Ever since Narendra Modi was parachuted to Gujarat in the wake of the 2001 Kutch earthquake, replacing Keshubhai Patel as the chief minister, the state has been a scrapyard of thwarted ambitions and political careers of two generations of BJP leaders. The list includes Suresh Mehta, Kashiram Rana, Vajubhai Vala, Haren Pandya, Harin Pathak, and Saurabh Patel to name a few.
All of them, except Saurabh Patel, were old RSS-Jana Sangh members. But the Sangh connection was not enough to safeguard their ambition against centralisation of power by Modi.
Political careers that died under Modi
Modi’s predecessor Keshubhai was a Patel leader from the Saurashtra region, with a ‘son of the soil’ image. Modi would bow to him in the early phase of his chief ministership. But Patel was soon left sulking. He would express his displeasure, but quietly, never mustering the courage to come out openly against Modi. When he finally could, it was too late. He launched the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) in 2012 and fought the assembly election against the BJP. It was a flop show. His party could win only two seats, including his own. Disappointed, he first resigned from the post of GPP president and then as an MLA. The party merged with the BJP in 2014.
When Keshubhai Patel’s government was shaken by a revolt from Shankarsinh Vaghela, Suresh Mehta served as the chief minister for about a year. Mild-mannered Mehta, a leader from Kutch, had been the minister for industries in Keshubhai’s cabinet. But he had reservations about working under Modi right from the beginning. He left the BJP in 2007 and accused the entire party of “surrendering before one person (Modi).” He was with Keshubhai when the GPP was formed and left active politics after his half-hearted, unsuccessful fight against Modi’s hegemony couldn’t stop GPP’s merger into the BJP.
Kashiram Rana was another senior RSS-BJP leader who had joined the GPP. A Surat-based politician, Rana had a long and successful political career. He served as the Union minister for textiles in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet. He was denied the BJP ticket during the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Sensing an end to his career under Modi, he became one of the vice-presidents of the GPP. He died soon after from a heart attack.
Haren Pandya’s case is a well-known example of Modi’s supremacy in the BJP at the national level even when he was the Gujarat CM. Pandya was a Keshubhai loyalist and a moderate face of the BJP. Born in 1950 just like Modi, he rose to the position of home minister in Keshubhai’s cabinet. When Modi replaced Keshubhai, Pandya was shifted to the Minister of State rank in the revenue department.
When the need for vacating a safe seat for Modi’s election in the assembly arose, Pandya refused to leave his constituency. This upset Modi, who fought the by-election from Rajkot. Pandya resigned from the revenue ministry in August 2002 citing his differences with Modi. “I do not want the party to suffer because of the whims of an individual,” he said. Pandya didn’t get a ticket to contest the 2002 assembly election in December, despite the pressure on Modi to do so. Modi got himself admitted to a hospital seemingly to avoid the pressure. Realising that Modi won’t budge from his position, Pandya withdrew himself from the race. The following year, he was shot dead on his routine morning walk.
Harin Pathak was also considered a prominent second-generation leader like Haren Pandya. He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1989, when the BJP was struggling to come to power. A known L.K. Advani loyalist, Pathak was a seven-time MP from 1989 to 2014. He was the minister of state for defence in Vajpayee’s cabinet. He had to resign after an Ahmedabad court, on 3 November 2000, framed charges against him and Ashok Bhatt, a minister in the Gujarat government, for allegedly instigating a mob that killed a policeman during the anti-reservation riots of 1985. The resignation could not affect Pathak’s political career, but his ties with Advani did. Pathak’s career was put to an end in 2014 when he was denied a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha election. He was replaced by Bollywood actor Paresh Rawal.
At Modi’s mercy
While some leaders were completely side-lined or steamrolled, others survived with their wings clipped. Vajubhai Vala was one generation senior to Modi and a strong leader from the Saurashtra region like Keshubhai Patel. He held important portfolios like revenue and finance in Keshubhai as well as Modi’s cabinet. Vala was known for taking potshots at Modi in colloquial style. He was a front-runner for chief ministership when Modi left for Delhi in 2014. But that did not happen. He had to be content with the post of speaker of the Gujarat Assembly and Anandiben Patel took over as the chief minister. Vala was made the governor of Karnataka later, signalling the end of his career in electoral politics.
Saurabh Patel was a comparatively young and educated minister who served under the chief ministerships of Modi and Anandiben. He held many portfolios, including industries and energy. An MBA from the US, a son-in-law of the Ambani family (he is married to the first cousin of Mukesh-Anil Ambani), and a Patidar leader, Saurabh Patel was projected as the future CM by some sections. But he was dropped from Vijay Rupani’s cabinet after Anandiben’s resignation. It was an indication that his projection as a CM would remain just that. Later, he was included in Rupani’s cabinet but dropped again with the entire cabinet. He has declared that he was not in the fray for the 2022 assembly election.
Anandiben Patel was the only leader who could become chief minister. She was selected as Modi’s successor. His closeness with her was well known in the political circles and Gujarat media. She held portfolios like education and revenue in Modi’s cabinet. Though she was at loggerheads with Amit Shah, she managed one term as the chief minister. In a surprise move, she announced her resignation from the position halfway through her term in a Facebook post when she turned 75. She has been compensated with governorships in different states after her resignation, apparently putting an end to her electoral career and ambitions.
Gujarat has not seen any leader wielding independent power after Anandiben’s resignation. Her successors and other ministers have been obedient and easily replaceable. They would not dare to assert themselves, clearly aware that they are at the mercy of Modi more than their voters. They have to abide by the ‘guidance’ of select bureaucrats who take their orders directly from Delhi.
The experiment of complete centralisation of power, neutralising other leaders’ stature was successfully conducted in the laboratory of Gujarat. It has been replicated at the national level with equal success. This is the real ‘Gujarat Model’.
Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)