Narendra Modi launched his campaign on the national stage with the promise of building the world’s tallest statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, for which he sought to collect iron from farmers across the country. In Gujarat, Patels are the richest farmers and landowners and have been BJP voters since the 1980s. And the campaign to build a 182-metre (the number coincides with the strength of Gujarat’s MLAs) statue aimed to consolidate the Patels under the BJP umbrella. However, the project is moving at a slow pace, with the contributions (iron) from farmers being far from encouraging.
Just before the 2012 Assembly elections, Gujarat saw a huge anti-Modi rebellion in the Leuva sub-sect of the Patel community, especially after Keshubhai Patel, seen as one of its tallest leaders, quit the BJP to launch his own Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and jump into the electoral battle.
However, the rebellion in this politically influential community fizzled out by the time Modi was announced Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP in September 2013. When he laid the foundation for the Statue of Unity at Sardar Sarovar Dam in October 2013, the top ministers in Modi’s new government were all Patels, indicating the weight this community wields in Gujarat.
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The rebellion, which began with Modi replacing his predecessor Keshubhai Patel in the course of ten years, had resulted into many Leuva Patel leaders parting ways with the BJP. But all of them — including Gordhan Zadaphia who quit the BJP in 2008 to launch his own party — are back in the BJP now.
Unlike in the 2012 Assembly elections, the Leuva Patels’ powerful Saurashtra-based religious body, Shree Khodaldham Trust, which supported the GPP-led proxy anti-Modi campaign, has gone totally silent. In the run-up to the 2012 Assembly elections, it had sent negative signals to Modi through three mega show-of-strength events. “We never had problems with the BJP. The dissent was against Modi. The Patels parted ways, assuming that the BJP will take some action against Modi. But by now everyone has realised that Modi is the future of the party and there is no point in remaining divided,” argued a senior Patel leader, who has recently come back to the BJP.
With the GPP having merged with the BJP, and the rival Kadva sect of Patels already with Modi, LS seats like Jamnagar, Rajkot and Porbandar in Saurashtra, Mehsana in north Gujarat and Anand and Kheda in central Gujarat, are set to swing by Patel votes.
The Kadvas and Leuvas faced the prospect of pulling in different directions when Keshubhai raised the banner of injustice to Patidars and formed the GPP in the run-up to the 2012 Assembly elections. The octogenarian had made speeches from the platform of Khodaldham Trust. But the leaders of both sections say that is past now.
Besides, at least seven Patel leaders of Congress in Saurashtra and Kutch have crossed over to the BJP.
The trend was set in February 2013, when Leuva strongman and Porbandar MP Vitthal Radadiya and his MLA son Jayesh donned the saffron scarf. This was followed by the defection of Bavku Undhad, the Congress MLA from Lathi. Both were the political face for Khodaldham Trust.
Keshubhai’s son Bharat, too, returned to the BJP fold before his father resigned as an MLA of Visavadar in Junagadh district, citing age and health problems. He also hinted at the merger of GPP with the BJP. Zadaphia, another Leuva who was once a minister in the Modi Cabinet and who had taken over as the GPP president after Keshubhai retired, announced the merger of his party with the BJP on February 24. The latest name in this series was Chhabil Patel, the Congress MLA from Abdasa in Kutch, also a Leuva.
Radadiya is fighting the Porbandar Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket while Undhad and Chhabil are seeking reelection as BJP nominees from their respective Assembly seats. Bharat is claiming the legacy of his father’s Visavadar seat. “These crossovers have hardly left anything for Patidars to vote for the Congress. Where is a Patidar leader in Congress for the community to vote? The likes of Keshubhai, Zadaphia, Radadiya have left it,” says Jairam Vanjaliya, vice-president of Shri Umiya Mataji Mandir Trust, Sidsar, a social organisation of Kadva patidars of Saurashtra.
Hansraj Gajera, secretary of Shree Khodaldham Trust, Kagvad, the social organisation of Leuvas, concedes the general inclination of the community has been towards the BJP. Vanjaliya says he had held a meeting with Khodaldham Trust president Naresh Patel — who campaigned in favour of Unghad and Keshubhai in 2012 — a week ago and there was a general sentiment to vote for the BJP. Going one step further, Dr Dahyabhai Patel, president of Umiya Trust, says, “We are making efforts to string Leuvas and Kadvas together. We are planning to make a start with building an all-Patidar educational institute in Gandhinagar.”
However, Dr Patel says he is not very sure about the results. “While the general mood is in favour of the BJP, it is possible results might not be as expected. The new generation thinks independently and wants a stable, new government,” he adds.