Against All Odds, We Put Up A Good Show: Shaktisinh Gohil

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Against All Odds, We Put Up A Good Show: Shaktisinh Gohil

| Updated: June 14, 2024 13:32

Shaktisinh Gohil talks about the party breaking the decade-long jinx, financial difficulties faced, role of the EC, and much more

Shaktisinh Gohil is an MP and a member of the Congress party. He was appointed president of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee in June 2023, in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.

Shaktisinh was the minister of finance, health, education, and Narmada in two consecutive state governments from 1991 to 1995. He also led the opposition parties in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly as the Leader of Opposition from 2007 to 2012.

In an interview with the ‘Vibes of India’ after the Lok Sabha elections, Gohil is candid and forthcoming. He talks about the party breaking the decade-long jinx, financial difficulties faced, role of the EC, and much more. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. The Congress has broken its 10-year jinx and won a Lok Sabha seat in Gujarat. What is your reaction to that? 

I am grateful to the voters of Gujarat, especially to the voters of Banaskantha. This election has been very challenging for us. We have fought it against all odds. 

In any competition, a level playing field should be given to both sides. It is guaranteed in our Constitution that all will be given an equal platform to compete. Even in the Representation of People’s Act, it is clearly mentioned that during an election, whether it’s the prime minister, a minister, or a small worker of the opposition party, all shall be treated equally. 

But in this election we faced many difficulties. To give you an example, we were preparing ourselves to contest this election. For this purpose, financially we wanted to have funds. Thanks to our supporters, workers and well-wishers we had collected funds in 11 bank accounts. Just prior to the announcement of the elections, the Central government misused its power. The Income-Tax department seized the 11 bank accounts on very flimsy grounds. The allegation was that in 2017 and 2018, our own party MPs had donated Rs 40 lakhs and Rs 56,000 crores to the Congress Party. 

Apart from seizing of bank accounts, all our fixed deposits were frozen so that the Congress Party could not take out a single penny to contest the elections. We knew we were in the right and if we approached the high court or Supreme Court we would get justice. But first we would have to appeal before the I-T department, then the tribunal, and only then approach the courts. By that time, the elections would be over!

That was our major concern when elections started. But without any fear in our minds we went ahead to fight the elections. I am thankful to the people of the country and people of Gujarat. They supported us. You must have seen, and your cameras must have shown people standing in queues before our candidates to give some money because they knew our situation. So we were getting financial support from the people. But that was not enough. 

Thanks to the Supreme Court, the news came out that the BJP is having huge money power, officially Rs 8,046 crores. On the other hand, an opposition party which is contesting is without funds.  

The other thing is that in our Constitution, the Election Commission (EC) has been made an  independent agency. The law was very clear in our country that a three-person collegium – the prime minister, a leader of the opposition and a third independent person, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – were to appoint the election commissioners. Because of this process, there were no allegations against the EC for so long. India has had 17 Parliament elections across the country. We have built up a good reputation that free, fair and fearless elections take place in India. 

‘EC has been unfair’

But this time, what happened? Just a few months prior to the announcement of elections, the Central government changed that law. Instead of the Chief Justice, a minister from the ruling party was appointed in the collegium. So, on one side you have the prime minister and a member of his party, and on the other the leader of the opposition. In a democracy, if you don’t have a majority, your voice is not heard. I am very sorry to say the EC has not acted in a fair manner. If we shouted a little, we got notices. At both Central and state level the BJP was in power. The prime minister and BJP leaders were abusing us. They misused both power and money power. But no action was taken.  

But I am happy that the BJP claim of ‘400 paar’ (more than 400 seats) was very far from what they won. The people are powerful in a democracy and no party or person can ignore that fact. I am thankful to my party workers. We have not been in power in Gujarat for many years. Still, our party workers stood by us, they worked tirelessly for us day and night, and they spent their own money. And because of that, we opened our account in Gujarat. If you look at the tribal areas, our vote share has increased marginally. If you compare the 2022 results, which were very bad for us, our vote percentage has gone up in other constituencies as well. I am happy that the people are with us and we have started on a positive note. 

Q. You talked about a level playing field, but the issues that you raised were faced by many other parties, like the RJD in Bihar, TMC in West Bengal and the AAP. That does not justify Congress getting one seat in Gujarat. The second part of my question is – Gujarat is a very vibrant state and known for its money power. So why should you face a money crisis in Gujarat?

Only the Congress Party’s accounts were seized and FDs were frozen. No other party faced so many financial problems. Yes, you are right. All the other opposition parties, like-minded parties, parties which are part of the INDIA bloc, were harassed. Some of the leaders of INDIA alliance parties were sent to jail and there was considerable misuse of power. We were all facing harassment. 

You may also appreciate that the prime minister is from our state. The home minister is also from Gujarat. There was a loyalty towards Manmohan Singh in Punjab. We had a massive victory in Punjab on one occasion as the then prime minister belonged to that state. So like the feeling in Punjab, a similar feeling exists in Gujarat. 

Modi emotionally plays on this fact whenever he is in Gujarat. Otherwise, he always speaks in Hindi. But in Gujarat he has delivered his speeches in Gujarati. Time and again, he has said I am your man. I am a Gujarati who has not committed mistakes. Now again, you will have to vote for me. So that was another issue. 

‘Not 100% satisfied with the result’

I am not saying I am 100% satisfied with this result. When the elections started, the BJP was claiming that Congress will not be able to find candidates. When we finalised our candidates, the entire media had to say that yes, Congress has good candidates. Thereafter, BJP started saying that Congress candidates will lose their deposits in all seats. They said BJP will have a victory margin of more than five lakhs. Now, barring a couple of seats nowhere has this victory margin been achieved. Congress gave a good fight. It was a tight fight in 11 to 12 seats. Even the independent agencies were saying that anything could happen in these seats. The credit goes to our Gujaratis. It goes to our party workers, my Congress family members. So, against all odds, we were able to create that type of scenario.

Q. Was the Congress expecting more seats? If yes, what went wrong? Was it poor booth management?

I do admit that we were expecting more seats. Like Patan, for instance, we lost with a very narrow margin. In Anand too, we lost with a narrow margin. I was expecting to win that seat. We expected to win Sabarkantha, Surendranagar, Amreli and Junagadh too. I was expecting to win a couple of seats in the tribal belt.  

But I must salute our candidates. They fought without money, but without negative feelings. They are brave. They fought very well and because of their fight, the show was good. But we were short of resources. And, the state machinery was being misused. You asked me about Gujarat’s money power. Yes, that is true. Gujarat is industrially rich, but the government is very vindictive. If an industrialist is seen donating to the Congress Party, and the BJP comes to know that, there will immediately be income-tax raids or raids by some other agency on that industrialist. That was the fear in the mind of Gujarati industrialists. So they were not coming forward to give us donations, though they wanted us to come to power. They wanted to help us. 

‘Atmosphere of fear’

Also, there was an atmosphere of fear. Independent good officers were sidelined. Police officers, even of the ranks of IGPs and SPs, were calling my supporters, my workers and threatening them and also threatening the voters. Antisocial elements were allowed to move freely in the field and to make sure that secular votes should not go to the Congress party and secular voters should not go to the polling booths. My expectation was to win 10 to 11 seats where we gave a good fight. That didn’t happen. I explained the circumstances why it couldn’t happen.

Q. Is it true that people from your own party worked against Chandanji Thakor in Patan?

Look, in politics, there are people who work for you; there are people who may not work for you. That’s part of politics. And this is not the first time such things have happened. But I must say, barring a few, whom I can count on my fingertips, most of the  Congress workers worked very hard for the party. Otherwise, the results would have been totally different. We did not lose deposits on a majority of seats as the BJP claimed would happen. There are some complaints. But in BJP, the complaints are more and more. We have an internal democracy and a disciplinary committee. Wherever there is a complaint, my party’s disciplinary committee will certainly look into it. And, remedial measures that are required will be taken. 

Q. This was the first time, perhaps in the last many years, that the Congress party decided to give tickets to four Thakurs, three in north Gujarat, and one in central Gujarat. What was the strategy behind giving so many tickets to the Thakur community?

This time we applied our mind. We looked at past voting trends and history of  constituencies. We studied Banaskantha constituency, for instance. Every time, though our Chaudhary leader was far better than the Chaudhary leader or candidate from the BJP, we lost with a huge margin in Banaskantha. We realised that in the past B K Gadhvi used to win this constituency. Harisinh Chavda has also won. We decided to think out of the box. That’s why we took the decision to field four Thakurs.  

Similarly, we studied other constituencies. I decided that I will go as per the internal system of democracy. I called my senior workers. We had ballot boxes. I asked them to suggest  candidates who would win in the constituency where they were residing. I requested them to give three preferences and the reasons. We had a ‘secret ballot’. Our workers suggested names. I wanted to have a public opinion survey conducted as well. But unfortunately, because of the crisis of resources, we couldn’t do it. 

But I tried to get a sense from the people. We discussed the matter in our Pradesh Election Committee. We call it PEC. I took the opinion of a large number of senior leaders. My in-charge General Secretary Mukul Vasnikji was present. We have cordial relations. I took his opinion too. He is the seniormost general secretary in the All India Congress Committee (AICC). So he has huge experience. That was very helpful to us. My AICC secretaries were moving in the respective areas. We had our observers. Even senior leaders visited the constituencies. Civil society leaders also went to the constituencies. So we got multi-cornered feedback. And, after that, we put the candidate list before the high command. 

In some constituencies, people thought we gave more weight to Leuva Patidars. People were surprised. But we thought that was a good decision. In Palanpur, the Patidars voted for us. In the last election we lost the Assembly seat also in Palanpur. But this time we got very good numbers with Geniben as our candidate. We won the seat. I must say we also benefited from the Kshatriya andolan.

Q. Did your decision to field a Patidar candidate from Jamnagar against an Ahir candidate from BJP go wrong?

No, it didn’t go wrong. Vikram Madam used to be an MP from Jamnagar. We have given him a ticket in the past and we have lost. This time he requested me to do something different. Ahir vs Ahir would not work. I have also studied this constituency in the past. Chandresh Patel from BJP was representing this constituency. Even Urmila Patel contested from Jamnagar when Chimanbhai was the chief minister. 

So Jamnagar, is a constituency where Rajputs, Patidars and Ahirs are all strong. There is not much difference between these communities. Anyone could have won.  Since Vikram Madam was not ready to contest, we had two choices – to field an Ahir or a Patidar, and take a chance. If you look at the result, it was not a bad choice. Poonam Maadam, with huge money power, won the seat. But our candidate did not lose by a large margin.  

Q. Arjunbhai has been a loss for the Congress. You know that  ex-Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia has won the Porbander by-elections with the biggest ever victory margin in the past 11 years in Porbandar. He has cornered at least 86% votes in this by-election. Don’t you regret losing Arjunbhai to the BJP?

When we lose anyone from the family or a party certainly, we are not happy. We feel sad. And I’m not a person who will say that just a few weeks ago Arjunbhai was with me and was fighting tooth and nail with the BJP.  And, that he was a gentleman then. But today, as he has joined the BJP, he is a bad person. That I will not say. I must say he has a quality about him. I was able to get the leader of the opposition post after four terms. Arjunbhai became the leader of opposition the first time he was in the Assembly. 

The Congress party was very nice to him. The party gave him responsibility as a state Congress president twice. He lost miserably from Porbandar twice. Still the ticket was given to him and he got elected. People should not judge by one election. So, maybe you may take it as my party’s mistake. Or, you may take it as my party’s greatness that it has given MLAs full organisational freedom. 

The entire Congress organisation in Porbandar was as per the wishes and will of Arjunbhai. There were dissenting voices in the past. There were a few leaders who were against Arjunbhai. But the party didn’t listen to them. And finally, they left the Congress party and joined BJP. 

Now when the organisation is appointed as per a person’s wish or suggestions and he ditches the party a few days before the elections, he takes the entire organisation with him. In a short span, a party cannot rebuild the organisation. It’s not a joke. You have to invest your time, your faith, to build the organisation back. The BJP tried their best to purchase our candidates, to see that Congress candidates withdraw, but no candidate withdrew and we contested against all odds. 

Q. Mr Gohil, you’ve been really candid in answering this particular question. Is it a lesson learned the hard way? I mean, would this mistake not be repeated – having the local leader have a complete say in the organisational structure? 

Yes, you are right. But we have to put faith in someone.  Now you have one leader who is the elected leader. We have to give weightage to him. But the entire organisation should not be in the hands of one person. We hope such things do not happen in the future.  

Each election has lessons for us. So this election also taught us many things. And, I’m a person with an open heart and open mind. I will try my best to see that my weaknesses go. And, that my strengths should be further strengthened so that in future I can give a good fight to the BJP.

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