In 2002, Congress president Sonia Gandhi handed the reins of the Gujarat unit, which was going through leadership vacuum, to a man with RSS roots — Shankersinh Vaghela.
The move was seen as a masterstroke to rejuvenate the party to challenge a confidant BJP led by Narendra Modi in the assembly polls happening amid communal polarisation in the wake of Godhra riots.
Given their common RSS background and a sharp political acumen — which was on full display in 1996 when he toppled BJP’s first ever government in Gujarat — Vaghela emerged as the Congress’s answer to Modi.
Bapu, as he is fondly called, had earned the tag of ‘a Modi foe’ in 1996 when his rebellion against Modi and CM Keshubhai Patel ensured the then-BJP organising secretary (Modi) was sent out of the state, and he became the chief minister.
Vaghela launched Rashtriya Janta Party. His act destroyed the BJP, though only for a brief period. The BJP won back 1998 elections while Vaghela’s party managed just 4 of the 182 seats. He then merged the RJP with Congress, only to get PCC chief post in 2002. By that time, Modi was back as CM of Gujarat.
Fifteen years later as the state readies for polls, Congress had the best chance of making it to power, or at least a dent in BJP’s prospects, as Modi, now the Prime Minister, is not around.
But banking on Vaghela has not helped, especially with his label of “former RSS man” who was never accepted whole-heartedly by many state Congress leaders.
At an event to mark his 77th birthday, a day after Congress was jolted by presidential poll result wherein 11 of its MLAs had cross-voted, Vaghela said, “I free myself from Congress.”
With him resigning as CLP leader and announcing to quit as MLA as well, the Congress is back to square one and has to launch a leader hunt now.