometime ago, published an article detailing their train travel in the early 1990s to drive home their close proximity.
The courtesy call’s relevance became evident since Modi is expected to visit Gujarat on 17 April and may hold extended sessions with party workers and cadres. The state polls are seen as the final frontier for the Prime Minister ahead of the 2019 Parliamentary elections, since Gujarat was the original political laboratory of the Sangh Parivar and thus a victory here is of overriding importance. It is in this context that the BJP will leave no stone unturned to bring in various sections of society, which apparently have been disillusioned with its working.
Vaghela, who had started off with the RSS and was a prominent leader of both the Jana Sangh and later of the BJP, has substantial influence over the Kshatriya community, which has more or less, always backed the Congress in the past. At present, the Congress has not made up its mind on whether to project Vaghela for the CM’s post or to bring in Bharat Sinh Solanki, whose father Madhav Sinh Solanki was also the Gujarat Chief Minister and an eminent Kshatriya leader.
Sources said that according to an internal assessment conducted by the BJP, the party would find it an uphill task in walking away with 40 out of the 182 Assembly seats in the state. To compound matters, the Patidar agitation had become a cause of great concern and the current leadership under Chief Minister Rupani was incapable and ineffectual in galvanising the rank and file. Rupani is a Jain Bania and thus his community has a negligible sway over state politics. To his credit, Modi has attempted to mend fences with his bête noire and former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, who last month was given an extension of one year as the chairman of the Somnath Mandir Trust. Keshubhai is viewed as the tallest Patel leader and his rehabilitation is aimed at offsetting the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel, so as to reassure the community that the BJP was fully with them. Incidentally, there is also speculation on a change of Chief Ministership in the state and Purshottam Rupala, a Patel and at present a member of the Union Council of Ministers, has emerged as the frontrunner.
A strong section of the BJP believes that if the monsoons are inadequate, it would be an extremely gruelling undertaking to win the polls later this year. Therefore, it would be in the party’s overall interest if the elections are held earlier. Vaghela is seen to be vulnerable because there is a pending Enforcement Directorate and CBI case against him pertaining to the sale of NTC land in Worli in Mumbai to a Kolkata based firm for merely Rs 29.35 crore, while he was the Union Minister of Textiles in the UPA government. The charge against him is that he had caused a loss of Rs 709 crore to the exchequer. His plight is similar to that of former External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, who is facing allegations of financial irregularities concerning land sale during his tenure as the Karnataka Chief Minister. Krishna had recently joined the BJP.
The party is eager to have Vaghela back and is of the view that once he rejoins, there may also be a shift in the powerful Kshatriya vote. Although Vaghela has denied that the BJP had made any overtures to him or that he was planning to reunite with the saffron brigade, the political grapevine is agog with several stories. One is that Vaghela may be inducted in the Union Cabinet or made a Governor, while his son, Mahendra Sinh may be given a BJP ticket and made a minister in the next state government. Another story doing the rounds is that the BJP wanted Vaghela, along with at least 39 Congress MLAs, to cross over and the party would be glad to offer them tickets. The BJP’s blueprint of using former Congressmen to fortify its base would be a replication of its strategy in several other states including UP and Uttarakhand and prior to that in Haryana, Assam, Manipur and Maharashtra.
The declaration by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to enter the Gujarat poll arena is also being perceived as an attempt to prevent the Patidar votes from moving towards the Congress. There are hundreds of posters and banners with NCP leader Praful Patel’s photographs in Gandhi Nagar and other parts of the state and the party is also in talks with Hardik Patel. The NCP presence will indirectly facilitate the BJP as it would deprive the Congress of the Patel votes that would shift to the NCP instead, thus causing minimal collateral damage.
Gujarat was the launch pad of Narendra Modi, who led his party to three consecutive wins, thus making it a hat-trick. He is once again determined to ensure that the BJP is victorious and therefore is not averse to the idea of holding an early poll either. However, it goes without saying that he will go by the evaluation of his party colleagues.