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The 3D technology that Narendra Modi uses to address his voters in the run up to the Gujarat state assembly polls may not prove to be as much of a game-changer as a walking-talking third dimension - Keshubhai Patel.
The 83-year-old founder of the BJP in Gujarat has never let go of his grudge against Modi ever since he was dethroned as chief minister in 2001. This latent anger has led to the birth of the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) with a single-point agenda - revenge. In all his public speeches, Keshubhai has made it abundantly clear that he wants to unseat Modi.
Armed with a cricket bat as his party symbol, the grand old man of Gujarat politics has taken some wild swings at Modi. Consider this recent reverse sweep: "General Dyer killed 1, 000 people (in Jallianwalla Bagh) but Modi is responsible for the deaths of more than 39, 000 people who have committed suicide due to unemployment and debt. "
Bapa (elder of the family), as many still refer to him affectionately even in the BJP, has fielded candidates in 175 of the 182 seats in the state. He may not win many seats, but Keshubhai is definitely capable of damaging chances of the BJP candidates on a number of seats, especially in the Saurashtra peninsula, which sends as many as 52 legislators out of an assembly of 182. The BJP has all the reasons to worry on this front because in 2007 it won 21 of its 117 seats with a margin of less than 5, 000 votes.
It is not surprising then that Keshubhai's presence in the poll arena has led to the BJP changing its strategy. For instance, Modi has not fielded as many fresh faces this time as he has done in the past, fearing that many sitting MLAs would cross over to the GPP if denied tickets. In 2007, 84 MLAs were repeated while 98 were fresh faces. In 2012, the BJP has repeated 108 candidates - 86 sitting MLAs and 22 who lost in the last election in 2007. In the process, there are many BJP candidates in the fray who are not popular among their voters.
In addition, Modi has not given ticket to any Muslim candidate despite being in 'Sadbhavana' mode for around three years now and underplaying his Hindutva's-poster-boy image. Doing so could possibly have pushed hardcore Hindu supporters towards Keshubhai who has the same RSS pracharak history as Modi.
More worries for Modi come from within the Sangh Parivar. Sections of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) led by its international general secretary Pravin Togadia, a Patel by caste, are supporting Bapa. There are Keshubhai sympathisers even in the Gujarat unit of the RSS who have been sidelined by Modi. The VHP plays a key role in mobilising voters on election day.
Besides, vengeance seems to have fired up ambition in the 83-year-old. BJP insiders say he has always been a fighter and will pull no punches now that he is out of the selfimposed hibernation of the past decade. They love repeating their favourite anecdote about how Keshubhai entered politics and the tough days he faced as the founder of the BJP in Gujarat. In 1965, Keshubhai was just a pracharak in Rajkot cycling back from a shakha in his khaki shorts, when he noticed Liliya Dada, a goon, extorting money from shopkeepers. Patel pulled over and tried to argue with the goon. When he did not listen, Keshubhai beat him to pulp.
Two years later, the same shopkeepers requested him to contest the local body polls. He reluctantly agreed to represent the Jan Sangh and won convincingly. In 1969, he was made the president of the party's state unit. Thus began a long and chequered political career. The battles did not end even after the BJP was born in 1980. Keshubhai, along with co-Sanghi Shankersinh Vaghela, set up party headquarters in Ahmedabad in a rented 20x10 feet shop in Ellisbridge Shopping Complex on Ashram Road. At the time the BJP had just nine MLAs in the assembly. So broke were they in six months that the party could not even afford the Rs 1, 100 monthly rent of the office space and shifted base to an old house in Khadia in the walled city before finally moving into its existing office in Khanpur in 1984. It is ironical that Vaghela too is trying his best to damage the BJP today as the Gujarat Congress election chief.
If the BJP is not taking Keshubhai lightly, it is also because of the support he has found in a movement to construct a temple for Khodal Mata, a deity that Keshubhai's powerful sub-caste of Leuva Patels deeply believes in. Expected to come up at a cost of Rs 150 crore at Kagwad, about 60 km from Rajkot, the temple complex has become the rallying point against Modi. Many Leuvas believe they have been politically sidelined ever since Modi came to power in 2001. Minister Dileep Sanghani and the state BJP president R C Faldu belong to this community, but don't carry the weight to counter the resentment Keshubhai is brewing.
While Modi has tried to promote Patel leaders like Faldu, Sanghani, Anandiben Patel and Saurabh Patel in the party, none match the influence Bapa wields in the community, which gravitated towards the BJP in the late 1980s as a reaction to the Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki's KHAM formula - a political axis of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. Fired by Patel power, the BJP has only grown in Gujarat with the Congress being pushed to the sidelines;the party has not tasted power in the state after 1990.
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