In Ahmedabad these days, not a fortnight passes without beat reporters being warned of an imminent change of guard in Gujarat. The tip-off almost always emanates from a BJP insider. But for the moment, this looks unlikely, especially in a year when Gujarat’s first woman chief minister faces her first test of popularity.
Elections to the key municipal corporations of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar are due later this year, with elections for panchayats and small urban development bodies following soon after. Keeping this in mind, the Anandiben Patel government is already in poll mode. A reshuffle of the bureaucracy and the police set-up is under way to put supportive officers in key positions. The state government in January bailed out 97 municipalities which were in no position to even pay their basic water and electricity bills (totaling Rs 544.55 crore) with a one-time settlement. Anandiben (73) and Shah (50) are two of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s closest lieutenants. Their loyalty is unquestioned but it’s common knowledge that the two are at loggerheads right down to their last supporter.
Shah loyalists would want him back in the state, and be happier still if he heads the government. The reason is not far to seek. Another debacle or less than spectacular electoral results in Bihar or UP would reduce him to a fall guy, with the PM’s opponents baying for his blood. He has already been to the brink once in the alleged fake encounter cases, indeed spending quite some time behind bars before he managed a breather due, largely, to a change of guard at the Centre, as someone who obviously didn’t want to be named pointed out.
Though an outward calm persists, divisions between the Shah and Patel groups run deep. Even such a trifling business as the election at the high-profile Ahmedabad Club turned acrimonious and had contesting panels divided between the two sides. Elections to the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in Ahmedabad acquired the dimension of a slugfest the moment it was realised that rival contestants had acquired Patel-Shah labels. The unanimous appointment of Ketan Patel as chairman and Bhawan Bharvad as vice-chairman, both considered to be close to Patel, further deepened the divide.
In fact, in January, Anandiben Patel’s son Sanjay had also pitched in for the top job but opted out at the last minute, reportedly under political pressure. The earlier appointment of Bhupendra Patel as chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA), N.V.Patel as the chairman of Vadodara Urban Development Authority (VUDA) besides other similar appointments are also cited as proof that the current CM enjoys an upper hand in the state.
Even during the last cabinet reshuffle, there was pressure on Patel to allocate important portfolios to some ministers believed to be close to Shah, including Purshottam Solanki who had been under a cloud earlier. But Patel refused to buckle under and Solanki found himself looking after animal husbandry. Shah wanted home for his confidant Vijay Rupani but Patel did not part with it, instead forking out transport and labour.
Meanwhile, others too have been eyeing the CM’s chair. Nitin Patel, a strong north Gujarat leader and virtual No. 2 in the Modi state government had thrown his hat in the ring when the latter moved to Delhi. Saurabh Patel, the present finance minister who has been looking after the petroleum department and is considered close to the prime minister, too has emerged as a likely successor to Patel. An Ambani relative, ‘Vudafest’, a high-profile cultural event that he organised in Vadodara from where he is an MLA, seems to have rebounded on him. No sooner did the event end that the district collector and the municipal commissioner of Vadodara found themselves transferred out. Small indications are pointers to much bigger things in politics.
By R.K. Misra in Gandhinagar