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.”