Shankersinh Vaghela's exit spells doom for Congress in Gujarat; party may be looking at another poll disaster

Rahul Gandhi has developed a bizarre political strategy to make Congress a fighting force in state Assembly elections: create circumstances to make the most prominent faces quit the party.

The move makes Congress acquire lot of space in media and public discourse. But then election after election has proved that Rahul's work style and strategy, if any, have only delivered disastrous results for the party.

 Shankersinh Vaghelas exit spells doom for Congress in Gujarat; party may be looking at another poll disaster

File image of Shankersinh Vaghela and Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Just as the election fever was catching up in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — the two states which are going to polls by the end of the year — in came the big news from both the states: Shankarsinh Vaghela has been thrown out of the party in Gujarat and Ambika Soni, in-charge Congress affairs in Himachal Pradesh, has asked to be relieved from her responsibilities.

As of this date Vaghela is arguably the most influential Congress leader in Gujarat. Ironically, the announcement of Vaghela's removal from Congress was not announced by the party leadership in the state or in Delhi but by the man in question himself at a public function organised to celebrate his 77th birthday.

The timing of Congress high command, which essentially means 10 Janpath, to show Vaghela the door came after it was clear that a number of Congress MLAs cross voted in the recently concluded presidential election, junking their party leadership's presidential nominee Meira Kumar and voting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's presidential nominee Ramnath Kovind.

It should be noted that Vaghela is a leader of Congress legislature party and is the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly. He is a leader with substantive mass connect. In last Assembly election when the then state Congress president Arjun Modhwadia and then leader of opposition Shaktisinh Gohil — the two most prominent faces of the party — lost elections, Vaghela was the only leader of stature who won.

But then Sonia Gandhi and Rahul never fully trusted him to make him party's face to take on the BJP because he had come from a RSS-BJP background. It did not matter that Vaghela had left BJP with certain bitterness and after leading an open revolt.

Vaghela's unhappiness with the Congress high command was known for quite some time so much so that he even un-followed Rahul on Twitter. Still Rahul and his team didn't do anything to address his grievances.

The Vaghela episode is yet another example of Rahul's style of functioning where he cares less for leaders of mass connect in his party. Take for instance, his attitude in two politically critical elections for Congress — Assam and Uttar Pradesh. In Assam, he created circumstances where party's most important leader and arguably a brilliant political strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma quit Congress. Sarma, of course, was ballistic against Rahul. Ahead of the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections when Congress was actively wooing Brahmin votes in the state, it sidelined Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Vijay Bahuguna, and subsequently let them fall into the BJP's lap.

Vaghela's case could be slightly different. Consider the timing of Congress leadership's — Sonia and Rahul — decision to throw him out of the party. It came on a day when it was known that Vaghela and a number of Congress MLAs considered close to him junked Meira and voted for Kovind in the presidential elections. But while deciding to strike against Vaghela, Sonia conveniently forgot that it was she and Meira who had told the MP and MLAs of varied political parties to vote as per their conscience, listen to their inner voice and not their respective party diktat.

Vaghela's exit could impact Congress's fortunes in many ways. It creates a bad atmosphere for the party just ahead of the Assembly election in Gujarat. That would be a good news for the BJP. Though Vaghela has said he wouldn't be going to the BJP his support for his parent party could be in different other ways.

Over two decades ago Vaghela was taken as Modi's mentor in the state but they later fell out. But since then much water has flown in Sabarmati and Narmada rivers. Vaghela fondly remembers how Modi used to ride pillion on his Bullet motorcycle and travel all parts of the state. He recalled it in May 2014 when Modi attended his farewell Gujarat Assembly session. Modi in turn said: "You can proudly say the prime minister used to ride on his bike. We travelled to every district on his motorcycle." Modi also gave a passionate hug to Vaghela.

As for Congress, the first impact of Vaghela's exit could be felt in less than a month's time when Congress's third most powerful person Ahmed Patel retires from the Rajya Sabha on 18 August. He is expected to be re-nominated by the Congress, but if a section of Congress MLAs cross vote like they voted in the presidential election, it would spell doom for the party ahead of the Assembly election in Gujarat.

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2017 08:44:26 IST