Ahmedabad/Gandhinagar: On 12 September 2021, Bhupendra Patel, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Ghatlodia, left his modest house just as on any other day. He was on his way to attend an urgent meeting convened by the party leadership. A change in the state government was on the cards and his son, Anuj, asked the first-time MLA if he was likely to get anything out of it. Patel shrugged and walked out.
By the time he returned home that night, the low-key former municipal corporator was the new chief minister of Gujarat, without ever having held a ministerial berth. It was a move that stunned everyone — the local media, the political fraternity, and even members of Patel’s own family.
“We saw the announcement on TV and we were shocked,” recalls Anuj, 32, who now handles his father’s real estate business.
What makes up for 60-year-old Patel’s relative inexperience in running a government is the trust the BJP leadership has in him to drive the party’s agenda in Gujarat without trying to exert his own authority, say sources close to him.
He is known as an uncontroversial, on-ground leader who is more comfortable in his shirt and trousers than the quintessential politician’s garb of a kurta-pyjama or safari suit. He is not politically assertive and does not antagonise the BJP’s other power centres in Gujarat directly, and his Patidar identity helps with social engineering.
The most frequent criticism of Patel — that he is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rubber stamp — is in the eyes of his party colleagues his biggest strength.
Patel will continue to be chief minister if the BJP wins the assembly election next month, party leaders have declared. According to the party’s first list of candidates, released Thursday, Patel will contest the election from Ghatlodia again.
The ‘accessible’ party worker
About 10 days before Patel became CM, he was sitting outside the BJP office of Ward no. 9 in Gandhinagar on a basic plastic chair. As a BJP MLA, a cluster of wards in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad, including Ward no. 9, fell under his jurisdiction for supervision.
“We were insisting that he come inside and sit on a plush chair behind the table, under the fan. But he insisted that he wanted to sit outside the office. He said it would be easier for him to meet anyone who passed by,” a party functionary from Gandhinagar tells ThePrint.
Patel’s “unique selling point” as CM, party leaders say, is his accessibility to the people.
Another local BJP leader from Gandhinagar says Patel knows every karyakarta (party worker) in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad by name.
“He never forgets a name or face. Last week, Union home minister Amit Shah was to inaugurate an elevated road between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. Normally, the CM would have come with the home minister, but Bhupendrabhai came half an hour in advance,” this leader says. “He said he knew BJP workers would be there in advance and that he considered himself a BJP worker first. He spoke to everyone present.”
A third BJP leader, a retired government employee, also speaks of Patel’s personal touch. He describes how, a few months ago, he and a group of other former government employees had organised a function and invited the CM as the chief guest. Patel had to travel to Delhi to meet the party’s high command on that date, so he deputed his cabinet colleague Jitu Vaghani to attend the event.
“After he returned from Delhi, he called 10-15 of us to the CMO (Chief Minister’s Office) to personally apologise for not attending the event, and also asked us how it went,” adds the leader.
At the CMO, Patel holds public durbars on Mondays and Tuesdays when his doors are open for anyone who wishes to see him. Invariably, hundreds of people arrive on those two days — and Patel meets all of them, people close to him tell ThePrint.
In his home turf of Ghatlodia, neighbours Arjanbhai and Mafabhai Rabari are sitting under a tree outside their house. Pointing at the road in front of them, Arjan says, “There was no road earlier and it used to get flooded. We complained about it many times but the corporation said it was stuck due to technical issues.”
“When Bhupendra Patel became the MLA, he took a personal interest in our problem and got the road built,” says Mafabhai.
But the CM also has his detractors. Congress leader Shashikant Patel, who lost to Bhupendra in the 2017 assembly election, maintains that as an emissary of the Modi government in Gujarat, the CM also needs to talk about inflation and rising fuel prices.
“Just making roads and installing streetlights won’t help. The country is grappling with inflation. People are getting affected. It is going to be a challenge for him,” he says.
The media-shy CM
While accessible to party workers and his constituents, Bhupendra Patel is an elusive figure for the media. Those close to him say that he has never been fond of the limelight.
“Even before becoming CM, he was like this. In the past we had requested him to go on TV debates as the party’s representative multiple times, especially on issues of urban development. He always refused,” says a member of the Gujarat BJP’s public relations team.
He adds that in his long career with the party, he has seen CMs asking their teams to pore over newspapers in the morning, mark negative reports, and follow up with the concerned reporters. “This CM? He has never cared for all of this.”
When controversies do arise, Patel tends to keep his distance. For instance, he maintained silence when the Rajkot police booked a local journalist in August this year for reporting that the party leadership might not repeat him as CM.
Similarly, Patel has also stayed silent on contentious issues such as the drug haul at Mundra in 2021, the Gujarat government’s decision to grant remission to the rape convicts in the Bilkis Bano case in August this year, and the flogging of Muslims accused of disrupting a garba event in Kheda last month.
Patel doesn’t enjoy public speaking either. He was always a leader known to wrap up his speeches at rallies within 10 minutes. After he became CM, members of the BJP public relations team requested him to stretch speeches to at least 20 minutes, according to party sources.
When Patel completed 200 days in power in April this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent him a letter, praising him for taking “far-sighted decisions” for public welfare in a short period of time.
Then in October, speaking in Jamnagar, Modi again talked up CM Patel for “being firm” in undertaking a demolition drive of illegal structures in Dwarka and “restoring the pride of Beyt Dwarka”.
In the same month, addressing a rally in Anand, Modi said Gujarat is “fortunate to have a CM who has experience of 25 years from panchayat to assembly”. Modi further said that when he himself had become CM, he had no experience.
BJP leaders in Gujarat say they’ve never heard Modi publicly applaud any leader as much as he does Patel. “Not even Amit Shah,” says an Ahmedabad-based BJP leader.
A civil engineer by qualification, Bhupendra Patel has a family business in real estate, which his party colleagues say is one of the few in the state to run on a zero-debt basis. He started his political career as a councillor from the Memnagar municipality in 1995, and steadily garnered a reputation as a problem-solver.
He was a corporator in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for the Thaltej ward from 2010 to 2015. Those close to him say this was when he got into Modi’s good books.
He also served twice as the chairman of the standing committee of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA), the city’s top urban planning body. In December 2014, he became chairman of AUDA.
When Anandiben Patel succeeded Modi as Gujarat CM in 2014, Bhupendra Patel worked under her guidance. Once she stepped down in 2016, Anandiben advised her protégé to contest from her seat, Ghatlodia. Bhupendra Patel went on to beat Congress’s Shashikant Patel by over one lakh votes in the 2017 assembly polls.
But critics slam Patel and say he is not just Modi’s man, but his “puppet”.
“Bhupendra Patel is a puppet in the hands of PM Narendra Modi,” says professor Hari Desai, director of the Ahmedabad-based Institute of Journalism & Communication.
“Modi is in some ways still the Gujarat CM. He has his people in virtually every department in Gujarat. The entire cabinet is run with a remote control and the CM is like a postman, the intermediary,” he adds.
He further says that Patel’s advisors in the CMO are all Modi’s men, with IAS officer Kuniyil Kailashnathan being the “Super CM”.
KK, as Kailashnathan is popularly called, is the chief principal secretary to the CM, a post that was specially created for him in 2013 when he retired as additional chief secretary to then chief minister Modi. Now, KK is said to be Modi’s eyes and ears in the Gujarat government.
But BJP leaders in Gujarat claim that Patel’s acceptance of this arrangement is an advantage.
“We have been blessed with intelligent administrators such as Narendrabhai Modi and Amitbhai Shah from Gujarat at the Centre. Bhupendrabhai is very simple, down to earth, and he is efficiently implementing their agenda in Gujarat. What is wrong with that,” asks Valsad MLA Bharatbhai Patel.
Since last month, the CM has spent a lot of time touring parts of the state with Modi to launch and inaugurate projects such as the Mission Schools of Excellence in Gandhinagar, laying the foundation for Rs 5,860 crore worth of housing, water supply, and transport infrastructure projects in Rajkot, and the dedication of Rs 3,400 crore for development works in Surat.
“Who oversaw all these projects in Gujarat for the PM to inaugurate? It was Bhupendrabhai,” says Bharatbhai Patel.
Dada Bhagwan devotee & fan of South Indian films
Over the past two decades, Patel has been an ardent follower of Dada Bhagwan, a spiritual guru, and frequently visits his trimandir (non-sectarian temple) in Adalaj. Anuj says his father visits the US every year around June-July to attend a spiritual programme of Dada Bhagwan.
Anuj says his father has always been a simple man who loves home-cooked food, with meals usually concluding with a Gujarati sweet from the family kitchen. “He was never a strict father,” he says. “He is so spiritual that every day when he wakes up, he spends an hour in sewa (service) — be it of any kind — and only then leaves the house. And if he has the time, he spends an hour from 9pm to 10pm watching satsang (spiritual discourse) of Dada Bhagwan on TV.”
His father’s guilty pleasure, says Anuj, is South Indian movies dubbed in Hindi. “We also suggest some movies that he watches. But now he doesn’t have much time.”
Anuj adds that his father couldn’t get around to watching popular films like Pushpa and K.G.F., but he did watch Baahubali “and quite liked it”.
Bhupendra Patel might have become CM by a roll of the dice, but he has shown that he has staying power, says Piyush Patel, a BJP worker who has known him since his municipal corporation days. “He is a lambi race ka ghoda (in the race for the distance) and still has a long way to go.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)