The exit of Shankarsinh Vaghela from the Congress, just months ahead of the assembly elections in Gujarat, has come as a major blow to the grand old party, heralding a major shift in the political equations in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state. Given the mass appeal of the 77-year-old veteran, his studied silence about the next course of action has left the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party optimistic and the Congress, which already grapples with infighting, perturbed.
Vaghela's resignation from Congress was not a bolt from the blue as the former chief minister has been upset with his party colleagues and the central high command for quite some time. Bapu, as Vaghela is fondly called by his supporters, reportedly wanted the post of state party president so that he could freely take calls on candidates and campaign strategies during the elections, which are just six months away. He had also demanded that the party announce the chief ministerial candidate in advance.
However, both his demands were repeatedly ignored. Congress, which is eyeing a return to power in the state after 22 years, was not ready to rub state party chief Bharat Solanki the wrong way, since the latter enjoys mass support among Thakors, Kolis and OBCs. Congress plans to cash in on the rampant discontent among these communities.
However, what worries Congress more after Vaghela's exit is a possible rebellion within the party—a number of its MLAs enjoy a good rapport with the veteran leader and may switch loyalty anytime. Defying party mandate, ten of its MLAs, including Raghavji Patel and Vaghela’s son Mahendrasinh Vaghela, attended the town hall event in Ahmedabad where the septuagenarian announced his resignation. It is speculated that the eight to 11 Congress MLAs who cross-voted for BJP's Ram Nath Kovind in the July 17 presidential elections were those loyal to Vaghela.
To make things worse for Congress, the party is also facing a major threat of exodus of legislators to the ruling faction. The saffron party, which is trying to extend its good run in the state by leveraging the Modi charisma, is also keen on creating irremediable cracks in the opposition party and foil even a remote chance of its return to power. BJP president Amit Shah has reportedly been in direct talks with several of the senior Congress leaders, including MLAs. If local media reports are anything to go by, almost a dozen senior leaders of Congress are expected to join the BJP camp ahead of the assembly elections.
If the dissent boils over in Congress in the coming days, it will dampen its prospects in the Rajya Sabha elections due on August 8. Out of the three seats where elections are to be held, the party is keen to win at least one; Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, will be fielded in one of the constituencies. BJP is comfortably placed on the other two seats. Congress cannot afford a humiliation in the polls as it will further blot out its morale ahead of the assembly elections. In the 182-member assembly, Congress has the support of 57 MLAs. For a win in Rajya Sabha polls, it required the support of at least 47 legislators.
With Vaghela keeping the political analysts guessing, speculations are rife about the formation of a third front in the poll-bound state. He is unlikely to join forces with the saffron brigade in the immediate future, but a pre-poll or post-poll alliance with the party is a real possibility. “I have become a victim of intra-party conspiracy for the second time in my political career. First it was the BJP, now it is the Congress,” said the former chief minister while quitting Congress. Vaghela is a former BJP member and was expelled from the party in 1996.
A third front in Gujarat will push Congress further into the deep waters. Vaghela's exit is expected to create a major dent in Congress vote share as the veteran leader has made a name for himself among the OBC and Kshatriya communities, which constitute nearly 27 per cent of the state population. Pro-quota Patidar leader Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani are likely to extend their support to Vaghela if he forms an anti-BJP and anti-Congress alternative. The presence of two NCP MLAs—Jayant Patel and Kandal Jadeja—at Vaghela's birthday bash could be a clear indication of their party's support to the veteran's next move.
For Congress, which desperately looks for a revival in the state where it ruled almost 27 years, it is a herculean task to prevail over the present crisis and keep the flock together.