Can Modi-Shah contain a high-maintenance Shankersinh Vaghela?

The former Gujarat CM's presence at Vijay Rupani’s swearing-in is an indication that he may formally join the BJP.

 |  5-minute read |   26-12-2017
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Almost a decade ago, I travelled with the then tallest leader of Congress in Gujarat, Shankersinh Vaghela, on a campaign trail to Saurashtra. He received a rousing welcome at every place. He was greeted with cries of "dekho, dekho kaun aaya, Gujarat ka sher aaya" (look, the lion of Gujarat is here), and I could see him visibly basking in the adulation. This attention is important to him, and of late, it was this lack of political relevance that drove him up the wall.

Well, this sher (lion) has been badly wounded by the Congress leadership, and after the recent Assembly election results, he was left licking his wounds. Not surprising therefore that he was sharing the stage with his arch nemesis Narendra Modi at the swearing-in of BJP’s sixth consecutive government in Gujarat on Tuesday (December 26). Since 1997 when Vaghela left the BJP in the well-orchestrated Khajuraho coup flying off 40 MLAs to Khajuraho to bring down the BJP government, his hatred for Modi was his defining identity. The vitriolic stew he spewed on Modi was unmatched, especially having worked closely with him for several years in the early days of the Jan Sangh.

The seed of that vitriolic attack lies in the deep friendship the two shared back in the 1980s. As young men dreaming to become powerful politicians, Modi and Vaghela used to travel on the latter’s Royal Enfield motorcycle across the state spreading the message of the Jan Sangh. Keshubhai Patel, Modi, Vaghela and Kashiram Rana, a late senior BJP leader from Surat, were very good friends and a strong team who contributed to the rise of the BJP in India, beginning with Gujarat. But within a few years as they tasted power, the friendship soured. When Keshubhai was chosen as the chief minister over Vaghela, he rebelled and brought down the Keshubhai government. He floated his own party Rashtriya Janta Party, ruled the state for a few years and later merged it with the Congress.

In the past two decades, Vaghela has often recalled bittersweet memories of his association with Modi and Keshubhai, squarely blaming Modi for deliberately creating differences between the four friends for his personal ambition to emerge as the solitary leader sidelining the rest. Vaghela claims it is because of this behaviour of Modi that he was exiled from the state by the then BJP senior leadership as a punishment for a few years. Modi returned to Gujarat in 2001, and took over as chief minister from Keshubhai Patel.

jum-copy_122717091900.jpg[Photo: Shailesh Raval/ India Today]

Capturing Anandiben Patel, Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela in one frame on the same stage with the triumphant Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo at the other end brought curtains on the political warriors of yesteryears. The spent forces of yesterday, who have conceded that there is no future for a non-BJP/non-Congress party in the state, surrendered to the existing power play in lieu of some political significance.

In August 2017 when Vaghela left the Congress, it was said he was working as the BJP’s B-team. With his appearance on stage at the Rupani’s oath-taking ceremony and being warmly greeted by Modi, we now know for sure that he did attempt to work as the BJP’s B-team. But his attempts were futile. Congress candidates won Vaghela’s seat Kapdvanj and his son Mahendrasinh Vaghela’s seat, Bayad. The patriarch launched another new front called Jan Vikalp Party (JVP), in which they even acquired a symbol in alliance with the All India Hindustan Congress Party. They fielded 134 candidates in this Assembly election. Not a single one won.

This is testimony to the fact that Vaghela is way past his sell-by date. But ofccourse, Bapu (as Vaghela is popularly known) doesn’t think so. His presence today is an indication that he could formally join the BJP. Now the return of the prodigal may not necessarily be good news for the BJP as he is extremely high maintenance.

Sources claim he would be bargaining for an important position in the government or even a Rajya Sabha seat. What he brings for the BJP in return is not yet clear. His first two missions - to prevent Ahmed Patel from being re-elected to the Rajya Sabha and to cut into Congress votes on the 134 seats where the JVP fielded candidates - failed. What's next, remains to be seen.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Vaghela, at heart, is a pure Sanghi and makes no attempt to hide his ideological beliefs. It is only in the past three decades - arguably the most productive years of his political career - that he had tried to compromise on it for political significance. Now though in his twilight years, he has decided to return.

When Vaghela stood up to welcome Modi on stage with folded hands despite Modi asking him not to, we witnessed the death of a rebel, a charismatic politician and the reaffirmation of the fact that power is more important in politics than social service or even self-respect.

So long, Bapu.

Also read: How BJP won a losing battle in Gujarat


Jumana Shah Jumana Shah @jumanasamkit

Jumana is deputy editor of India Today in Gujarat. She has done political reporting from the state for nearly 10 years.

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