It was April-end 2009. As part of a journalists’ group taken to “cover” Lok Sabha elections on the polling day, we visited Vasania, known more as Shankersinh Vaghela’s village, about 20 km north of Gujarat capital Gandhinagar. Brisk polling was on. Talking to the villagers, we were pretty impressed: While Vaghela himself was fighting from a constituency which is about 150 km away, here everyone seemed to vote Congress, the party he quit on his 77th birthday, July 21. A local scribe rushed out of the polling booth and told me: “Do you know? There is no BJP polling agent in the booth! All are Vaghela men. So no vote for the BJP!”
His “information” made me curious. I began inquiring from the Congress people, mostly youth, sitting a little way from the polling booth on what the reality was. One of them, whose main job was to provide slips to those going to the polling booth, told me quietly: “BJP people wouldn’t dare enter the polling booth. They dare not put up their tables outside the booth. It’s a Vaghela village, his bastion. If they come in, they will be beaten up.” A voter, looking poor, coming out of the polling booth, added: “It has always been like that. Even if I vote BJP, I wouldn’t reveal I have. It’s a Vaghela village.”
While Congress mustered up enough Lok Sabha seats to form a UPA government in Delhi, Vaghela, who rebelled from the BJP in 1996 to become a Congress strongman five years later, making his way to the Cabinet in 2004, lost to a BJP non-entity Prabhatsinh Chauhan, albeit with a small margin of 2,081 votes in 2009. It was the same Chauhan who had lost the state assembly elections two years ago, and everyone was sure, it would be a cakewalk for Vaghela. Vaghela has privately admitted, he was over-confident, that Narendra Modi’s right-hand man Amit Shah had done it all, “managing” to put up two independent Muslim candidates, who snatched away about 32,000 votes from Vaghela.
Claiming to have sizable following across Gujarat, Vaghela is known to have used strong arm tactics to win polls, which is what he did in early 1997, when he won the by-election in the North Gujarat constituency of Radhanpur to continue Gujarat chief minister of his newly formed Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) with Congress support. Even scribes covering the 1997 polls were not spared when they tried reporting how the state machinery was being misused for electoral gain. They were attacked, “taught” a lesson for refusing to spare Vaghela. The 2009 Lok Sabha polls proved that he was already becoming a spent force, failing to manage elections when faced with a formidable political enemy.
I first met Vaghela, when I joined The Times of India, Ahmedabad, as assistant editor in 1993. I was impressed by his PR: On seeking appointment, Vaghela, who was then Gujarat BJP vice-president, he came to meet me at my small flat in the Satellite area. Praising BJP sky high, which he was supposed to, when I asked him what he thought of failure of Gandhian non-violence in the backdrop of the post-Babri demolition riots in Gujarat, he immediately brushed aside Mahatma Gandhi as someone who had lost his relevance in the present political setup. After I was posted to Gandhinagar 1997, on one-to-one, he would praise RSS, regretting that the BJP had lost much of RSS’ “ideological commitment”.
Speaking to his supporters’ gathering in Gandhinagar on July 21, Vaghela praised Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi for their “unstinting” support to him. However, those who know him well say, he always bore contempt for the Congress leaders, especially the Gandhi hierarchy, which remains strongly entrenched despite strong drubbings in elections post-2014. He once told me: “It’s a strange party I have joined. It’s all right if I call Sonia Gandhi madam. But why should I call Priyanka Gandhi madam?”
A senior Gujarat Congress leader, who was once close Vaghela, and became a Sonia Gandhi aide early this decade, some time back confirmed to me about a secret meeting Vaghela had with Narendra Modi at a hotel near the Ahmedabad airport ahead of the 2004 polls. “Vaghela had almost decided to call it quits. He even approached me, but I flatly refused. Sonia Gandhi phoned me up from Delhi: ‘Ye kya chal raha hai, main kya sun rahi hun’ (what’s going on, what am I listening)? I told her what the reality was. Failing to muster enough support in the Congress, Vaghela abandoned the idea of joining Modi.”
Vaghela was cajoled, given Congress ticket to fight elections from a central Gujarat constituency, won and joined UPA Cabinet in 2004. Meanwhile, several of Vaghela supporters who had joined him in when he rebelled 1996 – mainly those who were not in electoral politics – started returning to the BJP. These included Vishnu Pandya, Dattaji Charandas, Chiman Shukla and Narsinh Padhiyar, all from the RSS background. A few years later, others followed suit. Prominent among them are former MLAs Vipul Choudhary, CK Patel, and Chhabil Patel. Interestingly, Chhabil Patel would often ask me, as and when I would meet him, whether it was a good idea to join the BJP if his boss, Vaghela, decides to do so!
Now that Vaghela has quit the Congress, speculations are floating whether he would join BJP. There are reports that, ahead of his announcement to quit, he went to Delhi, and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Some expect that he might come up with a regional formation, with the support of Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel and OBC-SC-ST Ekta Manch leader Alpesh Thakor, both of whom have considerable hold over the two numerically strong communities, Patels and Thakors, respectively. Some even wonder if he, along with Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, would join Aam Aadmi Party, with Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat’s Dalit face, also joining the bandwagon.
Vaghela is said to be under terrible pressure from BJP president Amit Shah, who is reported to have threatened a CBI-type inquiry against him on how he amassed huge landed property, on one of which he has built a palatial house just outside Gandhinagar, naming it “Vasant Vagado”. Constructed of white marble, the house – which I happened to visit once with a former Times of India editor – appeared to me, on first site, a localised Taj Mahal, sans the four minarets. Offering snacks, Vaghela was frank: “I have fulfilled all my desires, virtually all. I am a satisfied man today. I had the desire to have a huge house of my own, which I have. I have driven all types of cars. I don’t want anything more now.”
Also published in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/the-wavering-vaghela/