His cup of woes runneth over

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Drought. Rebellion. Corruption. Gujarat CM Narendra Modi faces troubles in every corner in a crucial election year, says Rana Ayyub

Photo: AFP

ON 28 July, Narendra Modi returned from his much-publicised trip to Japan. The chief minister’s office in Gandhinagar issued a press release, boasting of the impact the Modi-led business delegation and Brand Gujarat had apparently made on the Japanese. The following day, representatives of business houses that had been part of the entourage to Japan — including Reliance Industries, Torrent and the Adani Group — addressed the media to list Modi’s accomplishments.

Midway through the media conference, there was a commotion. Farmers and members of various agricultural cooperatives barged in and started shouting slogans against Modi, accusing him of favouring rich businessmen and ignoring the plight of the drought-stricken farming community. Government officials were taken aback, as were the corporate executives. The press meet had to be called off.

The incident was telling. After a decade of dominating Gujarat politics and winning two successive terms, why does it appear the 2012 polls will be Modi’s biggest challenge? Broadly, there are three reasons.

First, the economic conditions of the state, particularly the ongoing drought, have brought to the fore the divide between the haves and have-nots. Second, the rebellion against Modi in the state BJP family and the wider Sangh Parivar has reached critical mass. It threatens him like never before. Third, Modi’s own positioning — his attempt to precariously balance his identity politics in Gujarat with an inclusive image necessary for the 2014 General Election — has caused confusion and disgruntlement even among his erstwhile friends in the state as well as New Delhi.

In Modi’s 11 years as chief minister, this is the first drought that has led to violence, in stretches of the Saurashtra and Kutch regions. Police and security arrangements have been made down the 130 km of the Sardar Sarovar Dam’s branch canal — across the districts of Surendranagar and Rajkot — to prevent distraught farmers from stealing water for their crops.

These districts are pivotal to Saurashtra. They are also strongholds of the Leuva Patels, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s community. The farmers’ revolt poses not just a caste challenge to Modi but also threatens to call into question his entire development model, which he is banking on for his national ambitions.

For the first time too, Modi is battling serious corruption charges in a case that could implicate him as well. At a recent meeting, Modi had a bitter altercation with Minister of State for Fisheries Purshottam Solanki. Solanki is a leader of the Koli community, which makes up 15 percent of Gujarat’s voters. He was angry at Modi’s inability to save him in the Rs 400 crore fisheries scandal. A week earlier, on 31 July, Governor Kamla Beniwal had given sanction to prosecute the minister under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

What makes the situation even more troubling for Modi are notings made by the governor in her order. Her observations are based on a file, a copy of which is with TEHELKA. It shows the Modi regime was in the know of the acts of graft and was responsible for causing a loss of Rs 400 crore to the state exchequer while awarding fishing contracts without inviting tenders.

The notings, which found mention in a Gujarat High Court order dated 4 August, said: “In para 39, the governor records from a detailed note of Shri GB Joshi, secretary, Finance, dated 27-8-2008, a post facto approval. However, in the note, Joshi has stated that he is not inclined to agree with the action.” It further says the then chief secretary, D Rajagopalan, had opposed the minister’s decision to award fishing contracts without inviting tenders: “The minister has no authority and power to award fishing contracts in dams and reservoirs.”

Lawyer Mukul Sinha, who appears for petitioner Ishaq Maradia in the case, recounts the events: “On the first occasion, when permission under Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act was refused, the decision was taken by the chief minister and the law minister. This decision was struck down by the high court as being without jurisdiction. The high court held that the governor was the competent authority to grant or not grant a sanction… In the next round, instead of permitting the governor to take the decision, the council of ministers, led by the chief minister, took the decision and rejected the request for permission again. We then filed a contempt of court petition in the high court and the judge ordered that all relevant papers, on the basis of which sanction was denied, be placed before the governor. It was on the basis of these papers that the governor gave sanction for prosecution.”

The case can prove to be quite embarrassing for Modi. Since the then cabinet secretary had warned the government against the illegal granting of fishing rights in dams, and since this had been brought to the notice of the chief minister in 2008 itself, there is possible reason to indict the chief minister’s office. This is Solanki’s argument as well. The two men have had a testy relationship. In 2004, Solanki had rebelled against Modi and even termed him “Hitler”. He doesn’t want to be the fall guy in the fisheries scandal.

To save face, Modi has got Dileep Sanghani, Cabinet minister for fisheries, to take upon himself the onus of the contracts decision. However, this has not helped ease tensions between Solanki and the CM. Solanki is believed to have had a meeting with Keshubhai, and should he leave the BJP, it will be a crippling blow to Modi.

For the first time, Modi is battling serious corruption charges in a fisheries scam, which caused a loss of Rs 400 crore to the state

THE FULCRUM of Modi’s problems seems to be Keshubhai, who had become the BJP’s first chief minister in Gujarat in 1995 but was deposed by Modi in 2001. The day after Solanki met him, Keshubhai announced the formation of a new party, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). An array of former BJP veterans, all elbowed out by Modi, joined Keshubhai. They included Dalit leader Kashiram Rana, textiles minister in the NDA government and a six-time MP from Surat, as well as former chief minister Suresh Mehta. Gordhan Zadaphia, former home minister, has merged his Maha Gujarat Janata Party, with Keshubhai’s GPP.

Ganging up Keshubhai (2L) has brought together Modi’s rivals on a single platform
Photo: Mayur Bhatt

Keshubhai may have formally left the BJP only now, but has been on the offensive against Modi ever since the CM’s 2011 Sadbhavana fast. He shrewdly saw that as an opportunity to mobilise Modi’s critics in the Sangh. He has rebelled before, in 2007. Yet at that point, he was placated by the Sangh. He also sensed the public mood was with Modi and so tactically withdrew his resignation. This time, the old fox of Gujarat politics has walked out of the party. Why? Is there a difference between the situation in 2012 and that in 2007?

Keshubhai certainly believes so. His assessment is that the BJP rank and file is against Modi. Given the dissidence in the Sangh and the Modi government’s increasing apathy towards the rural voter, the former CM sees this as the best time to strike.

Speaking to TEHELKA, Keshubhai insisted his fight was for Gujarati asmita (pride), echoing Modi’s own watchword: “We are going to reveal the true face of this man. We are going to get back Gujarati pride.”

Zadaphia explained the mission as one of reclaiming the BJP from Modi’s alleged revisionism: “We will build a new BJP on the lines preached by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Our political party has the complete backing of the Sangh Parivar, which includes the VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal. In the next couple of months, we are expecting senior disgruntled BJP leaders to join us.”

There is some merit in these claims. Just before the GPP was announced, Pravin Maniar and Bhaskar Rao Damle (both RSS leaders) and Pravin Togadia of the VHP met Keshubhai and Zadaphia. While Modi’s camp dismisses Keshubhai as a spent force, a combination of caste factors and the GPP’s network in the Sangh establishes this is not 2007. Modi has reason to worry.

IN 2002, Togadia was a strongman of the Gujarat VHP, known for his vitriolic remarks against minorities. His parallel campaign played a role in Modi’s election victory that year. By 2007, the two had fallen out. Togadia wanted to take on Modi — some say he had political ambitions himself — but was silenced by the Sangh leaders. VHP supremo Ashok Singhal asked Togadia to stay out of Gujarat till the elections were over. Both the RSS and VHP then galvanised cadre support for Modi.

In 2012, nothing of the sort is happening. Many Sangh leaders have offered their support to the Keshubhai-led faction. Modi’s snubbing of Sanjay Joshi, a senior RSS man and a popular figure in Gujarat, has not gone down well. On his part, Togadia addressed a public meeting the day before the GPP was formally inaugurated, and attacked the Modi government for its alleged failure to protect Hindus.

If the Hindu hardliners are upset, there is also a caste upheaval to deal with. Both Keshubhai and Togadia are Leuva Patels. In Gujarat, Patels account for 26 percent of the vote. Saurashtra, which contributes 58 of the state Assembly’s 182 seats, is the turf of the influential Leuva Patels, traditionally loyal to Keshubhai, who is from this region.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Porbandar, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Amreli and Surendranagar — the core of Saurashtra — had voted against the BJP, following a Leuva Patel uprising. While the dynamics of parliamentary and Assembly elections are different, what could be a clincher is that unlike the passive protest of 2007, this time Keshubhai and other rebels have come under one umbrella. They are going into the interiors of Saurashtra, and the drought conditions are giving their criticism of Modi a certain resonance.

The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the agriculturalists’ arm of the RSS, has also lent its support to the GPP. To Zadaphia, this is significant: “In 2007, the Sangh had requested Keshubhai to take a step back. But this time, he has got the green signal.”

What is Keshubhai’s plan? Does he actually think he can swing the election? A senior GPP functionary is cautious about what can be achieved: “We may not be in a position to form a government, but we will damage Modi’s vote bank.” Publicly, the GPPO has distanced itself from the Congress. Nevertheless, the Congress, which commands 38 percent of the vote share, sees the GPP’s emergence as beneficial. A division among BJP voters would work to the Congress’ advantage.

The rebellion against Modi in the state BJP and the wider Sangh has reached critical mass. It threatens the CM like never before

Shakti Singh Gohil, a leading light of the Congress’ Gujarat unit, is confident: “Modi is caught in his fake attempt at secularism, which he took on for his 2014 plans. In his desire to play too many roles, he’s losing his own state. We believe the Congress has every reason for resurgence in Gujarat.”

The Congress itself is divided in the state. There is also talk of the Samajwadi Party putting up candidates and splitting the non-BJP vote. Even so, Keshubhai’s revolt and the drought have given the Congress reason to hope.

MODI HAD planned to use the run-up to the 2012 election to establish his credentials as a national leader, and project himself as a natural candidate for the prime minister’s post in 2014. However, things haven’t worked out that way. Like his former mentor LK Advani — who tried to balance his Hindutva image by praising Jinnah in Pakistan in 2005 — Modi has failed to win new friends nationally and only succeeded in alienating those in his backyard.

BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s much publicised assurance to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar that Modi would not be projected as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate was a setback. Soon after, Advani wrote a blog that said the next Central government could be headed by a non-Congress, non-BJP person. Modi supporters believe the leaking of news of Gadkari’s chat with Nitish as well as Advani’s blog had the same motive — to puncture the man in Gandhinagar.

For the moment, though, 2014 seems very far away. Narendra Modi has to win the December 2012 Gujarat Assembly election first. What had seemed a walk in the park even a few months ago, now resembles negotiating a minefield.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
rana@tehelka.com

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