Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 21, Oct. 13 - 26, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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THE STATES

A new oarsman

Bad governance costs Keshubhai Patel the chief ministership of Gujarat. Will his replacement, Narendra Modi, a master organisational strategist with little experience in governance, deliver the goods?

DIONNE BUNSHA
in Ahmedabad

THE Bharatiya Janata Party's governance in Gujarat, which is dubbed its political 'laboratory', has gone awry. Waking up to the fact that the party is losing ground in the only State where it has a legislative majority of its own, the party high command asked Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel to step down on October 2. In his place, it installed the BJP's national secretary, Narendra Modi, the first Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak to become Chief Minister or to hold a government office. He has never contested an election.

When the BJP recently lost the byelections in the Sabarmati Assembly constituency and the Sabarkantha Lok Sabha constituency, party bosses found a good excuse to get rid of Keshubhai Patel. Insiders say that they had already decided to replace him, and were waiting for an opportune moment. The Sabarmati constituency falls within Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's parliamentary constituency of Gandhinagar. A defeat there rattled the BJP's top leaders. They summoned Keshubhai Patel to New Delhi and asked him to make way for Modi.

Keshubhai Patel's initial resistance was quickly squelched. He objected to the "insulting" and authoritarian manner in which he was sought to be dismissed. His supporters, around 30 MLAs, mainly from the politically dominant Patel community, faxed a memorandum to the BJP leadership in Delhi emphasising their support to Keshubhai Patel. The letter said that Keshubhai Patel should not be solely blamed for the byelection defeats, and that if he were to be replaced, the new Chief Minister should be appointed after consulting the BJP's State unit.

On his arrival in Ahmedabad from Delhi on October 2 after tendering his resignation to party president Jana Krishnamurthy, Keshubhai Patel was in a rebellious mood. He said that he had not yet been asked to submit his resignation letter to the Governor and that it was up to the legislature party to elect a new leader. Even Keshubhai's rival, former Chief Minister Suresh Mehta, stated that he would refuse to be part of Narendra Modi's government since the latter was junior to him in the party.

But they were silenced overnight. The next morning, a sullen and subdued Keshubhai Patel held his last press conference as Chief Minister. He said that he would submit his resignation to the Governor in a few hours and that Modi would be elected leader at the BJP's Legislature Party meeting to be held the next day. Suddenly, all the rebellious MLAs turned tail and swore obedience to the high command's decision. At the legislature party meeting, Keshubhai Patel and Suresh Mehta respectively were made to propose and second Narendra Modi's nomination as leader. He was unanimously elected, and later sworn in Chief Minister on October 7.

However, it seems unlikely that Modi will be able to reverse the sharp decline in public support in the State for the BJP in time for the Assembly elections, to be held in early 2003. The district panchayat elections, held in September last year, showed up the public frustration with the party. The BJP lost 23 of the 25 district panchayats and the majority of taluk panchayats. Earlier, it held control over 24 district panchayats. In the municipal elections, the party lost two crucial municipal corporations - Ahmedabad and Rajkot, which it had ruled for 13 and 24 years respectively. The BJP retained control over the other four municipal corporations, but its victory margins were heavily reduced.Thrown back by these results, the party postponed the village panchayat elections three times in the past one year. They are now scheduled to be held in December.

Why has the BJP's popularity eroded in Gujarat? After coming to power in 1998 with a thumping majority, winning 117 of the 182 Assembly seats, the BJP now feels that its only stronghold is under threat.

SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP
At the BJP office in Ahmedabad, new Chief Minister Narendra Modi and outgoing Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel come together.

The bungling and neglect with regard to relief and rehabilitation in the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake is seen as the Keshubhai Patel government's most striking failure. "During the monsoon, people had no shelter," says Congress(I) leader Shankarsinh Vaghela, who as a BJP rebel toppled Keshubhai Patel's government in 1995 and headed a Rashtriya Janata Party government with Congress support for a brief period. Relief funds have not reached many of the earthquake-affected people. Several irregularities in the purchase of tin sheets and other housing material have been reported. "They promised eight lakh houses in 130 days. So far only around 5,000 houses have been constructed," says Gujarat Congress president Amarsinh Chaudhury.

In fact, corruption and incompetence have been the two striking features of the Keshubhai Patel government. The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) came as a major embarrassment to the government. There was a controversy over expenses relating to the Chief Minister's foreign trip to garner Non-Resident Indian funds. The CAG report also highlighted several irregularities in the award of government contracts and purchases of items ranging from aircraft to fodder.

There were allegations that Keshubhai's family, particularly his son-in-law and sons, had to be approached if any contract was to be cleared. Moreover, his Finance and Revenue Minister Vajubhai Vala's involvement in land deals proved an embarrassment to Keshubhai Patel. A builder by profession, Vala had been given charge of the Land Revenue Department. "Patel centralised everything. He held charge of all the policy-making departments - Public Works, the Sardar Sarovar Project, Information Technology, Industry, Ports. All these are the money-making portfolios," says Amarsinh Chaudhury.

Unfortunately, Gujarat was hit by seven natural calamities since Keshubhai Patel took over. His failure to deal actively with the problems at hand made matters worse. Moreover, grandiose schemes such as the Gokul Gram (self-sufficient villages) that he initiated were not properly implemented. In a 'black sheet' of the Keshubhai Patel government's achievements, the Congress(I) listed 1,140 promises, of which the government had implemented less than 440.

The state of Gujarat's finances is also worsening. The revenue deficit is expected to touch Rs.8,374 crores, up from Rs.2,863 crores in 1998-99. While Gujarat has prided itself on being a highly industrialised State, the rate of industrial growth is on the decline.

On the law and order front, the rising number of attacks on members of the minority communities, especially Christians, instilled a general feeling of insecurity. Emboldened by the BJP's rise to power, the Sangh Parivar unleashed its communal campaigns. Since Keshubhai Patel took over, there have been around 200 attacks on Christians and the tribal people, but complaints have been registered by the police only in around 80 such instances, says Samson Christian, joint secretary of the All India Christian Council. Recently there were three attacks on Muslims, says Dr. Hanif Lakdawala, an activist of a non-governmental organisation (NGO). "There are many small incidents that have increased the general sense of fear and insecurity, not only among the minorities but even in the general public," he says. In fact, Modi's entry has made people more fearful, since he is known to be an RSS hardliner.

Can Modi, a greenhorn in governance, come up with an effective salvage operation for the BJP? At a time when dissatisfaction with the BJP is mostly on account of government neglect and incompetence, it is unclear whether Modi, whose skills in statecraft are as yet untested, will be able to deliver the goods. Rather than put the government in order, it seems that the BJP is hoping that Modi will manipulate a victory at the polls. Known for his sharp organising skills, Modi is supposed to have played an important role as an election strategist.

In fact, it was his efforts which resulted in Keshubhai Patel's first electoral victory in the State in 1995. However, when the BJP reached a compromise with Vaghela in 1995 after his rebellion, Modi was shunted off to Delhi. Later Modi fell out with Keshubhai Patel as well. His sudden return has surprised the Gujarat State unit. Several other MLAs were vying to be Chief Minister, including Suresh Mehta, Narottam Patel and Vallabh Katheria, who was Keshubhai Patel's choice as successor. Modi will have to be elected to the legislature within six months.

The 'laboratory' has a new scientist. Will he get the magic formula right and engineer a victory for the BJP in 2003? Or have voters seen through the BJP's hollow promises?


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