"Bapu", as he is known in Gujarat, milked the moment fully at a public show of strength just after he ensured red faces in the Congress high command by ensuring that 11 MLAs cross-voted for Ram Nath Kovind in the presidential election.
Vaghela had been challenging the Congress' top league for months after they refused to make him the Chief Ministerial face for the upcoming election or remove his beté noire and dynast Bharat Singh Solanki as state chief. After many acts of rebellion, the party seems to have blinked first after the cross-voting that emerged yesterday, reportedly the result of Vaghela working in secret tandem with old friend and BJP president Amit Shah.
He laid it on thick at his speech today, thanking Sonia Gandhi and her political secretary Ahmed Patel, who is from Gujarat, while forgetting to mention Rahul Gandhi. Vaghela said he would not join the BJP, but simultaneously made two points: he praised the RSS and his alma mater, the Jan Sangh; he also said he had ensured Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ascension to the BJP Working Committee (suggesting he helped enlarge his career many years ago) and has brought former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel into politics. The attempt to link the BJP was obvious.
Vaghela said he had been victimised, first by conspiracies of rivals in the BJP and now within the Congress. Sources in the Vaghela camp say the Congress gave him exactly the gift he wanted on his birthday. While the party was earlier playing a watching game, hoping to tire Vaghela into quitting, it was left with no option but to remove him after Vaghela ensured the cross-voting. "Bapu has got his cake and is eating it," said a Gujarat MLA close to Vaghela.
"The time to expel him was when he spoke against the party and openly met Shah (in May). Then both the Congress president and Rahul Gandhi dithered, allowing him to give us a parting kick. Now Bapu can claim that he has been thrown out and is free to act in any way," said a Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress who asked not to be named. While it is known that Vaghela is in close touch with Shah along with his son and legislator Mahender Sinh Vaghela, he is also in constant touch with NCP chief Sharad Pawar who has two legislators in Gujarat. Sources say that Vaghela has been acting in close concert with them. Today, he reinforced that talk as he joked with reporters, "Congress nahin, BJP nahin, koi teesri party batao" (neither the Congress, nor the BJP, pitch a third party).Gujarat has always had a solid two-party polity.
Sources say that the BJP, well ahead of the Congress in gearing up for the approaching election, was hoping for Vaghela's expulsion. It is unable to accommodate all the rebels he wanted to bring with him. This way, Vaghela has far less leverage in any negotiations. At the same time, he will dent the Congress even without formal association with the BJP.
So Vaghela, who cheerily described himself as a "free bird" today and tellingly warned, "MLAs are not bonded labour of the party", is all set to play spoiler for the Congress. He is likely to float a front and cut the party's vote share in North Gujarat while stressing his ex has no fighting spirit as he did today: "Congress has taken supari from the BJP not to fight the election with conviction".
While it is unlikely that Vaghela will join the NCP, he will continue to act with Pawar, the Congress' oldest frenemy, to do some concerted damage.
The Congress faces a big test when Ahmed Patel and two other leaders from Gujarat bid next month to re-enter the Rajya Sabha. If Bapu strikes again, Patel could have trouble getting re-elected, a situation that was fairly unimaginable even a few months ago.
As for Rahul Gandhi, when he takes over as Congress president in September, the Gujarat election and Vaghela will loom as one of his big early challenges.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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