Simply Keshubhai

By Rajiv Shah
He was addressed as “dinosaur” by late Congress chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhury, but Gujarat government officials recall him for being too much of a “simpleton”, who easily succumbed to all types of pressures, whether from the family, or bureaucrats, or politicians whom he trusted blindly. Whatever he has been, former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who has allowed his decades-old association with the BJP to lapse just a few days ahead of his 83rd birthday, July 24, will now attract attention on how he seeks to influence Gujarat’s polity, about to witness assembly elections six months from now. Despite being old, his supporters say, he is seen as “Keshubapa” by the economically better off and socially influential community of Leuva Patels, especially in the Saurashtra region, to which he belongs.
I came in contact with Keshubhai in 1998, though I 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 vocal then, and Keshubhai tried holding their banner rather high, indeed without scruples. I remember Keshubhai strongly defending the vandal attacks on Coca Cola and Pepsi vans in Ahmedabad in 1998 as a “natural reaction” of nationalists protesting against US sanction against India. “Nationalists” were no other than Sangh Parivar boys. He took a similar view when MF Hussain’s works were vandalized in the city during a Bajrang Dal protest against the much-maligned Goddess Saraswati painting.
While officials would tell me that Keshubhai had “a very good common sense view of things” despite being not well educated, I thought he faltered in public relations (PR), the strongest point of his successor who threw him out. In fact, 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 missed the IT bus. I recall how newspersons were called to inaugurate Gujarat government’s website, Gujarat State Wide Area Network (GSWAN). They all waited for Keshubhai to press 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 town. Influential persons from all over the country were called, and they readily responded to his request to be present on the occasion. Mukesh Ambani and Sam Pitroda paid glowing tributes to him for his decision to have an Infocity. First Keshubhai began reading out the speech given to him, but then he diverted and began speaking ex-tempore 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 began to regularly hold iftaar parties, where Muslims from all walks of life – and not just BJP Muslims – would be invited to accept his greetings. It is another thing that his successor, who threw Keshubhai out of chief ministership, stopped it in the name of “no appeasement policy”. The council of ministers under him would see live debate on several issues, a rarity now. 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 now happily enjoys a top Cabinet rank.
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, who immediately asked for an inquiry, found my version correct, and asked the minister to apologize. A known critic of Keshubhai, who would regularly brief reporters as also Keshubhai’s opponents about “insider stories of the Cabinet meetings”, this minister, we came to know later, would do it all at the instance of the chief Keshubhai baiter, who sat in Delhi organizing out rebellion. Keshubhai perhaps knew of it, but tolerated the minister – and despite all odds.
The killer quake of January 2001 brought 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 ADB, 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.
Over the last one decade, Keshubhai has played hide-and-seek with BJP rebels, missing opportunities to dethrone the man who unseated him. He severally equated the Gujarat situation as “mini-emergency” and “emergency” but feared political fallout. Many rebels who were willing to join him are ministers. A few of them enjoy posts in government boards, with red light blowing hot and cold atop their cars. Some of his best supporters rejoined the BJP after leaving it, saying there is “no future with Keshubhai”, though admitting the current atmosphere is “quite suffocating”, and adding, “After all we have to survive!” It’s a heterogeneous group backing him, consisting of hindutva extremists and liberals. One is left wondering: Will this be the third alternative, as is claimed by Keshubhai men?

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