Vasant Vagdo, the palatial home of Shankersinh Vaghela in Gandhinagar that’s spread over a sprawling 5.2 acres, holds the key to the Rajya Sabha elections to be held on August 8. That date will also decide the course Vaghela’s political career will take as Gujarat’s 176 MLAs vote for the three Rajya Sabha seats from the state. For now, as a cloak-and-dagger battle plays out in the form of defections and the whisking away of the Congress’s 44 MLAs to a resort in Karnataka, Vaghela isn’t revealing his cards.
Waiting outside Vasant Vagdo — the building is said to be modelled on the Capitol, the seat of the US Congress in Washington DC — are a group of politicians, among them a Congress MLA and Vaghela’s son Mahendrasinh who are are among the seven who have not joined the 44 Congress MLAs at the Bengaluru resort.
Only days earlier, on July 21, on his 77th birthday, Vaghela had quit the Congress after an association of nearly 20 years, but remained an MLA so that he could vote for elections to the Upper House. His resignation came soon after the Congress realised that nearly eight of its 57 MLAs had voted in favour of NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind. (Of the Congress’s 57 MLAs, six resigned after Vaghela quit the party and three of them joined the BJP. Of the 50 remaining Congress MLAs, excluding Vaghela, 44 are in Bangalore and seven MLAs have stayed back in Gujarat.)
As he announced that he was quitting, Vaghela made it clear that he was not joining any political party but was “not quitting politics either”. As he sits in the living room that’s adorned with ornate souvenirs and black-and-white photographs from his RSS days, Vaghela, the man credited for splitting the BJP in 1995 by engineering a coup and flying nearly 55 MLAs to Madhya Pradesh, then ruled by Congress’s Digvijay Singh, is today critical of the Congress fortaking a similar route.
“They (the MLAs) should have been here in their constituencies with their voters in their time of grief, ” he says. Banaskantha, the district in north Gujarat that’s among the worst-hit in the recent floods, is where the Congress holds six of the nine assembly seats. In public, Vaghela has claimed that his vote is reserved for Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi who is seeking re-election to the Rajya Sabha for a fifth term, but the six resignations of Congress MLAs after him, have already spelt trouble for Patel. Three of them joined the BJP, of whom Balwantsinh Rajput, the former chief whip of the Congress, was seen as an “Ahmed Patel man”. The BJP was quick to field him as its third candidate for the Rajya Sabha.
So now, there are four candidates for three seats in Gujarat, Amit Shah and Smriti Irani being the other two BJP candidates, leading to a contest for the Rajya Sabha — the first since 1996. Rajput’s son is married to Vaghela’s granddaughter and Vaghela is expected to put all his might behind him. In which case, the contest could turn into an Irani vs Patel one, says a Congress source. Back in 1995, when Vaghela broke away from the BJP, his Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) had formed a government with support from the Congress, for which he still thanks Ahmed Patel.
“He is a very liberal man, a saint-like man, loyal to Madam Gandhi,” he says, breaking into a smile and adding, “He also plays billiards. (Like in the game) in politics, he targets the white and the red falls.”
The Congress has 44 MLAs in Bengaluru and the party needs 45 votes for Ahmed Patel to win. Sources say at least three of the six Banaskantha MLAs in the Bengaluru resort threw a tantrum, asking to be sent back to their constituencies, but were not allowed. AICC spokesperson and MLA Shaktsinh Gohil, who has a good “personal rapport” with Vaghela and is herding the 44 MLAs in Bengaluru, denies this and says the MLAs “are all together”.
Though Vaghela insists he is “not in touch with any of the Congress MLAs”, with the arithmetic for the Rajya Sabha going down to the wire, he is one man, the Congress realises, who can make or break the party’s chances.
Vaghela, on his part, has never hid his disenchantment with the Congress. Even while there were rumours about his joining the BJP, on March 30, he hosted BJP president Amit Shah in the state assembly building, in his office of Leader of Opposition.
This was followed by a meeting of at least 20 Congress MLAs at his home, where they told then Gujarat in-charge, Gurudas Kamat, that Vaghela should be projected as the chief ministerial candidate. The Congress high command did not agree and instead, replaced Kamat with Ashok Gehlot. The unease with the party high command continued as Vaghela’s face disappeared from Congress posters and, as he alleged, in one instance, his name was struck off a memorandum to the Gujarat governor in which he was a signatory.
Vaghela claims he quit the Congress because the party was “not interested in winning elections”. “For me, the public comes first, followed by the party and then the individual. But in the Congress, it is the individual first and then the party; the public is completely missing,” says Vaghela, adding “general secretaries have all the say (instead of local leaders)”.
The BJP was quick to react to Vaghela’s quitting, with its state chief Jitu Vaghani wishing him on his birthday. State BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya says, “The Congress ignored Vaghela, did not listen to him and displayed no faith in him. It did not care to listen to its MLAs and instead, engaged in a fight over who should control the party. Even when its MLAs were quitting, the party did nothing.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Congress MLA says, “Leaders like Ahmedbhai feed reports to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, but the situation on ground could be very different. How can a party plan for elections this way?”
The Congress, however, says the party gave Vaghela a free hand. A senior Congress leader who spoke on condition of anonymity says, “Vaghela was too self-centred. According to me, he added no value to the Congress in all these years. He may have oratory skills, but they do not always translate into votes”. He points out that how, despite his RSS roots, the Congress made Vaghela Gujarat PCC chief in 2002 and later, Union minister and Opposition leader. He was also made campaign convenor for the 2012 elections (after he complained about the party being ill-prepared for the Assembly elections).
In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, of the 12 Congress MPs, four were from the Vaghela camp, including Madhusudan Mistry, who is now a key member of Rahul’s team. While the Congress accuses him of projecting himself as the chief ministerial candidate, Vaghela, at least for the record, announced earlier this year that “he was not in the CM race”. But around this time, there was also a Facebook page heralding him as CM and listing out the achievements of his earlier RJP government. That, many say, is Vaghela for you. Both his supporters and critics agree that it’s not easy to put Vaghela in a box.
In 2002, when Vaghela was declared PCC chief, a huge welcome rally was staged at Ahmedabad railway station to make it seem as if he came by train, though he had flown in from Delhi. So it was when he announced on July 21 that he had been expelled from the Congress “24 hours earlier”, leaving the AICC scrambling to issue a denial.
A top Congress leader who is also an MLA says, “I was all along with Bapu (as Vaghela’s supporters call him)… but he should have held on, maybe he could have become chief minister because Congress stands a strong chance this time.” One of Vaghela’s reasons for quitting the BJP in 1995 was his open animosity towards Narendra Modi that coincided with the latter’s growing clout in the party. Until Modi came in, Vaghela was the state BJP’s power centre, a status he hoped to retain as he moved to the Congress. But that was unthinkable in a party that swore by the high command.
“I was president in Congress (he was GPCC chief in 2002) but in BJP, I was was the maalik (lord). Nobody dared interfere in my decision. I never asked Advani or Vajpayee before taking a decision… but all that was before Modi. Today everything is between Modi and Amitbhai,” says Vaghela, adding that it’s the “same problem” in the Congress.
In the 2002 election, Vaghela wanted the campaigning to be left to local leaders, but the Congress flew in six of its chief ministers, all of whom spoke of Godhra incident and the riots that followed, playing straight into the BJP’s hands. In the 2012 election, with talk of Rahul talking over from Sonia as party chief, Vaghela warned against the contest turning into a “Rahul vs Modi” battle, but that was exactly what happened.
With another election coming up, the Congress is talking about restricting the campaign to local leaders, but Vaghela says “it’s too late”. As Opposition leader, Vaghela had said last year that the Congress would decide its candidates a year in advance, saying the party did not do well in 2012 because 28 of its candidates were changed at the last minute.
The party still hasn’t announced candidates. “If we declare our candidates, the rest of the time will be spent in pulling them down,” says a Congress leader. His supporters say that Vaghela, who has won many of the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats since he first contested in 1977 from Mehsana, still has it in him to swing some Kshatriya and OBC votes – he is a Rajput from Vasan village in Gandhinagar district.
“Bapu is the only politician in Gujarat today to have contested from at least five constituencies for different parties. He is the only mass leader,” says Congress MLA Raghavji Patel, who was the only Congress MLA, besides his son Mahendrasinh, to have turned up for Vaghela’s birthday. Patel, who represents Jamnagar (Rural) seat, is among the six MLAs besides Vaghela, who have not gone to Bengaluru. “I am ambitious. We did not join politics to take sanyas, so we have to decide what to do next,” he says.
Vaghela admits that while in the Congress, many of his supporters such as Vitthal Radadiya and Jasha Barad quit the party and that he did nothing to stop them. “I never held back anyone. I had nothing to promise them in the Congress so I set them free, but there were some who went back to without my knowledge,” says Vaghela. Jasha Barad, who was in the RJP and followed Vaghela to the Congress, returned to the BJP in 2012. Now minister of state for Water Supply and Civil Aviation in the Vijay Rupani government, Barad says, “Vaghela is a mass leader. I think his decision to quit the Congress was wise. He is, after all, of the old RSS mould.” Tejashree Patel, former Congress MLA from Viramgam who quit after Vaghela and is now with the BJP, says, “Bapu is a grassroots leader. I would say that in Gujarat, he has a fan following of his own, even outside the political party.”
Though she insists that her exit from the party “should not be connected to Vaghela’s” and that she left because of the “disorganized ways” of the Congress, she later admits that “the quitting a leader of Vaghela’s stature was definitely a motivator”. His critics, however, blame Vaghela for not being able to revive the Congress in the state.
The party’s traditional strategy in Gujarat has been to consolidate the Kshatriya, Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi, Muslim (KHAM) communities, isolating the Patidars, who were known to be BJP supporters. But after Modi’s exit from Gujarat, the Patidars and Dalits turned against the BJP and in the local elections that followed the Patidar agitation of December 2015, the Congress won 20 of the 31 district panchayats and wrested at least six taluka panchayats from the BJP. Many of these bodies are now back in the BJP.
To those who say he did not make any attempt to reach out to these communities, Vaghela only says, “It is too early to count on them (the movements against BJP)”.
Though he is now a man without a party, Vaghela isn’t resting yet and is even meticulously chalking out itineraries. Days after he quit the Congress, he went on a tour of the flood-hit districts of Banaskantha and Patan, where he drew sizeable crowds as he met farmers and spoke to villagers in refugee camps. Given his political standing, sources in the Congress say, he can hold sway over at least 10-15 seats, mostly in north and central Gujarat. Back at Vasant Vagdo, while discussing his future plans, Vaghela says, “I have always got offers from the BJP. Even in the 2014 election, they said, ‘pick any seat’. But I have personal reasons for not going to BJP”. Ask him about the options ahead of him and he says, preparing to get up, “Everything will be decided after August 8″.