She had an unenviable task when she took over as CM of Gujarat from a colossus. But Anandiben Patel has carved a niche for herself through her unassuming manner and her open administration
By RK Misra
Walking in outsized shoes taxes the art of balance between pathetic fallacy and potent performance on the one hand and heightened aspirations and ballooning expectations on the other. This unenvious job is the lot of Anandiben Patel, who succeeded the imagery wizard, Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat and the first woman at that. Stepping into Modi’s shoes is the best of a bad bargain, the legacy of a choked tight governance notwithstanding.
A man who had never held any post of public governance, not even of a village sarpanch, Modi governed Gujarat for 12 years, seven months and 14 days to become its longest serving chief minister. He was the government, he was the party and there was space for none else. Loved and loathed in fair measure, he nevertheless enjoyed consi-derable popularity as was evident from his party’s landslide victories in successive polls and complete decimation of the opposition—both within his party and outside. It was in this backdrop that Anandiben assumed office.
That she would succeed Modi was never in doubt. She had been an unwavering Modi camp follower, a staunch supporter through the tumult of Gujarat politics that saw Keshubhai Patel take charge at the head of the first BJP government in Gujarat in 1995. Before the year was over, his government was in dire straits, with veteran party leader Shan-kersinh Vaghela rebelling and walking away with a large chunk of party legislators. It fell on Atal Bihari Vajpayee to come down to Gandhi-nagar and effect a reconciliation, only to face a vocal midnight protest of a sellout by the likes of the present CM.
The peace brokered then cost Keshubhai Patel his job, but also led to the banishment of the party general secretary, Narendra Modi from Gujarat. Vaghela quit the party to become CM with Congress support, but was vanquished as the state went to polls in 1998 and a victorious Keshubhai returned as CM, only to be replaced by Modi in 2001. During this entire period, Anandiben remained loyal to Modi and was more than adequately compensated.
Chief Minister Anandiben Patelreceiving mentor Modi and bête noire Amit Shah in Gandhinagar in September 2014
Born into a farmer’s family at Kharod village in Vijapur taluka, Mehsana district, on November 21, 1941, Anandiben did her BSc from Visnagar in 1963 to take up her first job with Mahila Vikas Gruh. She got married on May 26, 1962. In 1965, she moved to Ahmedabad with her husband and did her MSc. Later, she followed it up with a BEd. She started teaching maths and science at Mohinaba Kanya Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad, caping her career as principal. After 31 years on the job, she finally took voluntary retirement.
Nathji, an attendant at a petrol pump neighboring the school, who had seen her grow, carries happy memories. “Initia-lly, she would walk down to school, but later, would come on a red scooter. The teacher that she is and her humble beginnings will contribute to making her a good chief minister,” he says.
Mafatlal, her estranged husband, who retired as a professor of psychology at an Ahmedabad college, is also on record saying that she was a strict and hard-working teacher.
Her entry into politics was quite by accident. Two girls from her school fell into the Narmada. She singlehandedly saved both from drowning. It was this act of singular courage which caught the eye of some senior BJP leaders, who invited her to join the party. By 1987, she was president of the Gujarat Mahila Morcha and by 1994, she was striding into the hallowed portals of the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat. Four years later, in 1998, she quit the RS to contest her first assembly election from Mandal in Ahmedabad. She won and became the education minister in the Keshubhai Patel government. She was twice elected from Patan and, in the 2012 elections, from Ghatlodiya in Ahmedabad. Since then, there has been no looking back for her.
She continued as education minister in the Modi government in 2001 and headed two key portfolios, revenue and roads and buildings in the third. Going from strength to strength, she held four important portfolios—roads and buildings, revenue, urban development and urban housing, besides disaster management — in the last government.
Taking over from Modi requires indomitable courage as he had hogged the entire political landscape of Gujarat, striding like a colossus, reducing both the party and the government to a pantheon of pygmies. The sheer magnitude of scale, whether of events, publicity or political leverage, was designed to create a dazzling persona. It was an act impossible to outdo. That she was his handpicked successor hardly mattered, for comparisons were bound to creep into public perception.
Anandiben meeting a Chinese delegation in Gandhinaga
Anandiben has chosen the only way out. She has cut the clutter, introducing an element of simplicity in her style—a marked difference from that of her predecessor. The Chief Minis-ter’s Office is the first reflection of this change. There is a marked openness, quite different from the claustrophobic legacy, and access is easier. Gone is the paranoia and obsession with security that marked Modi’s tenure. During Modi’s tenure, not only were road dividers between Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad airport marked by double-fencing, even the service lanes on both sides had man-high fencing, with focus lamps lighting up the two extremes. The present chief minister travels with a quarter of Modi’s entourage and without making any fuss.
An understated, quiet dignity marks her bearing, though her expressionless face continues to mask all traces of emotion. The only exception was when her name was announced as CM; then, tears trickled down her face.
This is not to state that there has been any departure in terms of policy from Modi’s time. There are two reasons for this. One, Modi still maintains a very strong hold and say in matters of his home state and two, she is in agreement with most of the policies pursued during his time. Nevertheless, these are subtle. Modi’s slogan of Vibrant Gujarat is slowly being replaced with “Gatisheel Gujarat” (dynamic).
With actor and Gujarat Tourism’s brand ambassador Amitabh Bachchan
It is well-known in Gujarat that two of Modi’s closest confidante’s, Anandiben Patel and Amit Shah, have no love lost for each other. Shah was also a claimant for the chief minister’s job until he was moved out by Modi to take charge of other responsibilities.
With Shah now the second most important man in the BJP after Modi, he has no reason to complain. But for all his sway over the national party, he has not been able to get the better of the present chief minister in Gujarat. This was evident when, despite pitching strongly for important portfolios for the tainted Purshottam Solanki who was inducted as minister of state recently, Anandiben refused to oblige and he had remain content with animal husbandry. Ditto for Vijay Rupani, who was recently elected to the assembly through a by-election after Speaker Vajubhai Vala went as Karnataka governor. Shah wanted the home portfolio for Rupani, but she gave him transport.
Anandiben also has a mind of her own. Modi had staked a lot on the issue of compulsory voting in local self-government elections. The bill passed by the assembly then was returned by the governor, Dr Kamala Beniwal, with her objections but a piqued Modi again had it passed by the assembly and sent it back. After the governor was changed, the present incumbent, OP Kohli passed the bill. The Patel government, though enforcing the 50 per cent reservation for women in these elections, has chosen to hold back the compulsory voting part.
The present government is also taking a closer look at the solar policy after it was hit by a scam, wherein bureaucrats, working in tandem with some political interests, were involved in a land scam in promoting the Charanka solar power project in Banaskantha district in North Gujarat. Those in the know of the impending project were instrumental in cornering large tracts of saline land from farmers at dirt-cheap prices and then selling it to the government at very high prices for the solar project.
However, there have been times when Anandiben has had to give in. Highly placed sources say that she was keen to have Dr SK Nanda, the senior-most bureaucrat, as the chief secretary, but a last-minute intervention from Delhi saw the comparatively junior DJ Pandian, who headed Gujarat State Petroleum Corpo-ration (GSPC) for a record nine years during Modi’s rule, pip him to the post. The GSPC allegedly hides many skeletons of the previous regime in its cupboard.
A starkly noticeable change from the previous government is the stress the Patel government is laying on backbone projects like women’s empowerment and child welfare. “While Modi was more into taking up path-breaking projects that would make national and international headlines, Anandiben understands the basics of child and women empowerment and sanitation needs better. She is a teacher and a mother in the end,” says a veteran political analyst. He has a point.
For Modi, Gujarat was a staircase to Delhi. Anandiben, for all practical purposes, has no such aspirations, so the state can expect to be a gainer. And the prime minister too can now fulfil the causes he espoused as CM but couldn’t.