Keshubhai Patel: A BJP stalwart who rose through the political ranks
The passing of former Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel at the age of 92 marks the end of an epoch for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its previous avatar, the Jana Sangh, in the state. The party now has no surviving leader from the generation that braved early decades of political isolation and hostility.
Paradoxically, despite having raised the Sangh parivar’s political arm from scratch, he played no role in the most decisive decade in the party’s ascendance.
From October 2001, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi became chief minister replacing him, Patel lost all political relevance in a political culture different from the one he incubated.
He eventually formed his own outfit, the Gujarat Parivartan Party in 2012 but soon proved Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s truism correct: once a pracharak, always a pracharak. He merged the outfit with BJP but personally quit active politics in 2014.
In the autumn of his life, rehabilitation came in the form of the chairmanship of the prized Shri Somnath Trust, which overseers management of the Somnath Temple. His last re-appointment for another year was at an online meeting on September 20.
But the honorary positions he held, are not what Patel will be remembered for. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the mid 1940s while in his late teens. In the post-independence years, he was shifted to the Jana Sangh and held several offices. His growth was swift and by 1965, he was president of the Gujarat unit of Jana Sangh.
Patel’s first shot at becoming a state legislator ended in disappointment in 1972 as he was swept away by the tidal wave in favour of Indira Gandhi. He was successful in 1975 and went on become a state minister in the Janata government under Babubhai Patel. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in securing support of the Patidar community for the BJP. Patel possessed the political astuteness to read the once-powerful community’s dissatisfaction over its loss of political clout with the emergence of the KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivari-Muslim) combination that Madhavsinh Solanki forged for the Congress.
The 1980s served as the launch-pad decade for the BJP in Gujarat. Always sympathetic to the Hindu nationalistic idea, the state acquired the moniker of Hindutva’s laboratory during these years. The Ram temple agitation in the late 1980s coincided with the BJP abandoning its desire to be the legatee of Janata Party. RSS pracharaks were once again deputed to the BJP .
One of them, who stood apart, was Narendra Modi and he forged a mutually beneficial partnership with Patel at the cost of the other claimant within the party for its state leadership: Shankersinh Vaghela.
Patel was initially not a popular mass leader but drew support from all communities and emerged as the leader of the anti-Congress front. It was Modi’s organisational and marketing skills that raised Keshubhai Patel’s standing and equity through the Lok Shakti Rath Yatra in 1989. This sent out two messages: One, the BJP too was a significant non-Congress political alternative in Gujarat. Two, Keshubhai Patel was the party’s mascot.
Modi’s hand was evident when Patel became chief minister in March 1995. The over-centralised governance style that later evolved into the Gujarat model during Modi’s tenure as CM, however became the cause for a setback to both.
After three years in wilderness, Patel returned as chief minister. From 1998 onward, he opted not to seek Modi’s advice, a decision that resulted in a fallout. Poor administration of rehabilitation measures after the 1998 cyclone in Kandla and the 2001 Republic Day earthquake proved Patel’s undoing.
He never recovered from his loss of office while the man who took the baton from him, has gone from strength to strength.