The indispensable Bhai

By Rajiv Shah
He created flutter in May 2004. Attending a rebel BJP meet at a farm house off Gandhinagar, Purshottam Solanki, popularly Bhai among his supporters, called Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi "Hitler". Ironically, even today, Bhai claims he hasn't changed his views. Only, at that time he was on the side of those in the BJP who believed Modi was a bad guy. But now he is with those who say there is no alternative to Modi. A junior minister in the Modi government, I decided to call on Bhai a few days back at his residence in Sector 20 in Gandhinagar. The Gujarat High Court had just directed the state government to decide on sanctioning Bhai's prosecution for his alleged involvement in Rs 400 crore fishing contract scam. I talked to him about the scam. He, obviously, denied any involvement. Then I decided to remind him what had declared once, standing next to Modi's bĂȘte noire ex-CM Keshubhai Patel - that Modi was Hitler.
"What do you have to say of it today? Do you still believe what you had said then?", I asked him, and pat came his reply, "Yes, of course I do. He is still what he was then. I stick to my views." So was he critical of Modi? I wondered. In the second breath he clarified, "Today, I am with Modi. I don't think that those with whom I stood in 2004 will be of any use now." Incoherent and disorganized, minister of state for animal husbandry and fisheries Purshottam Solanki has been at the centre of controversy ever since he was indicted by the Shrikrishna Commission for his involvement in the Mumbai riots of 1993. He shows no signs of regret even today: "I only defended Hindus. What wrong did I do?" He even claims innocence for calling Modi Hitler. He told me: "How do I know who Hitler is? I just referred to him because people think he is sort of stern fellow."
Despite the High Court direction, Modi is reluctant to see this controversial Bhai out of Gujarat's council of ministers. Modi knows, Bhai wants to throw around his clout among the numerically strong community to which he belongs - Kolis - by remaining in power. But without power, he would act as a wounded lion; and Kolis would see him as victim of "bad guy" Modi. "Kolis form 25 per cent of Gujarat's population", Bhai tries to sound influential. "It is for those who want me out of power to decide what will be their fate in the forthcoming state assembly polls", he declares. It was little short of suggesting Modi that needs him more than what he needs Modi. "What does Bhai want? A ministerial chamber and a car with red light blowing atop. He cares little as to who is in power, as he has complete support of the Koli community", an outspoken Bhai supporter tells me.
Majority of Kolis are poor. Most of them work as small fishermen or agricultural workers mainly along the Gujarat sea coast, which is 20 per cent of India. Bhai himself hails from Ghogha, a small town situated on Saurashtra coast. In two previous polls - for Gujarat state assembly in 2007 and Lok Sabha in 2009 - Modi gave him a chopper to hop around different Koli areas and muster support for BJP candidates. In fact, apart from Modi, he was perhaps the only state BJP leader who was given a chopper to campaign. I remember how he refused to go to campaign for BJP candidates till he was provided chopper. "Even Keshubhai Patel had to oblige me with a chopper me before he became chief minister in 1998", he tells me proudly, adding, "There are 35 Koli majority seats out of 182. We (Kolis) want at least 25 of them. This is not a big demand."
In fact, Bhai has declared on several occasions, that Kolis are more important to him that the party to which he belongs. Ask him how many Koli MLAs are with him, and he says, "They are 14 of them", though reluctantly adding, "Eight of them are with BJP, one is independent and the rest are Congress." Bhai's supporters are more vocal. They tell me, "None of the Koli MLAs can win without Bhai support." A supported counted out ministers who would be "defeated", as Bhai has decided not to support them this time because of their "indifference towards Kolis."
With polls approaching, Bhai has begun to overtly demonstrate that he not just remains strong but is indispensable for Modi. "I have organized Koli Sena with eight lakh members", he tells me. The ball is in the Modi camp, he indicates, knowing fully well what ails the chief opposition, Congress. A former mass base of the Congress, Kolis have been rendered directionless ever since top Gandhian Karamshi Makwana died about one-and-a-half decades ago.
Karamsi's brother Shavsi Makwana kept the Gandhian flag high for several years, but today he is unwanted. A former MP, he lived a simple life, travelled by state transport bus. He has just turned 80, and doesn't have money to travel by car to Ahmedabad to attend functions. Simple living and high thinking have been his motto, which he follows to this day. He once regretted to me, "Today among Kolis we have such leaders like Purshottam Solanki, who adopt strong arm tactics to remain in power." Karamsi and Shavsi Makwana established a series of Gandhian Ashram Shalas to educate Koli children. Speaking disdainfully about them, Bhai says, "They had limited influence. They only looked after their family interests", and gleefully adding, "Congress today has not one but four Koli leaders, and all fight among themselves."

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