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'If they tell me to become chief minister, I am ready to accept'

After two months of waffling and making up, the Congress finally withdrew support to the minority government of Gujarat Chief Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela. The Congress is ready to support the Mahagujarat Janata Party if it changes the chief minister.

Though Industry Minister Dilip Parikh and Finance Minister Babubhai Shah are contenders for the post, Revenue Minister Atmaram Patel is the dark horse.

Earlier this month, he tried to rebel against the Vaghela government two weeks ago, but gave up due to lack of support. More important, he visited the governor on Wednesday morning. Asked why, he described it as a courtesy call.

Patel -- whose humiliation after being stripped of his dhoti and assaulted at a Vajpayee rally on May 20, 1996, spurred Vaghela to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party government -- now appears to come to the limelight himself.

Interestingly, he says he never rebelled against Vaghela, adding a caveat that "if given a chance, I will prove my ability." Excerpts from a telephone interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf from Gandhinagar:

Since the Congress has withdrawn support to the Vaghela government, do you consider yourself one of the contenders for the chief minister's post?

It is up to my party to decide whether I must be the chief minister of Gujarat. If they tell me to become the chief minister, I am ready to accept the post and I will prove my ability.

Are there any other contenders?

Yes, they say Industry Minister Dilip Parikh and senior party leader Babubhai Meghji Shah are also contenders for the post. If the party appoints them, I will hold no grievance against them. I am ready to accept one of them as the chief minister of Gujarat.

Two weeks ago you had camped in Delhi and were all set to oust Vaghela. Have you settled your dispute with him?

I never had any dispute with Vaghela. I accept him as my leader.

So you never rebelled against him?

No, never.

Do you foresee a mid-term elections in Gujarat?

No. Governor Krishnapal Singh has given us eight days and I am sure some compromise will be reached in six days. Because at this juncture no MLA wants elections.

What if a compromise is not reached with the Congress and if a mid-term election is held? Will your party forge an alliance with the Congress?

I cannot comment at this moment. At present, I feel a mid-term poll is avoidable. But if a mid-term election becomes a reality, we will act according to the situation.

Why is Vaghela is not acceptable to the Congress party?

Because they feel that in the last year Vaghela never took the Congress into consideration and that he always took decisions without consulting them. It is not true.

Vaghela said he would form a co-ordination committee which would solve the problem. Why did that not work?

I don't know. Ask the Congress leaders about it.

If your party goes it alone in Gujarat without an alliance with the Congress, how many seats do you expect to win?

Considering the achievements of our party in the last year, I feel we can win at least 50 seats on our own strength.

Do you foresee a situation some of your MLAs joining hands with the BJP since that party is just 14 short of a majority in the assembly? I mean, a same kind of situation also occurred in Uttar Pradesh, where 22 MLAs of Congress broke off and join hands with the BJP?

No, I am sure that our Rashtriya Janata Party will not break up. We are all with Vaghela and we accept him as our leader. We will consider his words as final even if he says we have to opt for elections. The same is the case with the Congress party in Gujarat. It too won't split.

How can you say with such confidence since politics today has become so full of uncertainties?

I told you that no one will split. You just wait for six days. Some compromise will be reached between us and the Congress party.

If you are appointed chief minister, how different will your style of functioning be from Vaghela's?

For all major decisions, I will consider recommendations from all my senior party leaders and Congress leaders. Only then I will take a final decision.

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