It was a turbulent start in office for Bhupendra Patel. Parts of the state were reeling under floods, and after an aerial survey of Jamnagar, the new Gujarat Chief Minister was to head to Rajkot. But the aircraft was grounded due to bad weather and Patel had to travel the nearly 100-km distance by road — a rough start that would have thrown the most seasoned of administrators off-kilter.
Worse, the swearing-in ceremony of his new team that was to be held the following day was postponed, reportedly because of protests from ministers set to be dropped.
An IAS officer, who was with the CM as he met the flood-affected, told The Sunday Express that the hours-old CM was “firm”, “composed”, “not overwhelmed”. “He told the administration to prioritise rescue operations, asking officials to forcefully evacuate those who resisted as the priority was to save lives,” said the officer.
With the Central BJP plucking the first-time MLA from near anonymity and placing him in the hot seat, Patel’s every move, every order, every nod of the head, will be watched and scrutinised — in Delhi and Gandhinagar.
According to his affidavit in his debut Assembly election in 2017, Patel holds a diploma in civil engineering from Government Polytechnic College in Ahmedabad, where his father Rajnikant was principal, and runs Vihan Associates, a construction company managed by his son and son-in-law.
According to son Anuj, their firm, now renamed ‘Ansh Construction’ after Patel’s grandson, handles commercial and residential projects and is currently building an affordable housing project in the posh Ahmedabad neighbourhood of South Bopal.
Apart from being the first Kadva Patidar CM, the 59-year-old Patel is also the first from Ahmedabad city to get selected for the top job — the 16 chief ministers before him have all been from other parts of the state.
As a young man, Patel would set up a temporary firecracker shop during the festive season in Dariapur, in Ahmedabad’s Walled City area, while the family lived nearby in Dhantura Pol, a close-knit neighbourhood — it celebrated his anointment with the bursting of crackers.
After college, Patel worked at a private construction company for around three years. He later launched Vardan Tower, a residential project in Naranpura, with eight of his college friends.
Like several other Hindu families, the Patels moved out of the Old City neighbourhood in the 1990s, to get away from the communal riots that frequently broke out in the area. The family, says Anuj, first moved to Naranpura and later to Memnagar, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. It was from here that Patel launched his political career, becoming a member of the Memnagar municipality in 1995-96.
These were the years that the BJP, riding the Ram Janmabhoomi wave, was on a steady ascendancy — in 1995, the party won all the major municipal corporation elections in the state.
Patel rose to become president of the Memnagar municipality, holding office for two terms, 1999-2000 and 2004-06.
He fought his first Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation election from Thaltej ward in 2010 and went on to become the standing committee chairman twice. In 2015-17, he chaired the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority that makes town-planning schemes for the city’s periphery.
In the 2012 Assembly election, Patel managed the campaign of Anandiben Patel from Ghatlodia, a role that established his people management skills and endeared him to the former chief minister.
After Anandiben moved on as Governor, having been deposed as chief minister, Patel contested the 2017 election from the same seat and won by a record 1.17 lakh votes.
BJP MLA from Naroda constituency of Ahmedabad Balram Thavani, who often sat next to Patel in the Assembly, said being from the city, Patel would understand its problems better. “As soon as Patel’s name was announced as Chief Minister, I went and hugged him,” Thavani added.
Anuj says nobody in the family expected it. “My mother and I were having an afternoon nap when the news came about papa becoming CM. The phone has not stopped ringing since.”
What no one doubts, as a senior leader puts it, is that Patel’s elevation “bears the clear stamp of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. On the reason why, a BJP leader said one important factor was that Patel was clean and non-controversial apart from being “acceptable to both Anandiben and Amit Shah”. “But more than that,” the leader added, “the reason seems to be his inexperience — thus ensuring a person who will toe the line of the high command without questioning it.”
Another BJP leader said that while any successful government should have a mix of experience and youth, having an all-new ministry had its risks. “The leaders might be successful in running their enterprises or ventures, but how good they will be in running the government is anybody’s guess.”
Those who have worked with Patel attest to him being “hardworking” and “calm” under stress. Anil Jodhani, who served as Patel’s personal secretary when he was the AMC Standing Committee chairman, recalls how during Patel’s term in 2010-14, a delegation of Congress corporators had confronted him over drinking water issues. “One of the corporators picked up a glass of water and threw it on Patel’s face. But he was unfazed. He didn’t call the security… instead, the next day, he invited them all for a discussion over tea,” says Jodhani.
Former Ahmedabad Mayor Meenaxiben Patel, 63, who worked with Patel in the 1990s, says, “His working style has not changed since his days in the municipality. He would always visit the local party office and address people’s issues. This made him very popular.”
Describing him as “sensitive”, a party worker says that at the peak of the Covid pandemic, Patel ran a tiffin service for nearly 1,000 Covid patients at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. His office also ran a 24X7 helpdesk for people seeking treatment, food and other services. The BJP leader says they fondly call Patel “Dada” for his faith in the late spiritual guru Dada Bhagwan.
The CM is also a follower of Simandhar Swami, a living tirthankara, whose idol adorns his new office.
Jatin Patel, a corporator from Ghatlodia and a close Patel associate, says the new CM also took up the responsibility for five children who lost parents to Covid-19.
A former AMC official said that as standing committee chairman, one of Patel’s initiatives — to form a “review committee that would meet every month for major projects” — resulted in “99 per cent of these projects being completed”.
His association with the AMC finds a reflection in the new CMO, with Patel bringing in two former deputy municipal commissioners as Officers on Special Duty.
What lies ahead
With just over a year to go for the Gujarat elections, Patel has to hit the ground running.
BJP Gujarat chief C R Paatil has set a target of winning all the 182 Assembly seats in the upcoming 2022 elections. With the Opposition Congress “fragmented and directionless”, says a BJP leader, the party does not expect any obstacles in its bid to return to power.
Patel’s challenges are, however, more immediate.
“The first few months will be very important. Patel and his Cabinet will have to prove that they can administer the state independently, effectively and efficiently. The second major challenge is to ensure that the dropped ministers do not sabotage governance,” said a political observer.