Rupani is a better choice as Gujarat CM, but is that enough?

By Rajiv Shah
You can be a frank and an approachable leader, but is that enough for you to solve social issues which bog society? Soon after Vijay Rupani became Gujarat chief minister on August 5 evening, a top Sachivalaya insider, whom I have known for more than a decade, phoned me up to know what people thought of “the new incumbent”. Hesitant, I told him that he knew Rupani for quite some time, in fact ever since Rupani was in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, hence he should know better. Refusing to be named, he didn’t mince words, “Rupani is frank, approachable, dynamic”, adding, “It has always been a boon to work with him.”
I have known Rupani a little bit, though certainly not as much as this insider, who keeps a close tab of what’s goings on in the nerve centre of Gujarat politics. Without any doubt, Rupani is “approachable”. Off and on, while covering Sachivalaya, I would consult him about political goings on around Modi, and though he was frank and approachable, he never crossed the BJP’s invisible party line. Once I expressed my desire to meet him urgently, and he promptly said he was coming to the Times of India office in Gandhinagar and I should keep tea ready for him. He answered all my questions for an hour. He remains approachable, I believe, even now.
But does that make him dynamic? When the Dalit agitation was still on, after a long while, I decided to talk to Rupani as state BJP president, and he seemed to think that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion in the context of the future polls in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, one reason why Arvind Kejriwal and Mayawati were seeking to take political advantage of what happened in Una. Calling the by now famous July 11 Una incident—in which cow vigilantes thrashed four Dalit boys with iron rods after tying them to an SUV for skinning a dead cow—a “law and order problem”, elsewhere he went further on to say that caste is not an issue in Gujarat.
I don’t know whether he actually believes in what he said, yet if actually does, I wondered whether his was also a mundane perception to caste discrimination being a matter of “perception”, to quote a state-sponsored study on the issue by Prof R Parthasarathy, currently heading Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad. The report was a direct effort to deny results of a study sponsored by the Robert F Kennedy (RFK) Center for Justice and Human Rights for an Ahmedabad NGO, Navsarjan Trust, “Understanding Untouchability” (2009), which had found wide-scale prevalence of untouchability across Gujarat’s rural areas.
One wonders whether Rupani, an RSS man, understands that this skinning of cow is a hierarchical caste occupation, stemming from the perception among rural area non-Dalit castes that skinning of a dead cow in an “impure” task, and those who perform it are “polluted”, to quote top Vienna-based sociologist, Prof Shalini Randeria, who studied the subject way back in late 1980s. She said in her research work in North Gujarat villages, “As cattle scavengers, who dragged away dead animals from the village into their own settlement, they would remove the impurity attached to the carcass and transfer it to themselves.” The latest incident in Una suggests, this expert tells me, that the perception does not seem to have changed in rural Gujarat.
Be that as it may, Rupani played his cards pretty well ahead of becoming chief minister. He kept saying that he was “not in the race”, and that he had rather “serve” the BJP. Known to be one of the topmost stock market players in Saurashtra, he is extremely calculative in whatever he says. Even as affirming that Hindutva is the touchstone for BJP’s policies, Rupani is not “a rabid”, to quote a scribe, Bashir Pathan, who has known him for many years. One has to wait and see how far he would go to appease the minorities in a state which saw its worst riots in 2002.

Yet, the fact is, Rupani represents a sharp contrast to the chief contestant, Nitin Patel, who is said to have been asked to serve as deputy chief minister out of compulsions stemming from the year-long Patidar agitation, and on insistence from Anandiben Patel, the outgoing chief minister. Unlike Rupani’s low profile image, Nitin behaved very differently after Anandiben resigned. And, as rumour spread, apparently triggered by those close to Anandiben, that Nitin had been “chosen”, crackers exploded in celebration in Mehsana, his home district. Posters appeared in Mehsana welcoming him. His wife began giving interviews to TV channels saying he had indeed been chosen. And, newspapers were rushed with his profile!
Whatever little I have knew of Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister while covering Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, Modi never likes this kind of out-of-the-way celebrations. I don’t know whether Nitin sponsored all these celebrations ahead of the crucial announcement of chief minister, flashed on August 5 at around 6.00 pm. But he did nothing to stop all of it either. Nitin, for all these years, was essentially seen as a necessity in the Cabinet, because he, in a way, had “succeeded” AK Patel, known for decades as the North Gujarat Patel strongman.
A strong protagonist of Modi’s bete noire Keshubhai Patel for long, going so far as to attend a meeting opposing Modi’s choice as chief minister in October 2001, he did not get the required Modi support either in December 2002 assembly or in April 2004 Parliamentary polls. Defeated in both the polls, he found where his interests lied – and quickly changed sides. I remember how, during interactions post-2004 polls, he began to speak glowingly of Modi, something he never did earlier. Nitin won assembly elections in 2007, and Modi, knowing fully well the importance of keeping Patels in good spirits, took him in the Cabinet.
I have tracked Nitin since 1995, when his name appeared in reports on a caste riot in Kadi, his home town near Mehsana district. Dalits were attacked by individuals who allegedly happened to supported Nitin. Dalits’ houses were ransacked and shops torched. A member of an independent fact-finding team told me later the Dalits pointed fingers towards Nitin for “instigating” violence.
On February 27, 2002, the day Godhra train burning incident took place, I met him in the Gujarat state assembly chamber, only to find him frantically telling his supporters to “get ready” to support the Gujarat bandh call by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) with all their might. While he may not have been found involved in any of the rioting incidents, his district, Mehsana, became notorious for at least two ghastly incidents, which took place on March 1, 2002: Dipda Darwaza in Visnagar town, in which mob killed 11 members of a family; and Sardarpura village where 33 people were killed.
One of the major complaints, both within the BJP and in the government, against Nitin has been, he does not have “control” over his tongue. I would just quote from a small snippet in a popular Monday column, True Lies, in the Times of India, Ahmedabad. A few reporters went to see him in his Gujarat state assembly. Then Gujarat’s irrigation minister, he was asked about why North Gujarat villagers were refusing to use a high-profile government irrigation scheme, Sujalam Sufalam, for potable water. He didn’t like the question, as it concerned his region.
Put off, Nitin said, “It is like this. Government provides free and good quality condoms to people. But there are certain communities and groups who do not want to use but keep adding numbers to the population, disregarding the task of development. The government just cannot do anything about it.”

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