For an active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, it was natural for Vaghela to join active politics. The mentorship in Sangh for him came from Lakshmanrao Inamdar and Kashinath Bagavade. His association with the Sangh saw him incarcerated during Emergency. He was elected to Lok Sabha in the polls that followed, in 1977, from Kapadbhanj on a Janata Party ticket, a seat that he could not retain in January 1980.
As a strong leader of the Jana Sangh, he along with Keshubhai Patel saw through the birth of Bharatiya Janata Party three months later and went to become the organisational secretary and state president of the party and successively scripted the first electoral triumph of BJP in Gujarat in 1995. Even though Vaghela was the choice of the cadre, the party high command chose Patel patriarch Keshubhai as the chief minister, much to Vaghela’s chagrin.
But his woes had just begun. His supporters started getting the rough end of the stick, allegedly at the behest of his one-time friend Narendra Modi, leaving Vaghela frustrated and marginalised. Pushed to the wall, Vaghela staged a rebellion against the government with 47 MLAs.
As a compromise, Keshubhai was replaced by the mild-mannered Suresh Mehta and Modi given duty outside Gujarat. However, Vaghela lost the Lok Sabha polls in 1996 in Godhra, a defeat he still smarts from. He held the party responsible for it and staged a rare split in the BJP.
Vaghela’s newly-formed Rashtriya Janata Party received Congress support and formed the government. After it was toppled, Vaghela merged his party with Congress but Gujarat chose BJP again in 1998. With his charisma and grip over the Gujarat polity, Vaghela was an asset to the Congress that was losing ground in the state. Hence his win in the Lok Sabha polls in 1999 and 2004 saw his stature grow.
He was made Union textile minister, apart from PCC president. But the crafty politician remained an outsider with a powerful faction that had the blessings of Ahmed Patel opposing him because of his associations with the Sangh.
On his part, Vaghela never allowed his political affiliations to effect his social transactions and used to touch the feet of Keshubhai Patel in public, much to the chagrin of Congress workers. Despite a major chunk of Congress treating him as an outsider, ‘Bapu’ remained one of the biggest crowd pullers of his party that was running out of mass leaders.
Ahead of Gujarat elections in 2012, his supporters released an advertisement in local dailies detailing Vaghela’s achievements as CM, a day ahead of his birthday.
Congress, for the record, did not announce the CM candidate even then. Cut to 2017, Bapu chose his birthday to push his agenda. He berated Congress for its perceptible inaction and used his birthday to walk out from the party that gave him state presidentship and Union Cabinet portfolio but never a place in the ‘sanctum sanctorum’.