ON the rain swept evening of August 8, rebel Gujarat BJP leader Shanker Singh Vaghela was clued to developments in the party through the pager of a Man Friday. When another message flashed: state BJP chief Vajubhai Vala had slapped a terse one-line showcause notice on him. "This should see me out by tomorrow," Vaghela said. Sure enough, he was expelled the next morning by the high command in Delhi.
The ability of anticipating, even forcing, his opponents to act his will is Vaghela's strongpoint. And the threat to tear up the showcause notice in public had elicited the expected response from the party bosses. But, after an 11-month slugfest, even Vaghela doesn't know what lies in store for him and his soon-to-be-formed party. Notwithstanding the wave of apprehension over the stability of the Suresh Mehta government sweeping through the state.
The new party will be launched on August 20. In all probability it will be called the Bharatiya Janata Parishad or Bharatiya Janata Party (Sardar), to capitalise on the initials. Gujarati pride and justice for the state will be its plank. "I had no option," says Vaghela. "I will not shun a fight if they want one. I have taken them on in the past and won, and have no hesitation in doing so again."
Even Vaghela's detractors doff their hats to his organisational abilities. On the eve of his exit, he had split the Sangh parivar-led farmers, students and trade unions. But his associates say he won't pose an immediate threat to the incumbent BJP government. "Neither the numbers nor the logic favour him right now. He'll try and build his party at the taluka and zilla panchayat levels before the assembly elections due in three-and-a-half years," says one aide.
Although Suresh Mehta is seen as a Vaghela man, he has been assured by the high command that he'll not be removed if he doesn't take Vaghela's side. A day after Vaghela's expulsion, the chief minister called a meeting of party MLAs to keep his flock together.
Vaghela had been expelled after he led last September's revolt against the Keshubhai Patel government. The expulsion was rescinded after a compromise formula forged by Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vaghela says most of the other terms of the accord were not met which is why he threw down the gauntlet. "Leaders like Keshubhai and revenue minister Ashok Bhatt entered into a sinister conspiracy and had senior minister Atmaram Patel and RSS leader Dattaji Chirandas stripped and assaulted. The mastermind was made the police and judge, and the victim was named culprit."
In showing Vaghela the door, the BJP has taken a calculated gamble. The rebels' antics had affected the party's image outside Gujarat. By expelling him, the party sent a signal that it's prepared to lose a state in its bid to gain the nation. The decision was also prompted by what the party high command perceived to be Vaghela's depleting power.
Though 47 MLAs went with Vaghela to Khajuraho last September, at least 16 of them are known to have met Party President L.K. Advani and sought pardon for their action. Vaghela needs at least 41 MLAs with him in order not to come under the ambit of the anti-defection law. The general consensus in Gandhi nagar is that he has between 25 and 30 MLAs now. And Vaghela's clout has been reduced after his defeat—engineered by VHP and RSS cadres angered at the downfall of Keshubhai Patel—in the general elections.
But Vaghela's quest for numbers may be helped by rumblings in the Congress. The 25 MLAs of the Janata Dal (G) faction of the late Chiman bhai Patel have never been made to feel quite at home in the Congress. Led by former chief minister Chabbil das Mehta, they are now giving out signals that they are not averse to aligning with Vaghela. Such a course will end Gujarat's two-party status, and provide a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative.
Meanwhile, Vaghela has been trying to build bridges with Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and is inclined to tie up with dissident BJP leaders in other states as well. The United Front stands to gain should Vaghela align with it. Rumours have also been rife that Vaghela may possibly strike a deal with the Shiv Sena. But political observers say Vaghela—who attributes his Lok Sabha defeat to "Hindu fundamentalist forces"—knows better.