Amid the ongoing Patidar crisis in the ruling BJP, Patidar MLA Paresh Dhanani has emerged as the frontrunner for the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the Congress. The Congress, which won 77 seats in the recently concluded Assembly elections, is yet to decide on its new Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader. Last week, the Congress leadership appointed senior leaders Ashok Gehlot and Jitendra Singh as observers to elect the new leader of the legislature party in the state. With most of its senior leaders — Arjun Modhwadia, Siddharth Patel and Shaktisinh Gohil — biting the dust in the Assembly polls, the Congress is now looking for a new face to lead the party in the Assembly.
Former CLP leader, Mohansinh Rathwa, who won from Chhota Udepur by a slender margin of nearly 1,000 votes, is being ruled out for the post because of his age. He is 74. Sources in the Congress said that 41-year-old Dhanani, who defeated his BJP rival Bavku Undhad by a margin of over 12,000 votes in Amreli, has emerged as the strongest claimant for the CLP leader’s post.
Dhanani, who made his debut in the Gujarat Assembly in 2002 as the youngest MLA at 26, got elected for the third time to the House, and second time in a row from Amreli. As one of the four working presidents of state Congress, Dhanani played a pivotal role in planning party president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign, especially in Saurashtra from where the party won 30 seats.
After 2012, he emerged as the most popular Congress MLA owing to his performance inside the Assembly as he raised a number of issues pertaining to farmers’ issues in the last five years. During the Assembly elections, he vociferously spoke about the rural distress in the state and the problems faced by cotton and groundnut farmers in the Saurashtra region.
With his pro-farmer image, and the Congress performing best in rural areas of the state during the Assembly elections, a lot of credit is being given to the party’s campaign highlighting the agrarian crisis in the state.
Another reason for strongly considering Dhanani’s candidature is that the Congress needs the support of the Patidar community during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. All the 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state are being currently held by the ruling BJP. The party leadership feels that with Dhanani as Leader of Opposition, the party can consolidate the support base which it has created among the Patidars during the Assembly campaign.
Speaking to The Indian Express on the day of the counting, Dhanani had said that the Assembly poll results would “create the ground for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections”. On how the Congress would take forward the new Assembly formation with new and young firebrand legislators like Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and candidates backed by PAAS leader Hardik Patel, Dhanani had said: “Change is the way of the world. We fought a principled battle and successfully dispelled the impact of BJP’s campaign based on bhay (fear), bhramm (confusion) aur bhrashtachaar (corruption). We will continue our struggle to fight these forces”.
According to the Congress sources, the party is contemplating to offer the post of Deputy CLP leader to Ashwin Kotwal, a tribal, who won from Khedbrahma in Sabarkantha district by over 10,000 votes, in order to balance the various caste aspiration in the party. Accordingly, the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) could be offered to Jasdan MLA Kunvarji Bavaliya, a Koli and OBC. PAC chairmanship is always given to an Opposition MLA as a tradition.
Dalit MLA Shailesh Parmar, who won from Danilimda in Ahmedabad, is likely to be appointed as chief whip of the Congress in the Assembly.