The War Within

Keshubhai Patel gathers ranks to take on Narendra Modi

Keshubhai Patel’s newly launched Gujarat Parivartan Party will take on the Modi-led BJP in the state assembly polls later this year. SHAILESH RAVAL / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETY IMAGES
01 September, 2012

KESHUBHAI PATEL, THE ANGRY OLD MAN of the Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has pulled himself out of political oblivion at the age of 84, in pursuit of what may seem an impossible task: to rescue the party from the chief minister, Narendra Modi. On 4 August, the Patel patriarch resigned from the BJP and announced a new outfit called the Gujarat Parivartan Party, which will contest all 182 seats at the state assembly polls later this year. Patel has been joined by BJP stalwarts like Kashiram Rana, a former Union textiles minister and seven-time MP from Surat, and Suresh Mehta, briefly the chief minister in 1996 and industries minister in Modi’s cabinet in 2001. Modi’s junior minister in the state home department during the 2002 riots, Gordhan Zadaphia, who has since become one of the chief minister’s most vocal critics, has announced the merger of his own Mahagujarat Janta Party with Patel’s anti-Modi outfit for a “now or never” electoral showdown.

Key players in the state Sangh Parivar, led by senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak Bhaskarrao Damle—who were accustomed to calling the shots in Gujarat BJP governments before Modi arrived—have joined Patel’s campaign. Pravin Togadia, the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, has also not been reluctant to air his disapproval of Modi. Though Togadia competed for popular attention and clout during and after the 2002 riots, he was neutered and dispatched to the margins in the 2007 state elections.

But Modi’s defenders believe Patel is stuck in the past. They also point to the uncharacteristic belligerence of Patel’s recent public statements—as when he called Modi a “Lapodshankh”, or ‘bluff-master’ in colloquial Gujarati. “Devils and magicians mislead people. He is misleading people,” Patel told a rally in Bhavnagar earlier in August. But Patel clearly believes that his campaign to restore Gujarat’s “asmita”—pride—which he claims has been undermined by Modi’s one-man rule, will resonate with voters. Keshubhai was warned not to launch a “war against Modi” in the party’s mouthpiece, Manogat, by its editor, senior BJP leader Surendra Patel. “You are the Bhismapithamah of the BJP,” Patel wrote. “Arjun in the battle of Mahabharat had to fight against Bhisma and Guru Dronacharya. I would request you not to create a similar situation.”

Ever since the BJP came to power in the state in the mid-1990s, riding on the communal polarisation that would later explode into full view in 2002, journalists and academics commonly referred to Gujarat as a “laboratory” of Hindutva. But Modi, the former pracharak, successfully projected himself as an efficient pro-business leader, earning cheers from the Gujarati middle class and diaspora. Foreign investors courted him, billionaire businessmen lavished him with praise, while his political opponents and ideological critics seethed with envy. Mukesh Ambani, a Gujarati and one of the world’s richest men, is reported to have described the state as shining “like a land of gold” under Modi’s leadership. But neither “laboratory” nor “land of gold” fully capture the cracks and contradictions that still exist in Gujarati society—and the turbulence that may lie ahead as Modi fights his third state election with an eye on the prime minister’s chair in 2014.

Keshubhai Patel was the first BJP chief minister of Gujarat, in 1995, and Modi is widely believed to have played a key role in helping to engineer his removal after eight months in office. The party was marred by differences between the RSS-Jan Sangh triumvirate of Keshubhai, Modi and Shankarsinh Vaghela, who subsequently revolted and left the party with 40-odd MLAs to launch his own outfit, which he later merged with the Gujarat Congress. While Modi played a behind-the-scenes role to ensure Vaghela’s exit then, in 2001 he dislodged Keshubhai from the chief minister’s chair yet again (this time with clever machinations in New Delhi) and proceeded to replace him.

Gujarat’s Sangh Parivar leaders have their own complaints with the chief minister: they feel his rule has eroded their Hindutva base. The veteran RSS leader Pravin Maniar said, “I brought Narendra Modi as chief minister at the insistence of the RSS top brass. But he worked to finish all Sangh organisations.” Brand Modi, however popular with the new, emerging India, has not gone down well with the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat. It goes against the Parivar motto that upholds worship of “the nation and the ideal”, with no place for “hero worship”. Modi has consolidated power as an individual, refusing to share credit or the spoils, unlike other BJP chief ministers. The fissures within the saffron polity are so wide now that even Vaghela, who has been persona non grata in the Parivar ever since he rebelled, is now welcome. Maniar even hinted that Vaghela, who heads the Congress Campaign Committee, may be eager to join the anti-Modi outfit: “Vaghela is not happy with the Congress. He told me Congressmen have little faith in him and still call him a ‘chaddi’”—a derogatory reference to his RSS past.

Will Modi survive the latest revolt by his bête noire? There have been at least three serious attempts to unseat the Gujarat chief minister in the past decade; each time he has not only survived but emerged stronger. The first revolt surfaced in 2004, when 62 BJP members of the legislative assembly complained to party headquarters in New Delhi about Modi’s dictatorial style, which they blamed for the party’s poor showing in that year’s Lok Sabha elections. Observers saw Patel’s hand behind the protest, but Delhi stood behind Modi. A year later, Patel declared that Modi had reduced Gujarat to a state of mini-emergency, charging him with illegally tapping the phones of Patel’s allies in the assembly. But again, Patel couldn’t muster enough support to bring down the CM, and Modi had the last laugh. In December 2007, things came to a boil for a third time in the run-up to assembly elections, which were touted as a possible show of Patel’s might against Modi’s. But this time Keshubhai developed cold feet, and failed to show up for a much-hyped community gathering in Surat—a political fiasco which appeared to confirm that Keshubapa, as his supporters fondly know him, was a spent force.

To understand Modi’s hold over Gujarat one has to return to October 2001 when he took charge of the state. The Ram temple issue had resulted in a groundswell of support for Hindutva, but the BJP was foundering because of its lack of good governance and an assured voter base. Ten years later, Modi has ensured more than a 49 percent vote share in two successive assembly elections, up from 27 percent in 1990, 42 percent in 1995 and 45 percent in 1998, besides an economy that is growing above the national average. Modi’s detractors refuse to give him credit. Claiming that he worked within a more favourable set of conditions—a united party, a discredited and divided opposition, and an electorate inflamed by the post-Godhra landscape—they maintain Modi has only slightly improved upon their performance.

In the 2012 assembly elections, Modi has declared his intention to win 151 of 182 seats—his aim is to surpass the record set by former Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki, who took 140 seats, riding on a formula known as “KHAM” (for Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) in post-Emergency elections. A Modi camp follower told me that the chief minister, who is known to micromanage elections, has already completed an assessment of the caste and class composition of every constituency.

But current predictions, especially after Keshubhai’s fresh aggression, suggest that it would be a tall order for Modi to break his own record of 127 seats in 2002. History stands witness to how the upper castes in the state, particularly Patidars, abandoned the Congress for the BJP in the 1980s over a perceived political and economic threat to their domination; they have been the backbone in the BJP’s unbroken stint in power for the past 15 years, and account for more than 20 percent of the state’s 45 million voters. Under the Modi regime, the Patidars have long felt sidelined by the Rajputs and OBCs. To appease them, Modi did promote Patel politicians, including revenue minister Anandi Patel and industry minister Saurabh Dalal, but none of them command the mass support of Keshubhai. The discontent against Modi has only grown, and it hasn’t helped that the majority of those convicted recently in the cases surrounding the 2002 Sardarpura and Ode massacres are Patels.

With Keshubhai leading the charge, a substantial shift in the Patidar vote could have a massive impact, particularly in the politically crucial Saurashtra region, where farmers are caught in a cycle of failing crops and unpaid loans that has driven many to suicide. Support for the farmers’ cause from the RSS-backed Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) has heated up the fight to reclaim Saurashtra and its crucial chunk of more than 50 Assembly seats. The BKS has directly targeted Modi, publishing and circulating literature that mocks the chief minister’s claims of “farmer welfare” and labels him a “propagandist” who is steering an election campaign solely on the Vibrant Gujarat motto.

The new party is also likely to have a major impact on seats in other regions like North Gujarat, Kutch and Surat in South Gujarat, where it could swing the tide in favour of the Congress by eating into the BJP’s Patidar vote-bank. The Congress has become proactive, especially after winning a recent by-election in Mansa, a constituency contiguous with the capital Gandhinagar. But the party is still far from truly competing with Modi’s political manoeuvres and his theatre. There is also no one in the Congress who holds comparable attraction for the powerful and ever-expanding middle class of Gujarat that is a combination of the upper, middle, OBC and Dalit beneficiaries of the state’s rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Modi’s dearest hope could be his development agenda, which makes him a hero in the eyes of the middle class, and his tweets and blogs to woo younger voters, some 5 million of whom may vote for the first time in 2012.

It’s still too early to make a prediction on the outcome of the political events unfolding in Gujarat. As a Modi aide in Gandhinagar put it, “Four months is a long time in politics. Wait and watch.” He admitted, though, that Keshubhai was an “old fox” who could match Modi blow for blow in the electoral arena. The ageing war horse in his pronouncements has made it known that his attempt is not so much about gaining power as it is about throwing Modi out to revive the BJP of the old.

Keshubhai’s close aides say that while he expects to benefit from growing disenchantment with Modi inside the BJP, he understands that this is not enough to unseat the powerful chief minister. They promise that some social and political engineering is part of his strategy, but declined to disclose further details. Patel’s new outfit may have a chance at capturing the enthusiasm of a section of society that has gotten the short end of Modi’s business-friendly policies. In his speeches, Keshubhai has pointed to issues like the sale of pasture land to industrial houses, the lack of housing for the poor, malnutrition and the state’s poor human development index. This may compel ‘Vikas Purush’ Modi to redraw his strategy in the days to come. Of course, Modi will be waiting for an opportune time. Sonia Gandhi’s clumsy attack on Modi—calling him “maut ka saudagar”, merchant of death—helped him to an easy victory in the 2007 assembly elections. But even his staunchest supporters admit that such favours won’t come his way every time.