“THE MAN who built this banyan tree called BJP, from the Jana Sangh.” With these words, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, perhaps, best summed up the life of Keshubhai Patel (92), the BJP’s first chief minister in Gujarat, who died on Thursday.
While Patel had recovered from Covid-19 last month, his son, Bharat, told The Indian Express, that “some damage had been done to his health, as he also suffered from prostate cancer”. He was taken to hospital on Thursday morning, where he died.
An RSS karyakarta, Patel was among the founder members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and was its president from 1972-75. He began his journey in electoral politics with the Rajkot municipality, said Kirit Pathak, BJP leader and former deputy registrar of Saurashtra University.
Patel fought his first assembly elections from Wankaner (then in Rajkot district) in 1972, as a BJS candidate, but lost to the Congress. In 1975, he won the Rajkot-1 (now Rajkot West) seat and was appointed irrigation minister in the BJS-backed government of the Indian National Congress (Organisation), led by then chief minister, Babubhai Patel.
Among those jailed during the Emergency, Patel was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Bharatiya Lok Dal, a front formed by parties opposed to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1977.
In the BJP, Patel, popularly known as Keshubapa (father) in Gujarat, is credited with mentoring several party leaders. “Keshubhai mentored and groomed many younger karyakartas including me. Everyone loved his affable nature. His demise is an irreparable loss,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
Patel’s own political career, however, is marked with the distinction of having never completed a term – whether it was as state cabinet minister in the Babubhai Patel government (1975), the Chimanbhai Patel Janta Dal (G) government (1990), or his own chief ministership (1995 and 1998).
As a BJP candidate, Patel won the Assembly elections five times – from Gondal in Rajkot district (1980), Kalavad in Jamnagar district (1985), Tankara then in Rajkot district (1990), and Visavadar in Junagadh district (1995 and 1998).
In 1995, under his leadership, the BJP won 121 of the 182 seats. Patel became chief minister, but, by the end of the year, his government faced a challenge from Shankersinh Vaghela, who defected with about 40 MLAs and went on to form the government with the support of the Congress.
Vaghela’s government was dissolved in 1998, and fresh elections were held. The BJP returned to power with 117 seats, and Patel became chief minister again. But in October 2001, the party replaced him with Modi.
While Patel was the BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP from 2003-2009, he did not contest the Assembly elections on a BJP ticket again.
In the run-up to the 2012 Assembly polls, Patel alleged injustice to Patidars, and challenged the BJP by launching the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). The party, however, won only two seats, including Patel’s own seat of Visavadar.
Two years later, the GPP merged with the BJP, and Patel resigned as MLA. In the ensuing bypoll, the BJP fielded Patel’s son, Bharat, but he lost to Harshad Ribadiya of the Congress.
Keshubhai Ji’s dogged determination for social service and commitment to Indian ethos will remain exemplary for all. My condolences to his family and friends.
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) October 29, 2020
As chief minister, Patel is credited with developing the village as the central unit. Jaynarayan Vyas, who was minister in his cabinet, hailed his “robust common sense and understanding of rural issues”. His Gokul Gram Yojana encouraged the development of villages through private participation.
“He never went to university, but his was an experience in governance that few politicians have today. I would say he was the only leader who knew the geography, topography and culture of Gujarat,” said Gordhan Zadafia, vice-president of the state BJP unit.
Patel went to Alfred high school in Rajkot, also Mahatma Gandhi’s alma mater, but could not complete his education. “After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, he took out a rally to protest against the ban on RSS, and was jailed for six months, because of which he could not appear for his SSC exam,” said Vyas.
A Leuva Patidar, he was born Keshubhai Desai in 1928. “Many Patels from Amreli and Junagadh are Desais — clerks who collected taxes from land owners. Through my school years, I was Keshubhai Desai, till our Junagadh leader, Suryakant Acharya, (former BJP MP), began to refer to me as Keshubhai Patel, and the name stuck,” Patel had told The Indian Express in an interview in 2015.
Patel is known to have played a key role in organising BJP leader L K Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. In 1994, he was appointed trustee of the Shree Somnath Trust, which manages the Somnath temple. In 2004, he was first elected president of the Trust, and was re-elected every year after that.
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