Modi’s quiet campaign against his predecessor and former ally, Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel

Modi with senior BJP leaders Kanshi Ram Rana, Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela (left to right) in 1994. SHAILESH RAVAL/THE INDIA TODAY GROUP
29 October, 2020

Keshubhai Patel, a former chief minister of Gujarat from the Bharatiya Janata Party, died on 29 October. Narendra Modi had succeeded Patel as chief minister in 2001. In this excerpt from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” a profile of Modi in The Caravan’s March 2012 issue, Vinod K Jose, the executive editor of the publication, charts the trajectory of Modi’s relationship with Patel.  

Modi had risen quickly within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but to gain real political power, he had to cross over from the purely ideological realm of the RSS into the BJP. That process began in 1987, when he was appointed as the organisation secretary for Gujarat—the person within the state RSS responsible for overseeing the BJP. Unlike the BJP state or national presidents, who are public figures, the organisation secretary is supposed to operate privately, directing the party from behind the scenes and serving as a “bridge” between the RSS and its political affiliate.

The eight years that Modi spent as organisation secretary in Gujarat coincided with an era of rapid growth for the state BJP, which went from 11 seats in the state assembly in 1985 to 121 a decade later. Though there were two very senior leaders at the helm of the state party—Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela, both former Gujarat BJP presidents—Modi became a third power centre, exerting influence over the formation of alliances and the selection of candidates for state and national elections.

During this period, there were three serious episodes of communal rioting in Gujarat, each with greater death toll than the last: 208 dead in 1985, 219 in 1990 and 441 in 1992. The increasing communal friction played to the advantage of the BJP, which consolidated a growing share of the Hindu vote in the state. To capitalise on the tension, the BJP organised a series of roadshows, beginning with two statewide campaigns in which Modi played a key behind-the-scenes role: the Nyay Yatra in 1987 and the Lok Shakti Rath Yatra in 1989. In 1990, when the BJP president LK Advani began his Ayodhya Rath Yatra, which would eventually bring down the Babri Masjid, he set out from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, and Modi facilitated the first stretch of the campaign. The following year, Modi received his first national assignment, as the organiser of an ambitious cross-country Ekta (Unity) Yatra helmed by the BJP’s new president, Murli Manohar Joshi, which began at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu and culminated with the raising of the tricolour in Srinagar.

By the early 1990s, the Hindu nationalist movement had fully arrived as a formidable political force: in electoral terms, the BJP had enough seats in Parliament to decide the fate of coalition governments, and had come to power in its own right in a few states. Out on the street, it had demonstrated its capacity to mobilise huge crowds with religious fervour, as in the case of the Babri Masjid, or with militant nationalism, in the case of Joshi’s long march to Kashmir.

For the duration of the Ekta Yatra, Modi planned the route and organised the events at each stop along the way. While Modi, as expected, efficiently executed the tasks at hand, a party leader who accompanied the Yatra recalled that here, again, there were signs of his inability or unwillingness to follow orders. Modi often diverged from Joshi’s instructions, the party leader said, and related one anecdote: Joshi had requested that all those who travelled with the Yatra, from the biggest national leaders to the smallest local volunteers, should eat their meals together. But Modi often disappeared and went off on his own. “When the Yatra reached Bangalore, Modi went missing with Anant Kumar, another leader from Bangalore,” the party leader said. “Joshi was furious when he did not find Modi eating with us. The next morning, Joshi scolded Modi in front of us, saying he should behave himself, and discipline is sacrosanct, even if he organised the Yatra.”

But when Modi returned to Gujarat after the journey, he operated with even more autonomy, which brought him into conflict with Shankarsinh Vaghela. Ten years senior to Modi, Vaghela was then far more powerful within the BJP: he was the party’s main fundraiser and the broker of alliances with the secular parties. Vaghela was in turn outranked by the seniormost leader in the state party, Keshubhai Patel, who was positioned to become chief minister if the BJP came into power. Modi was supposed to be the “bridge” between the RSS and the party, but his tendency to give orders and act on his own began to create friction with the BJP leaders. “He was a hard worker, but he was not used to working with a low profile, as is expected of an organisation secretary,” said K Govindacharya, who was then a BJP general secretary and key party ideologue. “Modi wanted himself to be equal to Keshubhai and Shankarsinh Vaghela.”

“Modi interfered in the day-to-day operations of running the BJP, when that job was mine, as the president of the party,” Vaghela told me. “According to the party constitution, the organisation secretary shall give only directions to the party, but not execute things on his own.”

While the BJP remained in opposition, the deepening rifts between the two political leaders and the ideological puritan were easily papered over in the service of a common goal: winning statewide elections. The BJP’s cadres were still poorly trained in the fine art of voter management—maintaining voter records, arranging transportation for the sick and elderly before rival parties could lure them to the polls, and a few less savory tricks that were already well-known to experienced workers in other parties. Working together, Modi, Vaghela and Patel mobilised more than 150,000 workers from the RSS, VHP and ABVP for a training programme just before the elections in February 1995, and the effort paid off handsomely.

The BJP nearly doubled its seats in the 182-member assembly, from 67 to 121, with the Congress lagging far behind at 45. The party chose Patel as the new chief minister, and Modi began to spend more time with him, which further alienated Vaghela, who sensed the two other leaders were forming a front against him. “Modi used to sit with Keshubhai everyday over lunch and dinner, and whisper into his ears that I was planning an uprising against Keshubhai, and he should keep me and the legislators closer to me at arms’ length,” Vaghela told me.

But Vaghela was also ambitious and impatient. In 1995, he took half of the BJP’s legislators away to a resort in Madhya Pradesh, and threatened to bring the government down unless the party removed Patel and made him chief minister. The central party leadership had to intervene, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sent to Gujarat to broker a peace deal: Patel was asked to step aside in favour of a third compromise candidate, Suresh Mehta. And Modi, as a punishment, was sent to Delhi to serve as a national secretary in the BJP, where he assumed responsibility for Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Chandigarh, and Jammu and Kashmir.

After Vaghela was unexpectedly defeated in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections—for which he blamed the RSS, Modi and Patel—he broke with the BJP and formed a new party with rebel MLAs. Mehta’s government fell, and Vaghela, with support from the Congress, became chief minister.

For Modi, being exiled to Delhi was a blessing in disguise: at party headquarters, he had daily contact with an array of national BJP leaders. Modi took full advantage of Vaghela’s defection, reminding anyone who would listen that he had been the first to warn them of Vaghela’s disloyalty to the party—which indirectly and ironically bolstered Modi’s own standing. In 1998, a few days after Atal Bihari Vajpayee took office as prime minister, Modi was promoted once again, and became the national party’s organisation secretary: the bridge between the BJP and the RSS for all of India.

At that point in the five-decade history of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and its successor party, the BJP, there had only been three previous organisation secretaries—each one an ideologically pure Sangh stalwart. But where his predecessors had avoided the media and worked behind the scenes, Modi gravitated towards the spotlight. During the 1999 Kargil War and the subsequent failed peace talks between Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf, Modi held frequent press conferences and often appeared on television, demonstrating the jingoistic fervour that would become his signature. Asked during one TV debate about how to respond to provocations from Pakistan, his answer was: “Chicken biryani nahi, bullet ka jawab bomb se diyajayega”—we won’t give them chicken biryani, we will respond to a bullet with a bomb.

Back in Gujarat, the short-lived Vaghela government had fallen after the Congress withdrew its support, and Keshubhai Patel had returned as chief minister, surrounded by a new circle of younger BJP leaders like Sanjay Joshi, Haren Pandya and Gordhan Zadaphia—while Modi, still in Delhi, was out of the picture. But when the BJP under Patel lost a series of local body elections and two by-elections in late 2001, after having failed earlier in the year to organise an adequate response to a devastating earthquake in the Kutch region, Modi began a quiet campaign at the centre against his former ally Patel.

“Modi complained to us about how Keshubhai was failing, and how he was interested only in development, but not in advancing the stated goals of Hindutva,” said a former BJP leader who then occupied a senior position in the Delhi office. “Modi constantly whispered ill into the ears of party leaders about Keshubhai, the same way he had whispered ill about Vaghela into Keshubhai’s ears.”

Modi’s own account of his appointment as chief minister presents the impression that he was surprised, and even humbled, by the unexpected assignment from Vajpayee. In an interview with his official biographer, MV Kamath, Modi said that he was attending a cremation service for a television cameraman when he received a call from Vajpayee requesting a meeting that evening. “When I met him,” Modi continued,

he said, ‘You have become fat eating all that Punjabi food. You must slim down. Go away from here. Vacate Delhi.’ I asked, ‘Go where?’ ‘Go to Gujarat,’ he replied, ‘you have to work there.’ So I said, ‘Would I be in charge only of Gujarat or of some other state as well?’ I did not know then that Atalji wanted me to be the chief minister of Gujarat. But then Atalji said, ‘No, no, you will have to contest elections.’ As I came to know that I was being marked out for chief ministership, I told Atalji, ‘That is not my work. I’ve been away from Gujarat for six long years. I’m not familiar with the issues. What will I do there? It is not a field of my liking. I don’t know anyone.’ ... Five or six days passed, and finally I had to concede to what the party wanted me to do.

But Modi’s version of events is contradicted by several other senior BJP leaders, who said that Modi had lobbied hard for the job from the time he arrived in Delhi. “He knew the Gujarat BJP wouldn’t have elected him as the CM,” one BJP leader told me, “so it had to be an appointment from the centre, top-down, because the Gujarat leaders had realised how divisive and self-righteous Modi could be.” In fact, Modi was known to have presented a few news editors in Delhi with suggestions for negative stories about Patel. Vinod Mehta, the former editor-in-chief of Outlook, recalls one such visit in his memoirs: “When he was working at the party office in Delhi, Narendra Modi came to see me in the office. He brought along some documents which indicated the chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel, was up to no good. The next thing I heard was that he had become the chief minister in place of Keshubhai.”

To pre-empt any resistance from the BJP legislators in the state, Modi was accompanied to Gujarat by the former national president, Kushabhau Thakre, and another senior leader, Madan Lal Khurana, whose presence ensured a safe landing for the unelected chief minister. For the RSS, Modi’s installation was a significant accomplishment: for the first time in its history, a fulltime pracharak had become a chief minister.

With state elections due in just over a year, Modi set out to telegraph his ambitious intentions from the moment he landed. “I have come here to play a one-day match,” Modi told the press upon his arrival in Gujarat. “I need fast and performing batsmen to score runs in the limited overs game.” At that point, few could have guessed that Modi’s one-day match would turn into a test series, which is still being played 11 years later.

This is an excerpt from The Emperor Uncrowned, the cover story of The Caravan’s March 2012 issue.