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Patel pride


Nistula Hebbar  |  New Delhi 

Keshubhai Patel
For a man who is not contesting the assembly polls in Gujarat, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel has been hogging as much media space as Chief Minister Narendra Modi himself.

From interviews and meetings to appearing in full-page advertisements, Patel is everywhere in an election where he isn't in the race for the top job. The reason is not hard to find: Patel has become the focal point of dissident activity in Gujarat, and a rallying cry for hurt Patel pride under Modi rule.

But things were not always this way. There was a time when Modi as a Sangh pracharak was a junior partner to Patel and took his side against the then BJP dissident and later Congress chief minister of Gujarat, Shankar Singh Vaghela, in 1995.

In 1998, Patel rode to power on a sympathy wave for being denied the chief minister's chair by Vaghela's revolt. Modi had played a major role in ticket distribution rewarding the hajurias (loyalists) and weeding out the khajurias (MLAs who had been holed up in Khajuraho by Vaghela during the 1995 crisis).

However, Patel, after he became chief minister started complaining that Modi was trying to garner "extra-constitutional powers" by sitting in on meetings with state-level officers with the chief minister present. Modi was dispatched to Delhi, and Patel got some peace.

But not for long. Gujarat saw a drought in 2000, the Bhuj earthquake in 2001 and simmering social tensions after that.

Ironically, Patel also earned a reputation for arrogance, which Modi too is burdened with now. With elections looming in 2002, BJP leaders felt that they had to replace the bad-news chief minister with a fresh face.

That person was Narendra Modi.

For a while it seemed that even he could not repair the fortunes of the BJP. Then Godhra happened, and the riots thereafter. The rest is history.

Stronger than ever, Modi ruled with an absolute majority and, in the process, alienated his colleagues in the government. Recommendations on transfers of officials by ministers and senior party leaders were rejected, the VHP was weeded out of the party's grassroots organisation and Moditva replaced Hindutva in Gujarat.

Patel, meanwhile, nursed his grievance of being replaced, and became the focal point of dissidence in the state. Five days before campaign was to end for the first phase of Gujarat polls, that too in the Patel stronghold of Saurashtra, he decided to throw in his lot with the dissidents. Till the last minute, the BJP thought that the party's old war horse would not desert it, but Patel stumped everybody. "I am not against the BJP, only Modi," he said.

Senior BJP leaders admit that Patel does have some basis for his grievances. In not coming down too harshly on him, they have displayed a soft spot for the veteran leader.

It is widely held in the party that the leuva Patel community came to the BJP with Keshubhai Patel. On the eve of elections, the party is nervous that this powerful community, with an influence on 52 seats, could be be instrumental in bringing Modi down.

First Published: Mon, December 10 2007. 00:00 IST