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Meet the wonder woman who will fill Modi's shoes

May 19, 2014 09:24 IST

Meet the wonder woman who will fill Modi's shoes

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Sabu Cherian

With Narendra Modi ready to move to New Delhi, the chief minister's post is vacant in Ahmedabad. Anandiben Patel is the odds-on favourite for the post

Kharod, a nondescript village in Mehsana district in north Gujarat, is 60 km and an hour’s car ride from the state capital of Gandhinagar. Anandiben Patel, born in the village, would marvel that it has taken her 57 years to bridge the distance. The political journey of Patel took a new turn on Friday, when the elections results of the 16th Lok Sabha elections were announced. Narendra Modi will vacate the chief minister’s office in Gandhinagar and move to New Delhi at the head of the National Democratic Alliance, and Patel is the frontrunner to take over Modi’s mantle.

What makes 72-year-old Patel’s power journey all the more interesting is that she was initially hesitant to tread the political path. Today, she holds the revenue, urban development and urban housing, road and building, disaster management and capital projects portfolios.

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Image: Anandiben Patel (in the pink saree) is thronged by BJP supporters
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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But as a young student, politics was not in Patel’s plans. She thought of herself more as an activist for women’s empowerment. “I was the only girl student at Pilwai Science and Arts College,” remembers Patel. “The Gujarati teacher in the college once asked me to visit villages adjoining Pilwai to motivate girls to study. I went to these villages and made the girls realise the importance of studying.”

She took another step when her eldest sister, Saritaben, was widowed at the age of 30. Seeing her plight, Patel joined the Mahila Vikas Gruh to work for upliftment of women and widows. Says Patel, “Widows were under much societal pressure in those days. The Mahila Vikas Gruh had initiated a course for widows and I managed this course for 40 women.”

She married Mafatlal Patel in 1962, and they moved to Ahmedabad four years later, where she continued her studies. She earned her master’s degree in science. At Gujarat Vidyapith, where she pursued a master’s degree in education, she bagged a gold medal, which propelled her to a teaching career with Mohinaba Kanya Vidyalaya, a school for girls, located on Ashram Road in Ahmedabad.

This semi-government school is where Patel spent close to half of her life from 1967 to 1998. Minaxi Desai, her colleague at the school, recalls an incident that showed Patel’s presence of mind. “A strike had been called across the state,” says Desai. “When the morning assembly was going on, a mob gathered and started pressuring the administration to close down the school for the day. However, Patel resisted. She told the picketers that since the children had reached the school, they would face trouble if they were sent back immediately. She urged the mob to allow the school to send the children home at the usual time.”

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Image: Anandiben with PM designate Narendra Modi at a function in Gujarat
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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Bhailal Patel, her close associate in the Bharatiya Janata Party, recalls another incident in which she saved the lives of two girl students near Navagam reservoir. On a picnic there, the two students were sitting near the lake’s banks when they were pulled in by the currents. “She grabbed the hair of one of the girls and dragged her out of the water. This girl, in turn, held on to the other girl,” he says.

Perhaps her conviction about women’s empowerment is best illustrated by the manner in which she stopped the child marriage of her elder brother’s son, Devchandbhai Patel. According to Bhailal Patel, “She secured a stay order against the marriage from a court in Visnagar. The police were called before the marriage could be solemnised. Though she knew that her decision would anger her brothers and other relatives, she went ahead with it. She always fought against evil practices in society.”  

But even as a proponent of women’s rights, Patel did not pay much attention to politics. It was the drought of 1985-87 in Gujarat that altered her thinking. “I wasn’t too keen on politics. I had to take care of my children’s education. But during the drought, I undertook a four-day Nyay Yatra to take stock of the ground reality in north Gujarat and Kutch, the worst affected areas,” she says. 

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Image: Anandiben interacts with the public during a rally in Gujarat
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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During the yatra she came face to face with the problems faced by villagers, women in particular, and decided that only politics could bring about a change. She began as the president of BJP’s women wing, which was then dormant. A BJP worker who knows her from those days recalls, “She organised the Ekta Yatra, mobilised women for various programmes in Gujarat during the yatra and made BJP’s women’s wing functional.”

Patel’s first major moment in the limelight came in 1992 at Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. Her party planned to unfurl the national flag at Lal Chowk on Republic Day and the separatists had warned against any such action in the valley. The BJP worker remembers, “Despite being a woman, she defied terrorist threats and unfurled the tricolour at Lal Chowk. In fact, soon after the hoisting of the national flag, a bomb exploded at the venue.” 

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Image: Anandiben with veteran BJP leader L K Advani
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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Participation in such activities and her organisational capabilities catapulted her to the Rajya Sabha in 1994. She resigned from the Upper House in 1998 after BJP decided to field her from the Mandal constituency for the state assembly. She won and went on to become education minister in the Keshubhai Patel government. She hasn’t looked back since and remains the only woman in Gujarat to be elected an MLA for four consecutive terms.

Her husband, Mafatlal Patel, now estranged, describes her as a decisive leader and an independent thinker. He points out how she even vetoed decisions taken by senior leader like Purushottam Rupala. “Candidates for polls have always been recommended by senior party leaders. Some years ago, Rupala, who was then the Gujarat BJP chief, had suggested some names for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation elections. But, without heeding his advice, Anandiben insisted on fielding candidates whom she thought had the maximum chances of winning,” he says. 

Once, as chairman of the Ahmedabad district primary education committee, he transferred 27 newly appointed women teachers because he felt they could not adjust to the place where they were posted. “But, when the file reached the education ministry, the decision was overturned because transfer rules had not been followed,” he says. The minister then was, of course, his wife.

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Image: Workers of BJP's women's wing shower Anandiben with flower petals
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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The ability to stick to decisions taken after long deliberations is what characterises Patel’s personality. “She doesn’t take any decision in haste,” says Bhailal Patel, “but once she has taken a call, she sticks to it, even if it means annoying people, be it family members or outsiders. This sort of will power in a woman is extraordinary.”

Patel has shared a good rapport with Modi. The fact that both Modi and the party considered her important for the government became evident in the 2012 assembly polls when she was shifted from the Patan constituency to the Ghatlodia seat in Ahmedabad city. They did not want to take chances with any electoral surprises due to the constituency delimitation carried out earlier. And she didn’t disappoint. She thumped her nearest rival by 1,10,395 votes, a victory margin bigger than even Modi’s.

Bhailal Patel, who also manages her campaign during elections, says, “Unlike Amit Shah, Nitin Patel and Saurabh Patel, who too are in the good books of Modi, she doesn’t hog the media limelight every day, but it is her behind-the-scene work that keeps her going.”

There naturally is great curiosity about how she will respond to an elevation if she is chosen to succeed Modi. She says that regardless of who is selected to head the state government, everyone must cooperate and run the state properly. Among others who can claim the top post is industries minister and a close aide of Modi, Saurabh Patel. He too had similarly been shifted from Botad to Akota in the 2012 elections to ensure his victory.

Modi’s legacy, however, will be tough to overturn in the short term. As political observer Hemant Shah points out, “Even if Anandiben Patel becomes the chief minister, the policies framed by Modi will continue.” He also says that as during the Modi regime, it is possible the administration will continue to remain strongly focused on the chief minister’s office. Ghanshyam Shah, former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, similarly maintains, “In important matters, Modi will continue to have the final say. There won’t be decentralisation.”


Image: Anandiben shows the victory sign as she participates in a roadshow after the BJP win in the Lok Sabha polls
Photographs: Courtesy: Anandiben/Facebook

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