When Amit Shah met Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel in Delhi on Feb 7, the heat from the land deal involving the latter’s daughter Anar was still scalding the air. It was reportedly a rather frosty discussion the CM had with party president Shah, after arriving in Delhi for a meeting of the Gujarat and UP units with the party leadership. On the menu: strictly organisational issues plaguing the Gujarat BJP and the long-pending decision to appoint a state head.
Yet, even before the CM could catch her breath from the Delhi trip, a regional daily in Gujarat had splashed an eye-catching report about her pointed snub to Shah over the weekend. The daily reported that Anandiben, when quizzed about her daughter’s alleged land grab, told the party chief to ask the prime minister about it. While no one in the BJP was quite willing to talk about the alleged altercation between the two old rivals on Sunday, the news report reconfirmed what’s been an open secret for a while in Gujarat: namely, a raging battle between two of the Modi’s favourite people and proteges, pitted in a power struggle.
The battle between Shah and the CM has led to such a stalemate that even the appointment of the state party chief required the PM’s intervention. Reports suggest that while Shah was backing his trusted aide Pradipsinh Jadeja for the post, the CM was rooting for her own man, Mansukh Mandaviya. Fed up with the tug-of-war, Modi is keen now to appoint Bhupendra S. Chudasama and get things going. Even the appointment of Ahmedabad mayor Gautam Shah, sources say, has been a sore point between Shah and Anandiben.
Rumour has it that is precisely why the scoop on Anar Patel’s land dealings in The Economic Times was allegedly a bit of an insider’s job. A conversation with BJP leaders in Gujarat outs various theories. Some cite ambitious local state leaders who have been unhappy under Anandiben. Others believe the damage to Anandiben could have been orchestrated by the Congress, which is naturally keen to find a Vadra equivalent in the BJP. But the most accepted version is the familiar one: “rivalry between Shah and Anandiben”. A senior party leader hints at the possibility of all factors playing out together. “It suits the Congress to embarrass Prime Minister Modi through Anandiben considering Modi has mentored her and continues to support her.” He hastens to add, of course: “I can’t say anything on the land grab itself.”
While a few things may be left unsaid, Anandiben’s apparent proximity to the prime minister is no secret. Those who have known her and her family well recall their close family relations that have continued even after Modi became prime minister. As an example, sources point to how Anandiben’s daughter Anar addresses Modi as ‘Kaku’ while the prime minister himself calls Anar ‘Chaku’, a term of affection for a little child in Gujarat. Anandiben’s own loyalty to her mentor, sources say, is unflinching and she will do nothing to dent his image. It is then this trust and proximity that makes senior leaders in the BJP believe corruption charges against Anandiben will be given a quiet burial soon.
Happier Times Anandiben and Amit Shah welcome Modi in 2014. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook Issue 22 February 2016)
A BJP veteran in Ahmedabad told Outlook, “The growing influence of Anar and her brother Shwetank (Sanjay) has been long talked about in the state. Even when Narendrabhai was CM, people spoke about Anandi’s children’s interference in her work, yet no one will rebel against her. The reason is very obvious. She’s Narendrabhai’s chosen one and no one wants to go against him.”
Some attribute Hardik Patel’s lathicharge and detention to Amit Shah since it has worked so well to worsen the CM’s already flailing popularity.
It is this feeling of invincibility that has perhaps given the CM’s family a dare-me attitude. Insiders say Anandiben’s family members have been rather brazen in their dealings—which range from real estate, pharma, retail and IT to NGOs. Indeed, Gujarat power circles are rife with rumours of more stories on alleged corruption by the Patels being unearthed in the future, but the atmosphere in the CM’s household is relaxed. Anar Patel has been heard blithely warding off any pointed talk, saying she would never indulge in corruption for the faith her ‘Kaku’ has placed in her mother. Ahmedabad, however, is full of stories about Anandiben’s “extremely ambitious children who are very close to top builders and corporates”.
While Anar herself has declined stints in electoral politics (although she remains a BJP member), sources let on that she will be given Smriti Irani’s Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat after Irani’s term is over to initiate Anar into politics at the centre. A few go so far as to speculate that Anar appears all set to be accepted as the natural heiress to Anandiben, taking over from her when Anandiben vacates the chair in 2017.
Obviously, that’s not the sort of stuff party bossman Shah would like to hear, forget want happening. Corruption charges then conveniently serve the purpose of creating a strong preclusive factor against a grand political debut for Anar even after Anandiben’s retirement. Says a source, “It’s part of a long-term plan of a few top party leaders loaned to Delhi from Gujarat.” Those who have known Shah say his “only interest in politics is in becoming the chief minister of Gujarat. He has nurtured that dream since his days as Modi’s junior in the state.” They add, “He misses executive power as he has seen in Gujarat and his position as the BJP chief does not give him the same sense of actionable power.” Sources in the BJP also allude to the likelihood that Shah’s interest in the CM’s job stems from the knowledge that in Delhi he will forever have to play second fiddle to his mentor Modi—a role he’s not interested in anymore.
Shah’s own regional ambition then is the reason Anandiben finds herself in a slugfest with the BJP chief. State leaders talk of how the party is split into two camps—one promoted by Shah, with Akota MLA Saurabh Patel, former state party president Parsottambhai Rupala and Pradipsinh Jadeja, and the other camp led by Anandiben herself. Insiders say Shah’s constant interference comes via his cronies who help him control police activities in Gujarat. They even attribute the lathicharge and the subsequent detention of Patidar leader Hardik Patel as allegedly the outcome of a directive from the party chief in Delhi. A source says, “It helps Amitbhai’s ambitions if Anandiben looks unpopular. Who ordered the lathicharge on the August 25 rally is still a mystery—it obviously didn’t serve the CM’s interests. Someone else must have been behind it.” What followed hit national headlines, of course: the Patidar stir became a full-blown ‘movement’ after that rally. The CM’s popularity was already at a noticeably low ebb before that, especially when judged against her predecessor’s iconic standards; the police action brought the graph crashing.
At present, Anandiben is losing a PR battle, with farmer disenchantment, a commerce logjam and falling human development indices. Clearly, she cannot afford family problems at such a time. What saves her for now though is the PM’s own reluctance to let Shah back into Gujarat. Not just because Shah is needed in Delhi but also because in Gujarat he could well become a liability in the future, if the Congress comes back and reopens cases against him. Modi has reportedly asked Anandiben to rectify her image. Makes sense. After all, if one had the luxury of choosing between kinds of pain for the future, an errant junior’s cloudy image will surely be a lesser burden than the wound imparted by a culpable partner.
By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai