After months of speculation, former chief minister and Gujarat’s Leader of Opposition Shankersinh Vaghela officially announced his intention to quit the Congress during his 77th birthday celebrations on Friday.
Vaghela, known as Bapu to his supporters, announced that he has already resigned as the Leader of Opposition in the state, and would resign as the MLA of Kapadvanj constituency after the ongoing Rajya Sabha election. He also alleged that the Congress party had expelled him on Thursday, though state Congress leaders have denied this.
For several months, Vaghela had been vocal about his displeasure with the Congress and its leaders, and the absence of an organised campaign strategy for the state Assembly election due in November. Among the reasons for his discontent was the fact that the party allegedly denied his request that he be projected as the chief ministerial candidate for the Congress before the election.
Vaghela claims he has no intention of joining the Bharatiya Janata Party, nor has he announced plans to create a new party. But political analysts and some Congress members believe that his exit could be disastrous for the floundering party that has not been in power in Gujarat for more than 20 years. The timing of his announcement – a day after at least a dozen Congress MLAs in Gujarat voted for BJP-nominated Ram Nath Kovind as the President of India – has also raised suspicions that the BJP has been using Vaghela to create rifts in the Gujarat Congress.
Despite this, several Congress leaders in the state refused to admit to having apprehensions about Vaghela’s exit. They are choosing, instead, to pin their election hopes on the anti-incumbency mood prevalent among several voter groups in the state.
‘Everyone is upset with BJP’
For instance, Kantibhai Tamaliya, a Congress Zilla Panchayat member from Surendranagar district, believes that voter sentiment towards the Congress is unlikely to change based on the resignation of just one leader, even if it is a popular leader like Shankersinh Vaghela. “There is a strong anti-incumbency feeling among voters across Gujarat, particularly after they saw how the BJP government mishandled the Patidar and GST agitations,” said Tamaliya, referring to the harsh police crackdowns on rallies demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars in 2015 and on textile trader protests against the Goods and Services Tax regime introduced this month.
Balwant Jain, the Congress general secretary of Surat city and one of the many textile traders at the forefront of the anti-GST agitation, is also hopeful that displeasure with the BJP will help push several voters towards the Congress. “The party morale is definitely down because Vaghela ji was a much-loved leader with a lot of influence on party workers,” said Jain, who doesn’t expect other Congress members to quit unless Vaghela announces his own new party. “But as far as the election is concerned, one cannot ignore the fact that this time, everyone from the Patidars to the Dalits, OBCs, farmers and traders are upset with the current BJP government, and they will vote accordingly.”
In fact, the Congress may actually benefit from Vaghela’s exit, say some party workers, because it will pave the way for new blood to take over. “It will be good for young leaders – particularly Patidar leaders – to come forward now,” said Hasmukhbhai Desai, the Surat city Congress president. “It might bring more voters to the party.”
In addition to anti-incumbency, Congress leader Kirtisinh Jhala believes caste will also play an important role in the Assembly election. “Vaghela is a Rajput, and Rajputs barely have a 2% voter base in Gujarat,” said Jhala, the Mehsana district Congress president. “But Bharatsinh Solanki [the state Congress president] is an OBC Kshatriya, a group with at least a 40% voter base.”
‘Congress has no real leadership’
While Jhala may have been expressing pre-election bravado, political scientist Ghanshyam Shah points out that there is a very thin line between Rajputs and Kshatriyas in Gujarat. “Vaghela has a large base among the OBC and Kshatriya communities, and his resignation from the Congress will definitely have a big impact on the party,” said Shah. “There is a lot of unrest against the BJP in Gujarat but the Congress has not been able to address it, because it has no real leadership.”
Shah is confident that Vaghela will not defect to the BJP, but suspects he may set up his own party as a third front. “He is politically dashing and would take the risk of stepping out and doing something new,” said Shah. “He can negotiate well with Dalits, Patidars and OBCs.”
At the grassroots level, for Congress workers like Sonalben Patel in Ahmedabad, Vaghela quitting the party will mean just one thing: more work in the run-up to the election. “Even if Vaghela’s supporters don’t quit the party right now, they are no longer likely to go campaigning for the election. Which means harder work for people like me, who think the party is more important than its leaders,” said Patel, who has been campaigning door-to-door in Ahmedabad for almost a year. “Congress is definitely going to suffer in this election, but all the anti-BJP sentiments among so many groups gives me hope.”