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Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel is still feeling the aftershocks of the January 26 quake that devastated his state. He's cut such a sorry figure that the Sangh parivar has initiated moves to find a younger, 'cleaner' replacement for the 71-year-old CM. No change will be made in a hurry. Keshubhai is likely to continue for the next six months to a year. If the parivar succeeds in finding a candidate acceptable to all factions, it would ideally want him to lead the party to the assembly polls in March 2003.
Union home minister L.K. Advani denies any such move, but Sangh strategists believe Keshubhai has become a symbol of ineptitude. Says a senior rss functionary: "Remove him and a lot of anger against the bjp regime will evaporate." Ironically, they feel even the relief work by rss cadre will not be enough to repair the bjp's image. A few thousand cadre alone can't combat the growing anti-incumbency, they feel.
A Gujarat minister cites the example of the relief work done by the rss when the Morvi dam burst. "But in that area too we lost badly to the Congress in the panchayat polls last year. The bjp was wiped out in 19 of the 23 district panchayats," he says.
Surat strongman and Union textile minister Kashiram Rana concedes that the bjp's image has taken a beating since its reversals in the panchayat polls last September. "There have been some doubts raised about Keshubhai's administrative abilities, but adversity also reveals the genius of man. For the first time, people are giving aid without any question. It is also a great opportunity for the CM to prove himself." For good measure, he adds: "There is no possibility of changing the CM. That would create more problems than it would solve. No government changes its leader in the middle of such a crisis."
The bjp vice-president in charge of Gujarat, Jana Krishnamurthy, agrees: "How can we change the leader at a time like this?" But what about the future? "Who knows what can happen in the future." The senior leader concedes there are rumours about a possible change of leadership. Says he: "I'm reading names of possible replacements in the press—Kashiram Rana, former Gujarat chief minister Suresh Mehta, Union minister of state for heavy industry Vallabhbhai Kathiria. It's absolutely untrue."
Yet, Krishnamurthy admits that Keshubhai erred in ducking the press post-quake. "When I went to Gujarat, I told him this created the impression that the government was doing nothing," he says. The bjp is now circulating a note about the various steps the Gujarat government has taken over the past fortnight.
Though Keshubhai still has some powerful backers in the state and the Centre, his opponents also enjoy considerable clout. Leading the pack is Narendra Modi, the powerful bjp general secretary in charge of organisation. Modi was shifted to the bjp's national headquarters after Shankersinh Vaghela split the bjp in Gujarat in 1996. In spite of being asked to stay out of Gujarat politics, Modi is seen to be fanning the discontent against the CM. After the quake, Modi wanted to head the Gujarat Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Fund. But Keshubhai spoke to the high command and took over the chairman's mantle instead.
The CM is also believed to have asked the bjp high command to keep Modi out of the state. In fact, Krishnamurthy has been trying to explain Modi's presence in Gujarat by saying: "He has not there on behalf of the party but because his friends and relatives have been affected. "
Modi, with his designer glasses and watch, is a new-age pracharak reportedly keen to join electoral politics. Partymen feel Modi is projecting himself as Keshubhai's replacement. But the bjp/rss high command is categorical that an organisation man can't suddenly jump into electoral politics. Modi's moves may not have mustered enough support from the parivar honchos, but Keshubhai, by virtue of being the man at the top, will have to keep balancing himself amid the aftershocks of the temblor.