Months Ahead of the assembly polls and weeks to go for elections to the Rajya Sabha, the Congress was dealt an embarrassing blow in Gujarat with veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela on Friday announcing his exit from the party and the post of Leader of Opposition. Within hours of Vaghela’s announcement at the Gandhinagar town hall before a large gathering of supporters to celebrate his 77th birthday, the BJP issued a statement conveying wishes from Chief Minster Vijay Rupani and state party chief Jitu Vaghani.
Vaghela gave no indication about where he was headed, saying that his supporters were “free birds” and would decide the course of their political future. “I am not going to join any political party,” he said. In a speech riddled with contradictions, the former chief minister praised Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, describing her as a “tyagmurti (idol of sacrifice)”, and thanked senior party leader from the state Ahmed Patel for having always “treated me with respect”. He fondly recalled his early association with the RSS and Jan Sangh, and the “values” the two organisations taught him “about public life”.
But Vaghela also claimed that he had been the “victim” of internal conspiracies in the BJP and Congress. “Before quitting the BJP (he was expelled in 1996), I was perturbed. During the last two months, I was passing through the same problem,” he said, referring to how his images and name used to go missing from posters at public functions and invitations.
”I joined the BJP for service to the people. I joined Congress for the same reason,” said Vaghela. But he added that members of any party were not “bonded labourers” and that “bonds within parties” obstructed his functioning. The immediate provocation for Vaghela’s exit appeared to be his differences with state party chief Bharatsinh Solanki. “I am in the Congress now. But the party removed me 24 hours ago… How did they know what I am going to say today? They had no interest,” he said. Vaghela also described the party’s decision as “vinaash kaale vipreet buddhi (foolishness in bad times)”.
This claim, however, was denied by the Congress leadership in Delhi, with party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala saying, “It is his decision…Vaghela wanted to replace the current Gujarat Congress chief. A party is always bigger than individuals.”
Vaghela’s latest political move had been brewing for a while with sources saying that the 11 Congress MLAs, who voted for the NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind last week, may have been from his camp.
But his exit is being seen a setback for the Congress in many ways.
In the current band of the party’s leaders in Gujarat, Vaghela was among the few who could command a crowd and was viewed as a national leader who was in touch with workers at the grassroots. He was also one of the few who had a reach beyond the state, sharing a good rapport with NCP leader Sharad Pawar, RJD chief Lalu Yadav and LJP head Ramvilas Paswan.
Vaghela is also seen as a leader who could mobilise the OBC and Kshatriya communities, who constitute nearly 27 per cent of the population in Gujarat. This is a votebank that the BJP has been eyeing this time, especially with the discontent among Patidars and Dalits.
Ominously for the Congress, Vaghela indicated that his quitting would take a bigger toll on the party in the assembly elections. “Before coming here, I had gone to meet a few MLAs. I asked them not to come (to the birthday event). When I had organised a gathering in Gandhinagar a few days ago, I had asked them not to come… There are 15-20 people who have not come,” he claimed.
At least two Congress MLAs — Raghavji Patel and Vaghela’s son Mahendrasinh Vaghela — were present at the town hall event, which is being viewed as “a rebellion” against the party. The other MLAs who greeted him publicly on stage included NCP state chief Jayant Patel and the party’s Porbandar MLA Kandal Jadeja.
During his speech, Vaghela recounted his political journey that began in 1967 from Patan, the ancient capital of the state. “I was part of Seva Dal when Congress was at its peak. I would have stuck to the Congress, if I had needed power. I am somebody who will leave power willingly,” said Vaghela, adding that “rebellion was in his blood” and that he would continue to fight for righteousness.
He claimed that he had told the Congress president when they last met that he might not be with the party after some time, “but would not join the BJP”.
While recalling his association with the RSS and Jan Sangh, Vaghela spoke about the current politics of the BJP. “I no more see the simplicity the party once had. It is just all about publicity now. Crores are spent on marketing and advertisements and the people are not benefitted in any manner,” he said.