Who will fill Modi’s shoes?

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(from left) Anandiben Patel, Nitin Patel, Saurabh Patel and Vajubhai Vala
Who’s next? (from left) Anandiben Patel, Nitin Patel, Saurabh Patel and Vajubhai Vala, Photos: Trupti Patel

As the poll fever reaches its climax, the country continues to be gripped by the debate over whether Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi will become the next prime minister. Interestingly, a parallel debate is playing out in Gujarat — if Modi, indeed, wins the race to the top post, who will rule the state?

There are several contenders for the chief minister’s job, but the frontrunner is Minister of State (revenue) Anandiben Patel, who is also in charge of disaster management, roads and building and urban development departments, among others. She has been a Cabinet minister since 1998 and is known for her bureaucratic adeptness and administrative skills.

Modi has been working to establish Anandiben as his successor. “Anandiben is most likely to be the CM after Modi,” says political analyst Devendra Patel. “She is a senior leader and Modi’s confidante.”

Anandiben, the former principal of Ahmedabad’s Mohniba Girls’ School, has been with Modi since his RSS days, supporting him through turbulent times. When BJP leaders Keshubhai Patel and Sanjay Joshi orchestrated Modi’s banishment from Gujarat in 1986, she backed him. While Modi was away, she devoted herself, like Modi’s other aide Amit Shah, to prepare the ground for his return.

Anandiben has been estranged from her husband Mafatlal Patel for the past 25 years. Her closeness to Modi grew so much that her husband wrote letters to former prime minister AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, in which he alleged that his wife was under Modi’s influence. He also urged the BJP leaders to “save his wife”.

In Shah’s absence, Anandiben is believed to be the preferred choice. According to experts, Shah and Anandiben are intense rivals within the Modi camp. But Shah has been out of Gujarat after being appointed the BJP’s election in-charge for Uttar Pradesh. It is quite evident that if Modi becomes the prime minister, Shah would accompany him to the Centre, giving Anandiben a free run in Gujarat.

“If Amit Shah was in the state, things would be difficult for Anandiben,” says Brijesh Singh, a senior journalist with ABP News. “Now, there is no challenge.”

Anandiben has maintained a clean image but she has often courted criticism for her rigid attitude. “Bureaucrats and party workers feel offended because of her attitude,” says a local BJP leader. “People get cold feet while approaching her. She scolds workers for coming to her with inappropriate requests. She doesn’t mix well with them like other leaders.”

Journalist Singh adds, “It is true that Anandiben is not very popular among the party workers, but she has been projected as Modi’s successor for quite a while. Besides Modi, Anandiben is the only leader in Gujarat who has managed to carve a separate identity. Earlier, one could hardly find a banner or poster in Gujarat without Modi’s picture on it. Recently, banners have come up in several areas that carry only Anandiben’s photo.”

Another negative factor is that she lacks a strong base. But Devendra begs to differ. “People say that she does not have a mass base. But she won the previous election with a margin of over 1 lakh votes. How do you explain that?” he asked.

Next in line is MoS (finance) Nitin Patel. The 56-year-old made headlines recently when he chaired two Cabinet meetings in Modi’s absence. Modi appointed Nitin as the government spokesman and granted him second position in the Cabinet. He has vast experience in administration.

Nitin was appointed health and family welfare minister when the BJP came to power in 1995. He has been a member of the state Assembly since 1990, except for a brief period in 2002-07. Currently, he is in charge of finance, health, medical education, family welfare and transport departments. He wields influence over the powerful oil extractors’ lobby. He is quite popular among party workers and a favourite within the Patel community. He is favoured within the Sangh Parivar as well. But outside the Patel community, he does not enjoy popularity with the masses.

Another likely candidate is Energy Minister Saurabh Patel, 54, who has always been a Modi loyalist. After getting an MBA degree from the US, he has been an MLA since 1998. In 2001, he became a minister when Modi became the CM.

Saurabh held several offices as Cabinet minister and rose politically alongside Modi. Interestingly, he is the son-in-law of Ramnikbhai Ambani, the elder brother of Dhirubhai Ambani. He takes credit for bringing in foreign investment into the state. He was also the man in charge of the high-profile Vibrant Gujarat summit.

It is believed that Saurabh revolutionised the much-lauded power sector in Gujarat, which always finds a mention in Modi’s speeches. Currently, he holds the portfolios of energy, petrochemicals, mining, minerals, cottage industry, salt industry, printing, planning, tourism, civil aviation, labour and employment.

He is lauded for his administrative qualities, but he does not seem to have much political understanding. He has no base among the party workers. “Saurabh is a master administrator,” says analyst Devendra, “but without a strong base, his chances of becoming the CM are bleak.”

Assembly Speaker Vajubhai Vala is another possible contender. The 75-year-old holds the record of presenting the most number of state Budgets (14).

Vala has been a Modi loyalist for a long time. In 2001, when Modi returned to Gujarat, Vala offered to vacate the Rajkot Assembly seat for him. “Modibhai respects Vajubhai a lot,” says a leader close to Vala. “He is one of his confidants. He is the senior-most leader here. So, there is a chance that he might become the CM.”

Journalist Singh, who has a deep understanding of Saurashtra, says, “The one thing that goes in Vajubhai’s favour is his acceptability. He is a senior leader. But he is not very ambitious, which makes him perfect for Modi’s camp.”

But Vala’s age is likely to become a barrier. “Age is definitely a factor,” says a party leader on the condition of anonymity. “That is why the party made him Assembly Speaker instead of a Cabinet minister.”

Former state BJP president Purushottam Rupala is also said to be in the mix, but his chances are not looking bright. “Although he is popular among the Patel community in Saurashtra, he has little chance,” says Devendra. “He was out of Modi’s good books long ago.”

While the debate rages on, everyone is playing the guessing game. It is possible for a dark horse to be ultimately appointed the chief minister. “Modi is unpredictable,” says Singh. “It will not be a surprise to see a totally different person entering the scene at the last minute.”

But are any of these leaders really jockeying for the top job? “No leader dare publicly express his/her desire to be chief minister,” says Devendra. “Whoever does it will put his/her career at stake. This is why they are tight-lipped about it.”

Everyone is aware that Modi will take the final call. “Whoever Modi chooses will become the chief minister and everybody else will have to approve of the person,” says a senior BJP leader.

All said and done, Modi is likely to remote control the state machinery from Delhi. It is widely speculated that he will not leave the CM’s post until he becomes the PM or secures a strong position at the Centre. He will not think of anyone else before his own position becomes clear.

“This is not even an issue of debate right now,” says state BJP vice-president IK Jadeja. “When the time is right, we will discuss it with the MLAs and the top leadership and take a decision.”

But is it not time Modi handed over the reins of Gujarat after being nominated the PM candidate as he is busy with the campaign? “There is no need,” says Jadeja. “Modi is running the state well. No matter in which part of the country he is campaigning, he returns to Gujarat by night and sees to the matters of the state.”

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

brijesh.singh@tehelka.com

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