Gujarat: Bhupendra Patel's humble presence

The quiet and unassuming Bhupendra Patel has launched several popular schemes, but as polls near, he faces headwinds on key fronts

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Gujarat CM Bhupendra Patel with PM Modi and home minister Amit Shah at a co-op conclave in Gandhinagar, May 28; (AP Photo)

Nothing goes unnoticed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gujarat—he likes to keep an eagle eye on affairs in his home state. On May 23, in an unprecedented move, the prime minister’s office (PMO) initiated stringent action against two senior officials in the Gujarat government. In the morning, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) arrested flamboyant IAS officer K. Rajesh, joint secretary with the general administration department, on charges of corruption. Barely had the dust settled over the arrest than the chief minister’s office, Swarnim Sankul, received another order from the PMO in the late afternoon. This time, the axe fell on Dhrumil Patel, the highly influential personal assistant of Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, for his alleged involvement in a cash-for-postings scandal.

Nothing goes unnoticed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gujarat—he likes to keep an eagle eye on affairs in his home state. On May 23, in an unprecedented move, the prime minister’s office (PMO) initiated stringent action against two senior officials in the Gujarat government. In the morning, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) arrested flamboyant IAS officer K. Rajesh, joint secretary with the general administration department, on charges of corruption. Barely had the dust settled over the arrest than the chief minister’s office, Swarnim Sankul, received another order from the PMO in the late afternoon. This time, the axe fell on Dhrumil Patel, the highly influential personal assistant of Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, for his alleged involvement in a cash-for-postings scandal.

It is perhaps for the first time that such senior officers were being publicly hung out to dry in the state. Dhrumil was the first appointment after Bhupendra Patel took over as CM on September 12, 2021. A seasoned lieutenant of Anandiben Patel , the CM’s mentor and the current governor of Uttar Pradesh, he had been despatched to Gandhinagar to assist the ‘inexperienced’ Patel.

Sources say the PMO was sending a message to the state bureaucracy, and perhaps to the new CM too. In a subtle manner, Modi was also announcing that he has taken over the reins in Gujarat six months ahead of the assembly election. “Bhupendrabhai’s nature is mrudu (soft), but his decisions are makkam (firm),” Modi had said in Gandhinagar in late April. By May 28, the PM was losing his patience and expressing his displeasure openly with Patel’s style of functioning. At the inauguration of the Matushri K.D.P. Multi-speciality Hospital at Atkot in Rajkot, Modi was seen looking the other way as the CM stood with folded hands before him.

When Patel was chosen as a repl­ace­ment for Vijay Rupani in September 2021, it was seen as a bid to quell the unrest among the BJP cadre, say sources, as they felt “neglected at the government level”. The first-time MLA from Ghatlodia, Ahmedabad, Bhupendra Patel, 59, was also seen as the BJP brass’s solution to the strong anti-incumbency building up in the state. In an unheard of move, Patel also got an entirely new council of ministers, all of them—barring Rajendra Trivedi and Kanubhai Desai—newbies and with no experience of running the state.

Eight months on, the party workers, at least, seem mollified. The new CM holds an open house for visitors without appointment twice a week. On May 24, when india today visited, Patel’s third-floor office was crowded with close to 500 people waiting to meet him. There were people from all walks of life—common citizens, politicians, businessmen and even aspiring legislators. Most of the cases seemed to revolve around requests to resolve land disputes. A group from Rajasthan wanted the CM’s assistance to run their cow shelter in Gujarat. Patel took their memorandums one by one, made some remarks on the paper and handed them over to Nimesh Dave, his officer on special duty, for further action.

Bhupendra Patel’s chambers seem to be an embodiment of his ideas about the administration. There are small statues of spiritual guru Dada Bhagwan, Swami Vivekanand and Lord Buddha plus a cutout of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, reflecting the CM’s spiritual side and his pride over his community, the Patidars. A giant TV screen occupies a side of the wall in front of the CM’s chair. The balcony has a wooden swing and offers a spectacular view of the state secretariat. Patel has chosen Mondays and Tuesdays for his meet-the-people sessions, possibly so that he can take their feedback before the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “Vat paadi des tamaara (I will get you weight at home),” he tells the people. He believes the visitors would get respect in their villages or towns if they are seen to have access to the CM.

Slow pace, focused areas

The soft-spoken Bhupendra Patel is the first Gujarat CM to prefer trousers and shirts over the traditional kurta-pyjma. He is also known to be circumspect about bold administrative decisions. “What is the hurry? I am here to play a Test, not a T-20, match,” he apparently told a group of real estate developers at a meeting last year. What he has done is travel widely in the state to get to know the people outside Ahmedabad. The CM’s office rolls out the figures—Patel has travelled 61,000 km, interacted with 22,000 people and attended 300 government/ private meetings in the first 200 days of his tenure. He also claims credit for transparency in transfers and postings of government staff (the Dhrumil Patel scandal notwithstanding). Indeed, on May 28, 1,051 state employees were transferred within their districts. “It was the first time that such large-scale transfers took place in 24 hours, and through the online method,” states a note issued by the CM’s office.

On his trips, the CM has also made unannounced stops at public construction sites for inspections; his visit to the Rajkot-Ahmedabad highway site in January had made news. Critics, though, say his trips are more about visiting religious places than work-related. They might have a case here. An ardent follower of Dada Bhagwan, Bhupendra Patel maintains that his chair is nothing but a blessing from his guru. “He speaks little,” says a BJP leader from Ahmedabad, “and when you ask him about his political ambitions, he points towards the statue of Dada Bhagwan. The guru, it seems, will show the path.”

As elections near, Patel has ensured that the state budget has adequate provisions for three key constituencies—farmers, tribals and women—in line with the BJP’s poll strategy. Even at an early May chintan baithak (brainstorming sitting), Union home minister Amit Shah was heard exhorting BJP workers to focus on these three sections as they were crucial if the party was to retain power after December.

No one can accuse Patel of not following orders from New Delhi. A Gujarat Natural Farming Development Board, in accordance with Modi’s thrust on organic farming, has been constituted, the compensation to farmers whose land has been acquired for erecting power transmission towers has been doubled to 15 per cent (above the market rate); the state also bears 10 per cent of the cost (up to Rs 1,500) if a farmer wants to buy a smartphone. There is also a Rs 1,046 crore provision to complete electrification of their farmlands.

As for the tribals, financial assistance for students from the community pursuing a Ph.D. has been increased from Rs 25,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Plans are also under way to erect 500 new mobile towers in tribal areas for better connectivity. Around 16,500 tribal families have been awarded land rights under the Forest Rights Act. The state has also increased the budget for women’s empowerment programmes by 42 per cent—178 government programmes focus solely on this. But Patel’s biggest success so far has been the ‘Suposhit Mata, Swasth Bal Yojana’, for which Rs 850 crore has been set aside. Under the scheme, 1 kg toor dal, 2 kg chana dal and one litre edible oil is provided free every month for 1,000 days to pregnant women and lactating mothers.

The Dalit, tribal challenge

For CM Patel, winning the hearts of the 15 per cent scheduled tribe (ST) and six per cent scheduled caste (SC) population will be the biggest challenge. Out of the 182 seats in the assembly, 26 are reserved for STs and 13 for SCs. In 2017, the BJP had won 21 of these 39 seats (13 ST and eight SC), with the Congress taking 15 (Independents had won three seats). An India Today-My Axis exit poll survey said that 48 per cent of the STs and 32 per cent SCs had voted for the BJP in 2017.

The situation has changed since then. The tribals are vehemently opposed to the Union government’s plan to interlink three rivers—Par, Tapi and Narmada, calling it a plan to displace them from their native lands. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the project, aimed at increasing irrigation facilities in Gujarat and Maharashtra, in her budget speech this year. On March 30, the state government had to request the Union government to put the project on hold following the protests.

On the political front, the BJP faces a tough challenge from the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), a regional force in the tribal areas. The BTP is likely to join hands with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the coming election. BTP president Mahesh Vasava, the MLA from Dedipada in Narmada district, has been running a vociferous campaign against the BJP government. He had called on AAP chief and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in the national capital in March. Vasava alleges the BJP is trying to portray all the tribals as Maoists. He also objects to being called vanvasis (forest residents). “We don’t just live there, we are the owners of the forest,” he argues.

Talks of an alliance between the BTP and AAP are still at the primary level though. State AAP convenor Gopal Italia says, “It is a big political decision for both parties, so we cannot rush matters.” But former BJP legislator Bharat Pandya brushes aside the possibility of a dent in the BJP’s tribal votes. “Our government is working for their betterment, the tribals have full faith in PM Modi,” he says. At the same time, the party is not taking any chances—a host of interactions and rallies have been scheduled for PM Modi in the tribal areas.

It hasn’t helped that the Bhupendra Patel regime has been called out for its ‘anti-tribal’ stand. The CM, who also holds the home portfolio, has come in for some fiery criticism from even the RSS affiliate organisation, the Samajik Samrasta Manch (SSM), for shielding Yogeshdan Gadhvi, a folk singer accused of bad-mouthing the SC community. A popular face on TV, Gadhvi allegedly used derogatory language to describe the SC community at a party function and in the presence of state BJP president C.R. Patil on May 14. An offence under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was filed against Gadhvi, but he has not been arrested yet. CM Patel apparently junked a letter by SSM secretary Vijay Jhala demanding stern action against Gadhvi. This has created tension between the RSS outfit and the state government. “There were some 1,250 cases of atrocities against SCs registered in Gujarat (except Saurashtra) in the past year. This is worrisome,” says Jhala.

The RSS and the Patel government have been on a collision course over the handling of such cases. In November 2021, RSS Gujarat prant sanghchalak Bharat Patel had to publicly condemn the attack on an SC family of six in Kutch for entering a temple and put pressure on the government before it announced a compensation of Rs 21 lakh for the victims. Ten people were finally arr­ested in the incident. In April, the RSS and the state government faced off again after Jignesh Mevani, the livewire Dalit leader and Independent MLA from Badgam, was arrested in Banaskantha by the Assam police for an alleged derogatory social media post on PM Modi. The RSS believes the “unnecessary” action made Mevani a hero and gave him more ammunition against the government. “We had started cornering Mevani in a planned manner,” says an RSS functionary, “but his arrest created a sympathy wave for him. He has now revived his anti-Hindutva agenda.”

It has proved true, since his release on bail on April 29, the firebrand leader has been hyperactive in north and central Gujarat, addressing rallies and meeting people. The response has been overwhelming and has BJP supporters worried. Mevani says he will continue his fight against the oppression of the underprivileged. “As a person, Bhupendra Patel is a gentleman, but his government has failed us completely,” Mevani told india today. He highlights the infamous incident in Una where Dalits were flogged in 2017. “No chargesheet has been filed in the case even after five years,” he says.

Political games

When it comes to political manoeuvring, CM Patel takes a back seat to the aggressive state BJP president Patil. The latter has planned a massive ‘booth-level’ campaign between June 12 and 14, where the 12,000 state office-bearers will visit every ward and interact with workers and voters. Frontal organisations like the women’s wing and the SC/ ST, OBC and youth wings have to meet 300 party workers from every caste. Prominent BJP leaders have been asked to adopt one of the 48,312 children on the state’s malnourished list for a year. They will be responsible for the children’s diet and health. Meanwhile, the party poached the face of the Patidar reservation protests, Hardik Patel, from the Con­gress on June 2. His entry should boost the BJP’s ties with the community.

Bhupendra Patel

In 2017, the Congress campaign had a tagline, ‘Vikas gando che (Development has gone berserk)’. In a counter, the BJP had come up with ‘Hun chhu vikas, hun chhu Gujarat (I am development, I am Gujarat)’. A senior BJP leader says the campaign this time will focus on six points—Modi, karyakarta (worker), vikas, jan vishvaas (public trust), vyavastha (system) and vatavaran (work culture). “That will be enough for us to win the election,” he feels.

Bhupendra Patel had pointed out in March that Gujarat’s fiscal deficit has not touched 2 per cent post-Covid despite the Centre allowing a leeway of up to 4.5 per cent. “That is because of good governance,” he had claimed at the time. The CM had also outlined his top priorities—taking care of the last man in the queue as well as reducing the carbon footprint. When asked about Modi, Patel smiled. “We have to take forward the good work initiated by him...there is only one Narendra Modi and no one can match him in the entire world,” he had said. That about sums up the CM’s position on a lot many things in the state.