The media may have written off former Bhartiya Janta Party ( BJP) patriarch Keshubhai Patel as of little consequence in the ensuing poll battle in Gujarat but chief minister Narendra Modi has not.
The Gujarat BJP parliamentary board which met on the outskirts of Ahmedabad recently devoted a fair share of its time to discussing their own onetime father figure and his new regional outfit, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP).
A mild mannered politician, belonging to the old school, Keshubhai Patel, much against his nature, has been uncharacteristically brazen and direct in his attacks against Modi. What began as probing jibes at Patidar (Patel) community conventions in the beginning of the year has now turned into a full-scale declaration of war by Patel on Modi.
Patel who had given up contesting elections after he was replaced by Modi has this time made it clear that he is back in the poll fray and will contest from his old seat of Visavadar in Junagadh district of Saurashtra region. The decision is more to clear the air that he intends to lead the battle against the BJP from the front, unlike the last time.
In the run up to the 2007 vidhan sabha polls a fair number of BJP leaders including former chief minister Suresh Mehta and Modi's own minister Gordhan Jhadapia, had raised the banner of revolt against Modi but Patel shied away from leading them into battle and the rebellion crashed at the hustings.
Patel seems to be out to make amends this time. A widely respected leader, revered in Saurashtra region, he has pulled out all stops in his ‘crusade’ against Modi and his government.
Considered over the hill at 84 and out of sync with the bulk of present voters, Patel has surprised keen poll scene watchers with the large enthusiastic crowds he has managed to gather particularly in Saurashtra region during his statewide yatra. Eyes opened wide when recently Patel's party GPP organized a hugely successful rally in eastern Ahmedabad, considered a bastion of the BJP.
A good showing in Saurashtra is crucial for the BJP if Modi seeks to retain power in the state. The region accounts for 58 seats in a total 182 seat Vidhan Sabha.
Gone is the crushed demeanour that characterised the person who was replaced by Modi in 2001 as chief minister. Instead, there is a noticeable aggressive streak as he lunges into Modi in meeting after meeting.
“The public response to Patel clearly indicates that there is space for a third force as against the perception based on past results that Gujarat does not support a regional party”, says former chief minister Suresh Mehta ,GPP vice-president and key strategist.
In the past many prominent Gujarat leaders including Chimanbhai Patel (Kisan Mazdoor Lok Paksh) in the late seventies and Shankersinh Vaghela (Rashtriya Janata Party) in the mid-nineties experimented with regional outfits but came a cropper. Mehta however is confident that Patel and his set up will prove a game changer in the ensuing December elections.
Political analysts aver that the regional outfit which banks heavily on Patidar community support may or may not be able to make it big for itself but it definitely possesses the potential to cut into the BJP vote bank and play a spoilsport for the Gujarat chief minister.
But Mehta remains unperturbed. “We have taken a decision not to go in for the other party rejects as our candidates be they from the BJP or the Congress. The party’s parliamentary board will meet between November 11 and November 15 to select the names of candidates”, he adds, pointing out that the party has received 1200 applications for 100 of the total 182 seats it plans to contest.
While political perception does not rate the GPP highly, the fact remains that its meetings have been receiving enthusiastic response. ”We will have no truck with the Congress and we will emerge as a balancing force,” he observes.
The GPP is also banking on the support it is receiving from the sangh parivar organs in the state including the RSS, VHP and the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh. Antagonised by Modi, key sections of these organizations are working for the GPP.
Highly reliable sources aver that Modi has all along been maintaining a distinct silence despite Patel’s provocative lashing out at him repeatedly. This is because he does not want to risk a Patidar community lashback . Modi’s bête noire Sanjay Joshi’s relations with these erstwhile BJP leaders from the RSS stable are also well known. Highly placed sources say that Modi during his last meeting with RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat had complained against the parivar organs which were working covertly for the GPP in the state. Patel had visited the RSS headquarters in Ahmedabad and his lieutenant, Gordhan Jhadapia is candid. “We have as much right on Sangh as Modi,” he points out.
All in all Keshubhai Patel and his outfit remains the untested factor capable of tilting the balance either way. And Modi is monitoring it very closely while maintaining an I-couldn’t-care- less exterior