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Gujarat Election Result 2017: Meet Shankarsinh Vaghela, Former Gujarat Chief Minister Who Chose To Play Spoiler

File image of Shankersinh Vaghela. (PTI Photo)

File image of Shankersinh Vaghela. (PTI Photo)

The former Gujarat Chief Minister, who split from the Congress in July this year and formed the breakaway Jan Vikalp Morcha, has been conspicuous by his absence on the campaign trail.

Ahmedabad: The Battle for Gujarat was a hard-fought one. During the campaign, Congress President Rahul Gandhi travelled over 20,000 km across Gujarat and Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled over 28,000 km.

Patidar activist Hardik Patel, too, drew large crowds in his rallies across Gujarat. But one man missing from the spotlight was Shankarsinh Vaghela. The former Gujarat Chief Minister, who split from the Congress in July this year and formed the breakaway Jan Vikalp Morcha, has been conspicuous by his absence on the campaign trail. It is not that Vaghela wasn't travelling all over the state. But instead of holding rallies, he held small meetings with sympathisers and supporters, trying to keep decades-old connections and networks alive.

'Bapu', as he is known by his followers, isn't aiming to "win" the Gujarat election. With just 76 candidates in the fray, his Jan Vikalp Morha can, at best, hope to be a ‘kingmaker’. His explicit aim is to create a model of "alternate" politics, different from both the BJP and the Congress. And, sure enough, he has introduced some new ideas.

He had recently announced that those who want to contest elections on a ticket from his Jan Vikalp Morcha can apply for them on the internet. The party uploaded a three-page form on its website. Once forms were filled, some candidates were shortlisted. Those shortlisted candidates then received a text message giving them details of the time and place at which they had to appear before the Jan Vikalp Morcha’s Parliamentary Board. He even says he will campaign for an American-style Presidential system in India.

“After experience in both the parties, I am doing something new. I am meeting new people, who are so good, all over Gujarat. I have very little time and money, so I have not been able to do as much work as I would have liked to,” he told News 18. But some say Vaghela is a man scorned and one of his motives is to hurt the party that made him exit. “You have to understand that Bapu felt disrespected in the Congress. He never wanted to leave. Some people, like Ahmed Patel and Madhusudhan Mistry, who surrounded Sonia Gandhi were wary of his power in Gujarat. So they effectively pushed him out,” said a source.

Vaghela, another source said, was now working to “teach a lesson” to the Congress. According to an aide, Vaghela’s disillusionment with the party began even before the last Assembly elections.

“He wanted to contest from his home district of Gandhinagar in 2012, but the party asked him to contest from Kapadvanj in Kheda district. He not only agreed but because of him, the party won 32 seats in Central Gujarat around Kapadvanj. The Congress would have not won those seats had it not been for Bapu’s influence.”

Speaking about his exit, Vaghela said, “Rahul Gandhi had told me I am your friend in Delhi and here to support you, you go ahead. He said he would not interfere in my decisions. But that promise was not kept. After it was all agreed upon, I was told by others that Rahul has not agreed to any such thing. So I was pushed out of the party. When MLAs started leaving to join the BJP, the party did nothing to stop them.”

Soon, people close to him in the party started to leave and join the BJP. Vaghela has claimed that he tried to stop them from leaving but got no support from the high command. Since Vaghela thought he had delivered "results" for the party, even though the Congress lost the 2012 election to then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he expected that the party would announce before the 2017 polls that he would be the Chief Ministerial candidate to take on Vijay Rupani.

Vaghela, sources suggested, expected to have a free hand in running party matters in Gujarat. Some even said he hoped, at least, for a Rajya Sabha seat. But when it was clear that the RS ticket would go to Ahmed Patel, who was said to be Vaghela's arch rival within the party, the path was clear for the former CM.

A month after Vaghela left the Congress, Ahmed Patel won a contested Rajya Sabha election. In the days leading up to the election, Vaghela had kept the Congress guessing over whether he and his band of rebels would support Patel or not. Eventually, he did not and Patel won narrowly. Patel’s victory, say sources, opened old wounds for the former Gujarat CM.

One source said, "Take this example. One Congress MLA, a Muslim, owes his career to Bapu. He had told Bapu that he would vote against Ahmed Patel but in the end, did not do so. Bapu has not forgotten that. This time, Bapu has fielded another Muslim candidate against him to hamper his chances. He has done this in several places, to hurt people who crossed him."

Vaghela, who understands North Gujarat better than most in the state, can hamper the Congress's chances severely. North Gujarat is where the battle is said to be most hotly contested and with Vaghela’s spoilers in the fray, the BJP has reason to rejoice. And for Vaghela, a BJP victory is not a high price to pay.

"A leopard can never change its spots. A man who has been in the Sangh will never truly leave the Sangh," said a veteran Gujarati journalist, who knows Vaghela from his years of covering politics in the state.

Before Vaghela became CM with support from the Congress, before eventually merging his Rashtriya Janata Party with the Grand Old Party, Vaghela was a BJP man. He spent the early years of his public life as a committed RSS pracharak and cut his teeth in politics with the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, the BJP's predecessor party. Since resigning as leader of opposition, he has not been openly critical of Narendra Modi. He has, however, accused both the BJP and Congress of "political match-fixing" during the Ahmed Patel election.

He, however, strongly rejects the “spoiler tag” being given to him, even drawing parallels between his Jan Vikalp Morcha and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). He said, “It doesn't matter what people say. If I had to rejoin the BJP, I would have done that long ago. Nobody would have stopped me. I am not going to tell people to vote for BJP. When Arvind Kejriwal entered politics, was it to be someone's B-team?

But if the Congress without Vaghela is struggling, Vaghela without Congress is a shadow of his former self. Sources said a part of the reason he is not holding rallies in the state or fielding candidates on all seats is because his infant party’s treasury is running dry and he no longer has the organisational strength of the Congress, the oldest national political party in India.”

There were rumours that Vaghela's son Mahendrasinh Vaghela would receive a BJP ticket, but that did not come to pass. The junior Vaghela is said to be waiting it out before making any moves and has joined neither the BJP nor his father's new political outfit.

But what does the future hold for the ‘Bapu’ of Gujarat politics? According to an aide, “He doesn't need anything in life. He has been an MLA, a Chief Minister, Leader of Opposition and a Member of Parliament. He is not a man in a hurry.”