Keshubhai Patel: A man with a very good common sense view of things

The former Gujarat CM is remembered both by those who have been close to him as also former government officials for being too much of a “simpleton” who easily succumbed to all types of pressures

Former Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Former Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Rajiv Shah

Several times addressed as “dinosaur” by late Congress chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhury as an opposition leader in 2001, Keshubhai Patel, who passed away at the age of 92 on Thursday, is remembered both by those who have been close to him as also former government officials for being too much of a “simpleton”, who easily succumbed to all types of pressures, whether from within the family, or bureaucrats, or politicians, many of whom he trusted rather blindly.

Whatever he has been, Keshubhai Patel, who was twice chief minister of Gujarat (in 1995, for less than a year), and again in 1998, till October 2001, only to be replaced by his long-time bete noire Narendra Modi, allowed his decades-old association with BJP to lapse in 2012 after failing to convince the party high command over what he had called “mini-emergency” prevailing in Gujarat under Modi.

Winning just about a couple of seats in the assembly of 182 (one of them was won by Keshubhai himself), and supported mostly by his powerful sub-caste Leuva Patel supporters from across Gujarat, the party collapsed soon after the elections. Recalls one of his then-supporters, Siddharth Parmar, a former BJP MLA, “Though Keshubhai had his differences with Modi, he always remained heavily influenced by RSS. Apparently, under RSS advise, he put up candidates across Gujarat in the 2012 assembly polls, which cut into anti-Modi votes that would have otherwise gone to the Congress.”

Remaining inactive for quite some time thereafter, Keshubhai rejoined BJP a year later, realising that he, at this age (he was 83 then), had no other political future. His only activity since then has been as chairman of the Somnath Temple Trust, “managing” one of the top Hindu dhams of India rebuilt under the directions of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

As a Times of India representative in Gandhinagar, I came in contact with Keshubhai in 1998, though I had met him once earlier, somewhat briefly, in early 1994 when he was opposition leader in the Gujarat state assembly. In 1998, he led his party to victory with a thumping majority for the second time, crushing the Congress and the BJP’s splinter group, Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP), founded by Shankarsinh Vaghela.

Ideologies of Hindutva and Swadeshi were already pretty vocal in Gujarat then. Keshubhai tried holding on to their banner rather high, indeed without scruples. I remember Keshubhai strongly defending a vandal attack on Coca Cola and Pepsi vans in Ahmedabad in 1998 as a “natural reaction” of nationalists protesting against US sanction against India. “Nationalists”, in Keshubhai’s scheme of things, were no other than Sangh Parivar boys. In fact, he took a similar view of things when MF Hussain’s works were vandalized in the city during a Bajrang Dal protest against the much-maligned Goddess Saraswati painting.

Officials would often tell me that Keshubhai had “a very good common sense view of things” despite being not so well educated, but I found him faltering in public relations, the strongest point of his successor, Modi, who “threw him out” in October 2001 following reports from Keshubhai’s Cabinet ministers and officials about “scams” that prevailed then following the devastating earthquake that shook Kutch on January 26, 2001.

Between 2001 and 2012, Keshubhai continued his campaign against Modi with his supporters, though most of the time his operation would be covert. In personal talks with me, he was heavily critical of Modi, with a caveat, “You will not quote me.” I recall a meeting he called – a show of strength of supporter MLAs – after the defeat of NDA in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

The MLAs’ meeting at a farmhouse near Gandhinagar, the state capital, took place after Atal Behari Vajpayee called for Modi’s resignation. We were counting: More than half of the BJP MLAs had attended, with one of his then supporters, Purshottam Solanki, describing Modi as “Hitler.” But, for some strange reason, Keshubhai didn’t use this opportunity to disturb Modi.

Be that as it may, Keshubhai was surely a simpleton. He never tried to hide his lack of knowledge. He didn’t know what IT was, yet he initiated Gujarat into the IT age at a time when the state had already missed the IT bus. I recall how newspersons were called to inaugurate the Gujarat government’s website, Gujarat State Wide Area Network (GSWAN). They all waited for Keshubhai to press the computer button on the ground floor of Sachivalaya’s Block No 1. In came Keshubhai, telling his principal secretary, PK Laheri, “We have to go to the site to inaugurate GSWAN. Is the bus ready? Ask newsmen to sit in. Why are they here?” Laheri told him, only a computer button had to be pressed, and he exclaimed, “Oh is that so!”

In another instance, Keshubhai had to lay the foundation stone of Infocity, off Gandhinagar, the state capital. Influential persons from all over the country were called to attend the meet, and they all readily responded to his request to be present on the occasion. Mukesh Ambani and others paid glowing tributes to him for his decision to have an Infocity. Keshubhai began reading out the speech given to him, but then he diverted and began speaking extempore on how Gujarati youth, who go to the US, do an excellent job in IT. In between, he referred to “HIV visa”, and the audience giggled – he was referring to H-1B visa!

One official, who was close to him, told me, “He may not have knowledge of things modern, but he tried to understand issues and never said no to new ideas. He was a democrat, with no authoritarian traits.”

Indeed, despite his Hindutva leaning, he slowly found realities of the larger world, though it was too late when he may have actually found them out. He would regularly hold Iftar parties, where Muslims from all walks of life – and not just BJP Muslims – would be invited to accept his greetings. His successor Modi stopped the Iftar parties in the name of “no appeasement policy”.

The council of ministers under Keshubhai would see live debate on several issues, a rarity under Modi. In fact, Keshubhai wouldn’t mind criticism against him. Only once Keshubhai was forced to act against a Cabinet minister, who thrice called him a “liar”. This prompted him to sack the minister, who under Modi’s chief ministership happily enjoyed a top Cabinet rank for quite some time.

I found Keshubhai always helpful. It was January 2000. In search of news, I was told that a Cabinet minister had written a letter supporting Madanlal Khurana, who had rebelled against the BJP high command. When I tried to inquire about the veracity of the letter, this minister threatened to assault me and break my head if I wrote anything. I told this to Keshubhai about this, who immediately asked for an inquiry, found my version correct, and asked the minister to apologize.

A minister, a known critic of Keshubhai, who would regularly brief reporters as also Keshubhai’s opponents about “insider stories of the Cabinet meetings”, we came to know later, would do all that he could to inform Modi, sitting in Delhi and looking for an opportunity to oust Keshubhai. Keshubhai surely knew of it, but tolerated the minister – despite all odds.

The killer quake of January 2001 brought a bad name to Keshubhai, as he had no PR machinery to back him. Though he earned international goodwill by roping in all types of support, including from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, in Gujarat he came in for heavy criticism for “slow” rehabilitation and wide-scale corruption, especially in Kutch.

Ministers and MLAs went against him. Things reached a point where BJP supremo LK Advani wanted him removed. I met Keshubhai and asked his view on whether Advani would prevail. Keshubhai angrily reacted, “Who is Advani?” This was enough for me. I filed the story based on an interview with Keshubhai. While his critics used it against Keshubhai, faxing it to Advani and others, Keshubhai, interestingly, never protested or asked me why I wrote it!

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