HE remote town of Radhanpur, near the Rann of Kutch, has overnight become the pivot of political activity in Gujarat. Chief Minister Shankersinh Vaghela is dete-rmined to seek election to the Vidhan Sabha in mid-April from there. The VHP is equally determined to avenge the ar rest of its state general secretary, Praveen Togadia, by humbling Vaghela on his chosen turf. The BJP, too, is on trial in Radhanpur; moderates and hardliners must bury the hatchet to rout the chief minister.
The timing of Togadia's arrest—for allegedly attacking and stripping BJP veteran Atmaram Patel, then a minister, last year—was significant; at the precise moment BJP chief L.K. Advani arrived in Ahmedabad to address the party's elected representatives, Togadia was being produced before a magistrate. "It was a slap in the face of the BJP-VHP, daring them to do their worst," said a source close to Vaghela. "The chief minister wanted to test their strength." Predictably enraged, the BJP called a statewide bandh even as the VHP threatened that Gujarat would go up in flames. Vaghela's gamble paid off; the bandh was only partly successful, by and large confined to urban centres. "He wants the VHP to dissipate its energies instead of concentrating on Radhanpur," explained a Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) source.
While the BJP and VHP are preparing for another Chhindwara, Vaghela is lining up his own forces. An army of sants under the banner of the Rashtriya Sant Samaj will take on the VHP. Their first meeting will be held at Junagadh on March 6 "to endorse Togadia's arrest". This will be reiterated at an RJP meet in Ahmedabad on March 9. A day before the bandh, local dailies carried ads listing the names of (now ex-) VHP and RSS members who opposed the bandh. Vaghela has made inroads into the Kisan Sangh and the VHP, BJP leaders admit.
VHP chief Acharya Giriraj Kishore, in Ahmedabad last week to lead a protest against Togadia's arrest, dismissed the rival sants as 'madaris'. But Vaghela has a weighty ally in Chaitanya Shambhu Prasad, a powerful orator and influential sant, who has prevailed on Vaghela to enforce a strict ban on cow slaughter. "I was disgusted with the personality cult in the VHP. Sant Avichal Dasji (who spearheaded the anti-Vaghela campaign in Godhara during the Lok Sabha poll) had a personal axe to grind, as does Togadia," said the sant. Also favouring Vaghela is the fact that the MLA who vacated the seat for him, Lavingji Solanki, and his former rival, Memabhai Chaudhry, are both now in his camp.
The BJP, riding high on a string of successes in the state—the most recent being the Sarkheja assembly byelection and the Mandvi nagar palika poll—is confident the sympathy factor will work in its favour. BJP nominees were elected president and vice-president of the Radhanpur municipal body last week. "Radhanpur voters, who invited Lavingji to contest and financed his campaign, are feeling betrayed," says former chief minister Keshubhai Patel.
Instead of unifying the BJP factions, Togadia's arrest has heightened the differences. The hardliners, upset with 'moderate' leader A.B. Vajpayee, scuttled his visit to Gujarat the day after Togadia's arrest. The moderates are in an awkward position because the attack on Atmaram Patel, which happened at the venue of a Vajpayee public meeting, was aimed at embarrassing the then BJP chief minister Suresh Mehta and the senior BJP leader. "It was Togadia's brief to create law and order problems at Vajpayee's meetings. Now Mehta, as leader of opposition, has to protest his arrest," says a moderate.
As Vaghela points out with a hint of smugness: "The cases and the charges against Togadia were made in my predecessor's time. This is merely due process of law." Mehta says his stand is unchanged; he still condemns the attack but questions the timing of the arrest. "The police did not arrest him earlier for lack of evidence. There is no new evidence, so why arrest him now?" Although moderates and hardliners are maintaining an amicable front and even sharing platforms, there is a growing sense of injury among the former, who feel the troika of state BJP chief Vaju-bhai Vala, Keshubhai Patel and state BJP general secretary Sanjay Joshi have completely sidelined Mehta. They have no say whatsoever in organisational matters, even in their own constituencies. "The high command knows what is happening, yet it does nothing," says a moderate leader.
The hardliners are increasingly militant, charging the rival camp with being Vaghela sympathisers and freely expressing the view that they should "quit the BJP so that we can start with a clean slate". A view heartily endorsed by the VHP leadership.
A natural beneficiary of the BJP's troubles, Vaghela has been running the assembly's budget session like a rowdy classroom—adjournments, suspension, forcible eviction are daily phenomena. The Speaker's refusal to seat seven MLAs who have abandoned the RJP and pledged support to the BJP, the single largest party, paralysed the House proceedings for a whole day. In the face of blatant provocation, the BJP has not presented a united front. When Mehta offered to talk things over with Vaghela and arrive at a compromise, the hawks wouldn't bite. "We should concentrate on two things—the court cases challenging the validity of this government, and Radhanpur, instead of wasting our energies in petty protests and displays in the House. It will cost us public support," says a moderate.
Vaghela has his own share of trouble: the BJP and VHP have launched a blitzkrieg of petitions against him. He faces an income tax probe on the source of funds used to transport his supporters to Khajuraho, as well as investigations into charges that MLAs were bribed to switch loyalty to the RJP.
The Congress, with 45 MLAs supporting Vaghela's 43, is a constant threat. Although its leaders have been getting their way in transfers and postings, members of the JD-G group (and senior leaders like AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel) are not keen on continuing support to Vaghela. However, state Congress leaders feel the party would be virtually wiped out if elections were held immediately. Togadia has refused to move a bail plea. "He will emerge from prison at the right time and go straight to Radhanpur," says a VHP activist. To overcome all the odds, Vaghela will have to live up to his wily reputation.