The latest is that the party has flown 40 of its MLAs to the safe environs of Karnataka for a-week long sojourn to escape the poaching BJP Gir lions and the Congress legislators will safely return for the Rajya Sabha poll on August 8. And there hangs the tale. No amount of breast-beating by the Congress can conceal the fact that the Congress is in big disarray, and the latest in Gujarat is yet another public demonstration of the turmoil within. It is accusing the ruling BJP of using money and muscle power to engineer defections. But are senior Congressmen sitting ducks to be taken away by its rivals?
The trouble here is a continuing process of defection, which at the time of writing has the Congress losing 17 MLAs (some didn't board the plane to Bengaluru and others are reportedly keen to resign) and one of its leaders, who joined the BJP two days ago, Balwantsinh Rajput, filing his nomination for the Rajya Sabha as a candidate for the third seat. The contest now will be between this dissident and Congress President Sonia Gandhi's long-time political secretary Ahmed Patel.
But for a miracle, Ahmed Patel will lose the election on August 8, delivering a massive set back to the Congress' prospects in the upcoming assembly poll due in a couple of months. Patel, a seven-time MP from Gujarat is the most powerful Congress leader from the state. His defeat will be a personal setback for Sonia Gandhi because of his proximity to the Congress' First Family and also because it is bound to decimate the Congress further. The party was hopeful till recently to recapture Gujarat after over two decades of uninterrupted BJP rule.
As in Bihar, the Congress was caught napping in Gujarat. The party was always a divided house. There were clearly two separate groups, one faction owing allegiance to the traditional Congress of Ahmed Patel and state chief Bharatsinh Solanki, and the other faction aligned to Shankarsinh Vaghela, formerly of the BJP and who incidentally was the most popular Congress leader and former state party chief. While Patel has no mass base, Vaghela is a mass leader with considerable clout in his Kshatriya community. Vaghela quit the Congress last week and he seems to have triggered the latest trouble. He might float a new party and contest the state election, but his mission clearly is to rehabilitate his son Mahendrasinh Vaghela in the BJP with the blessings of party chief Amit Shah.
Shah himself is the BJP Rajya Sabha candidate from the state. There are three vacancies and the BJP has fielded Union Textile and Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani as the second candidate. The party is sure to win both their seats and the contest will be close for the third seat. Patel needs the support of 46 MLAs, but after defections (current and expected), the party is left with only 36 MLAs. The revolt in the party is timed to unseat Ahmed Patel from his lofty perch and it is led by Vaghela.
The man whom once the Congress used to split the BJP is now driving the last nail into the Congress' chances in Gujarat. Ever since Narendra Modi emerged on the national scene, factions of the Congress have been showing signs of siphoning off to consolidate under the BJP bandwagon. In the 2014 election, the party won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats from Gujarat. In the Presidential election, 11 Congress MLAs cross voted in favour of Ram Nath Kovind. Soon after, Vaghela quit the Congress and the MLAs who were led by Vaghela's son declared their proximity to the BJP. Last year, there were reports that the Patel agitation under maverick Hardik Patel would damage the BJP. After some setbacks in the local panchayat elections, the BJP recovered its position in civic body polls. The Patel agitation went haywire and fizzled out. It was said that the Congress was behind the Patel agitation.
Both the BJP and the Congress have a solid support base in the state. Even in its worst times, the Congress managed a vote share of 33 per cent and the BJP crossed the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha poll, which was a record. With Vaghela out, the Congress will lose a substantial chunk of the Kshatriya vote which will compensate the BJP for whatever per cent it may lose because of the Patel agitation.
Meanwhile the BJP has widened its base among the tribals and Dalits and the Koli community, which is a significant 17 per cent, is likely to gravitate towards the BJP after Kovind's elevation as President.
Traditionally, Gujarat was a Congress bastion. The BJP's emergence as a pan-India party began after it captured power for the first time in Gujarat in 1995. Till then, the BJP's sphere of influence was confined to the Hindi-speaking states of the north. Its foray outside those states started with Gujarat. Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then as Sangathan Mantri of the state, was largely instrumental in bringing the BJP to victory. The BJP also benefited from the Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra of LK Advani in 1990, the Ekata Yatra of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi two years later, and the charismatic leadership of Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela.
The Congress later used Vaghela to bring down the first BJP government under Keshubhai Patel by splitting the BJP. Vaghela became Chief Minister with Congress support. Ever since, the Congress in the state has been known as the BJP B-team, because of Vaghela's long association with the RSS. The state, which for decades was saffronised, forced even the Congress to follow a soft Hindutva line to counter the BJP, with Vaghela and his cohorts calling the shots. The same Vaghela has now proved to be the Congress' nemesis.
(Dr R. Balashankar is Member, BJP Central Committee on Training, and Committee on Publications and former Convener BJP National Intellectual Cell and former Editor Organiser.)
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