Shankersinh Vaghela, 78, is a never-say-die politician, who flashed on the national radar when he split the BJP in 1996, bringing down its first government in Gujarat led by Keshubhai Patel, to form his own government backed by the Congress. For Sharad Pawar, whose NCP began as a breakaway group of the Congress and is now looking for a toehold in Gujarat, Vaghela is a suitable bet.
After the bitterly fought Rajya Sabha election following a coup in the party purportedly engineered by Vaghela, the Congress does not trust him — and the BJP does not need him. In the NCP, Vaghela sees a party that has always been warm to him, and as perhaps the only way for him to come back into national electoral politics. In fact, the Congress attributes its impressive showing in the 2017 Assembly elections to Vaghela’s exit, and its decision not to ally with the NCP.
In 2017, the Congress posted its first impressive result since 1995, winning 77 seats, (now 76 after the defection of Kunvarji Bavaliya), while the BJP got its lowest, at 99.
Joining the pitch for a non-BJP front at the national level, Vaghela hopes to get a ticket — and perhaps win the seat if the Congress-NCP alliance revives ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
In 1999, Vaghela had merged his outfit, Rashtriya Janata Party, with the Congress — and become the first leader with an RSS background to be president of the Gujarat PCC. He went on to become a Union Minister in the 2004 UPA government.
The Congress-NCP alliance thrived in Gujarat while he held high posts in the Congress. But the Congress began to lose ground with the rise of Narendra Modi — and in 2014, it could not win even a single seat in Lok Sabha.
As the Congress went back to the drawing board, Vaghela wanted a major share in the decisionmaking on Gujarat. He began to portray himself as the candidate for Chief Minister, but his party could not trust him enough. Holding the important post of Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly, Vaghela resigned from the party in July 2017, just weeks ahead of the crucial Rajya Sabha elections, where Ahmed Patel was seeking a fifth term.
Six MLAs of the Congress resigned from the party after Vaghela, turning the smooth-sailing election of Patel to the Upper House into a closely-fought contest. The Congress had to pack off 44 of its MLAs to a resort in Bengaluru to protect their votes ahead of the RS election.
Patel won the election with two non-Congress additional votes — one of the two NCP MLAs and one JD(U) MLA. Vaghela had burnt his bridges with the Congress.