February 19, 2017 1:00:37 am
It was pitch dark when the buses — two of them — set off from a village in Gandhinagar. Inside, the BJP MLAs, nearly 55 of them, sat clueless as the buses sped — first past Keshubhai’s residence, then past Raj Bhavan where they thought they were headed. They finally got off at Ahmedabad airport and were taken to a waiting Damania Airways plane.
“Now leave,” Shankersinh Vaghela recalls telling the MLAs he was “safeguarding”. That September night in 1995, Vaghela, then a BJP MP from Godhra and now with the Congress, had effected a stunning coup, the biggest such the party has seen. “All of us got on to the chartered plane, still clueless about where we were going, until the stewardess said, ‘We are flying to Khajuraho’,” says Dilip Parikh, who was among the senior leaders of that rebellion and who went on to become chief minister in the Vaghela-founded All India Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) government.
In the 1995 Assembly elections, the BJP won 121 of 182 seats, the first time it had won a majority in the state. At a town hall meeting in Gandhinagar in March 1995, Keshubhai Patel’s name was proposed for the CM’s post, with Narendra Modi, then national general secretary (organisation), said to have thrown his weight behind Patel. But Vaghela’s supporters had hoped he would be CM and that town hall meeting kicked off a rebellion. “Shankersinh noted that only those close to them (Modi and Keshubhai) were picked as ministers,” says Parikh, who runs his plastics business and is no longer active in politics.
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In September 1995, Keshubhai left for a tour of the US, naming Ashok Bhatt as caretaker CM. “Before leaving, he asked me if I had a problem with Narendra Modi. I told him, ‘I have a problem with you. When you come back, you may not be CM’,” says Vaghela. He claims 105 of the 121 MLAs were disgruntled and came to him. “I told them, leave this government. Are you ready?” He first took them to his village Vasan in Gandhinagar, where a few MLAs left. “(Now minister in state Cabinet) Babu Bokhiriya’s wife came to fetch him, then Jaspal Singh (former IPS officer) left. About a dozen others left, leaving some 55 behind,” says Vaghela, now Leader of Opposition in the Assembly.
The MLAs were later taken to the home of Haribhai Chaudhary, a Congress supporter, in Charada village in Mansa taluka in Gandhinagar. There too, a few left. “Mansukh Vasava (now BJP MP) was among those who left from the backdoor,” says Vaghela. Parikh recalls, “The MLAs close to the other camp brought their goons and we were attacked with stones. Haribhai’s wife, Bhikhiben, then got the villagers together and told them: ‘Have you all worn bangles? They are our guests…’ So the villagers got together and chased them away.” It was then that Vaghela decided to take the MLAs out of Gujarat, but with BJP governments in Maharashtra, Delhi and Rajasthan, it was Madhya Pradesh, where Congress’s Digvijaya Singh was CM, that seemed the safest.
Talking of the night the MLAs were driven to the airport, Vaghela says the original plan was to fly out the MLAs at 3 pm. “But we got late convincing everyone. Finally, when we reached the airport, we realised one of aircraft tyres was flat. That was fixed but then I learnt there was no night landing in Khajuraho so I spoke to the then aviation minister and got gas lights on the runway to facilitate the landing. When the plane finally took off, I breathed a sigh of relief,” says Vaghela. Vaghela claims he did not visit the MLAs while they were in Khajuraho for a week.
Meanwhile, in Gandhinagar, the rebellion had set off alarm bells among the central leadership. Senior leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Rajasthan CM Bhaironsinh Shekhawat flew in to Gandhinagar to convince Vaghela to get the MLAs back. “I told them I want Narendrabhai moved out of Gujarat,” he says. The MLAs, who had been asked to pack clothes for 2-3 days, were kept in a five-star hotel, two to a room. “There were no mobile phones or 24×7 news then. There was this half-hour news slot on Doordarshan, which flashed news about us. Uma Bharti, who was BJP MP from Khajuraho, and Kushabhau Thakre (then vice-president of BJP) were among those who came to the hotel to meet the MLAs,” says a Vaghela confidant on condition of anonymity. This confidant, who calls himself the “manager” of the coup, was posted in the same hotel in Khajuraho to ensure the safety of MLAs.
There were many MLAs such as Jay Narayan Vyas who, though unhappy with the leadership, did not go to Khajuraho. “Once you are voted on a symbol, you must not defect,” says Vyas, who went on to become minister in Keshubhai and Narendra Modi Cabinets. Back in Khajuraho, the MLAs held meetings everyday, but as Parikh says, they had the time of their lives. “We spent our time playing table tennis, swimming, listening to music. We were told to relax and enjoy,” he says. Vaghela claims the entire episode cost around Rs 10 lakh. “The chartered aircraft must have cost around Rs 4-5 lakh and if you count Rs 2-2,500 per room per night, then the hotel stay must have cost Rs 4-5 lakh,” he says.
In Gandhinagar, Vajpayee and other senior leaders held hectic negotiations with Vaghela. One of these days, the MLAs got a call at their hotel, at 3 am, asking them to fly back at 6 am. They were taken to the circuit house in Gandhinagar where the compromise proposal was tabled. “‘No Shankersinh, no Keshubhai’, said Vajpayee. So two names were put forth Suresh Mehta and Kashiram Rana,” says Parikh. Finally, Mehta became CM. Though six of Vaghela’s men got ministries, the bitterness stayed. A former minister in the later Modi government in Gujarat says, “The Vaghela camp was always treated as an outcaste. They were nicknamed ‘Khajurias’ (those who went to Khajuraho), the ones who stayed with Keshubhai were called ‘Hajurias’ (from Ji Huzoori or flatterers), and the rest were called ‘Majurias’ (the no-where people).”
In 1996, during a meeting to felicitate Vajpayee, who had gone on to become prime minister, the factionalism in the party came out in the open once again when Vaghela’s men were assaulted — senior co-operative leader and MLA, the late Atmaram Patel, was stripped of his dhoti and another leader, Dattaji Chirandas, was nearly set ablaze. After this episode, Vaghela rebelled again. But when he lost the 1996 general elections from Godhra, BJP expelled him and he formed the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP). With 48 rebel BJP MLAs, and with support of the Congress, he staked claim to form government. “I was sworn in as CM in October 1996,” says Vaghela. But a year later, after a fallout with the Congress, Vaghela made way for Parikh as CM.
In March 1998, Parikh sought dissolution of the Assembly on Vaghela’s behest. In the Assembly elections that followed, the RJP got only four seats and, by end of 1998, Vaghela merged his party with the Congress. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, he won on a Congress ticket from Kapadvanj. Many of his followers returned to the BJP fold. “I told them, you are free to join BJP because I cannot ensure you anything in the Congress… Then, the party was not in power either in Gujarat or at the Centre,” says Vaghela. The incident, considered one of the biggest coups in the BJP, “finished Vaghela’s career in the BJP and ended his credibility”, says a former minister in the Modi government.
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