Gujarat: What does Congress do with Shankarsinh Vaghela?


New Delhi: The plans of the Congress to revive itself in Gujarat ahead of crucial assembly elections later this year hang in the balance.

With less than a year left for a face-off against the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is an air of uncertainty around Shankarsinh Vaghela, the Congress party’s senior most leader and former chief minister.

There is a strong buzz that Vaghela, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member and former CM, is unhappy with the central leadership and is mulling a return to the BJP.

A “courtesy” meeting with BJP’s national president Amit Shah in Ahmedabad on Thursday has triggered fresh rumours. Though Vaghela tweeted photos of the meeting saying it had “no relevance to any political equations”, Congress leaders are not taking chances.

“He is one of the tallest leaders in the state and we value his leadership. But what is also a fact is that Congress party is aware of his unpredictability. Given that he has a number of friends in both RSS and BJP he could either join them back or use this as a pressure tactic to demand a larger role for himself,” a senior Congress leader from the state said requesting anonymity.

There is reason for the Congress party to be worried—with the rise of the BJP in both national and state politics, several senior leaders of the Congress have switched loyalties to the saffron party.

They include Himanta Biswa Sarma who is the convenor of North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) and the finance minister in the BJP-led government in Assam; union ministers Rao Inderjit Singh and Chaudhary Birender Singh from Haryana, Rita Bahuguna Joshi who was recently made a cabinet minister in Uttar Pradesh and former Karnataka chief minister S.M. Krishna who joined the BJP ahead of Karnataka polls scheduled early next year. The Congress sees Vaghela as an influential Rajput leader who has strong support from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Gujarat and could potentially exploit a three-term anti-incumbency against the BJP. The 77-year-old is currently leader of opposition in the Gujarat assembly.

Popularly known as Bapu, Vaghela is credited with the BJP’s win in the 1995 Gujarat elections, soon after which he brought the government down with the support of Congress MLAs and was sworn in as chief minister heading the Rashtriya Janata Party which later merged with Congress.

“Despite his public announcement, Vaghela has indicated it to the high command that he wants to be the chief ministerial candidate in this election, and his veering towards the BJP could be seen in this context. Right now, Congress is not in a position to announce a CM candidate and so the party is unlikely heed his demands,” another senior party leader added.

On 20 March at a party event, Vaghela had ruled himself out of the chief ministerial race only to reverse his stand a week later when he told reporters that he would be celebrating next Gudi Padwa (traditional new year) in the Chief Minister’s Office,