A scant two months after the BJP leadership sought to paper over the cracks in its Gujarat unit, the fissures have re-emerged. And for the second time in its nine-month tenure, the state's BJP government is teetering on the edge of the abyss.
Chief Minister Suresh Mehta, who was the compromise candidate for the post, is caught in the crossfire between supporters of MP Shankersinh Vaghela and those of former chief minister Keshubhai Patel. The latter has clearly not forgiven the party high command for stripping him of his post after Vaghela engineered a revolt by party MLAs against him in early October.
Last week, these divisions erupted in demonstrations by BJP workers in Surat, against party leader Atal Behari Vajpayee and state unit chief Kanshi Ram Rana, who were instrumental in working out the compromise formula which unseated Patel. Soon after, Industries Minister Dilip Parikh, a Vaghela supporter, was heckled at Dhandakua, allegedly by BJP workers.
A beleaguered Mehta, who heads a cabinet riven by bickering between ministers of the Vaghela and Patel factions, told the press recently that attempts were being made to destabilise his government. Sources close to him claim Patel had planned to take a planeload of MLAs to Delhi on December 16 to press for his reinstatement, but called off the plan when an adequate number of legislators could not be mustered.
While Patel and Vaghela blame each other and the Congress for the Surat incident, Mehta has launched a counter-offensive. When Civil Supplies Minister and Keshubhai loyalist Jaspal Singh charged Union Food Minister Buta Singh with corruption, he was ticked off by Mehta and Rana for making the statement. And when Junagadh MP Bhavna Chikilia, said to be a Keshubhai supporter, made a futile bid for chairmanship of the Housing Finance Corporation, a press note issued from the BJP office said the 'Congress-backed' rebel candidate had lost the race.
The divisions in the party appear to have permeated the district level. On the surface, the facade of unity is maintained and Patel declares himself a loyal soldier of the party. But he has not been attending meetings of the state's coordination committee and was absent at Vajpayee's function at Banskantha (where chairs were flung).
So bogged down is the BJP in its feuding, that the moribund Congress is showing signs of revival. Congress leader Amarsinh Choudhury has been touring the state in an attempt to exploit the BJP's loss of prestige. The state's severe power crisis has exacerbated Mehta's troubles. "Stability will once again be our main plank," says Choudhury.
He is setting his sights on the panchayat elections scheduled for December 31. A Vaghela-style revolt against the Kheda pan-chayat chief and the proliferation of rebel candidates—some self-styled members of the kesria vahini—indicate the poll may not be a cakewalk for the BJP.
As Vishwa Hindu Parishad state unit chief Dr Praveen Togadia observes, a disunited BJP could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He points out that the BJP had a margin of only 9 per cent votes over the Congress in the last poll.
Patel has the tacit support of the Sangh parivar, including the Bharatiya Kisan and Mazdoor Sanghs. BKS Secretary Ramesh Chaudhry sings Keshubhai's praises, while planning an andolan against Mehta over the power shortages in the rural sector.
Vaghela's supporters are reviled as 'Khajurias'—a reference to the MLAs who went to Khajuraho at Vaghela's instance, when he was organising a revolt against Patel. For Vaghela, who has no bright prospects at the Centre, consolidating his position in Gujarat is imperative as once the Lok Sabha polls are over, he may not have much sway over the party leadership.
For the high command, it is imperative that Mehta continue, hopefully for five years but if not, at least until the 1996 elections. But the situation seems to have gone far beyond temporary patchwork solutions.
Kanshi Ram Rana's assurance that "action will be taken against those responsible for the Surat incident" rings hollow, as the party is reluctant to take disciplinary action. "The high command is suffering from a guilt complex vis-a-vis Keshubhai, as they know he has the widest mass base," claims a Patel supporter. Mehta is perceived as a lame-duck chief minister, paralysed by dissidence.
"Heads will role if discipline is not restored," warns Rajya Sabha MP and party patriarch Chiman Shukla. Obviously, Keshubahi's supporters have been given a gentle warning. One of them, Deputy Minister Savji Korhat, had planned to weigh his leader—all 92 kg of him—in blood at a public function. The programme was later amended to include Mehta, who would be weighed in coins. But Savji's purpose was clear—to project the man he describes as "Ram in banwas" as the choice of the masses.