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The man who hopes to do better than Modi

August 30, 2017 11:13 IST

'When Modi was CM, Gujarat won 128 seats.'
'Now he is PM. Modiji is revered by people in Gujarat.'
'So as PM he will get 150 seats,' Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani tells Aditi Phadnis.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

If one were to be scrupulously honest, the encounter with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani is over a glass of water.

Possibly due to a gap in communication, he disappears for lunch with party and ministerial colleagues and I have lunch with his assistant.

The lunch is tasty, very Gujarati, and interesting for the insights it gives into the CM's personality.

Chatting with Rupani is equally riveting and entirely different from conversations I had with his predecessors.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had explained with rare articulation over dosas, what his beef with the Planning Commission really was.

Anandiben Patel's preoccupation (over tea loaded with sugar) was to outline her priority as chief minister (empowerment of women in Gujarat).

Both are intense personalities and the intensity communicated itself.

By contrast, Rupani is laid back and very much the guy next door, something his assistant endorses over lunch.

Rupani has inherited his assistant from Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah.

Are Shah and Rupani very different in their working styles, I ask diffidently. The assistant guffaws as if to say 'What a stupid question', nods vigorously and then realising he might say too much, clams up.

How lightly power sits on Rupani I have already found out.

As we settle down to a conversation, I notice from the corner of my eye, a number of people entering the room.

One is the youthful Jitu Vaghani, the chief of the BJP's Gujarat unit. He positions himself behind the CM and from time to time, sends him chits as our interview progresses, possibly reminding him of the things he should flag (at one point the CM just folds the note without reading it and tucks it under the ashtray).

The other is Nitin Patel, deputy chief minister and the man whom Rupani pipped to the top job.

Patel sits opposite the CM. He is very quiet -- why I discover a while later: He has stretched his legs out and is snoozing lightly. I'm sure I hear a quiet snore.

I cannot help wondering if the two men would be as relaxed if either Anandiben Patel or Narendra Modi were in the room.

Rupani talks about his particular stamp on the governance of Gujarat.

Before he became CM he was the party chief. "Before the (2013) elections, I travelled all over the state, in small villages and towns. We discussed with people what they expected from the government."

"Typically, the biggest problems are faced by those who are the smallest -- people from the margins in outlying villages and hamlets. They don't want big infrastructure. They just want the government to do small things for them: Easy access to facilities like widow pension, caste certificate, birth and death certificate… so we designed a programme called Seva Setu (the bridge of service), which would divide Gujarat's 18,000 villages into clusters of 10 villages each."

"Each cluster needed to hold one programme where the government would reach the doorstep of the villagers. I took this up. The government lets villagers know two days in advance that a Seva Setu team of officials would come to the village and resolve whatever outstanding problems they have, there and then."

"A notary, Xerox machines, scanners and computers go with them. Everything is done right there at the doorstep of the villager."

Rupani realises that he can leverage another big achievement of Gujarat -- low-cost medicines.

Two hundred new medical stores have been opened across the state as part of the Prime Minister Jan Aushadhi programme.

By the end of the year, they will number 1,000.

Anybody can go to the shops and buy subsidised medicine.

"I have an IAS officer. He has to take two tablets every day, each costing Rs 800. He told me his monthly medical bill used to be in the region of Rs 50,000. He would be reimbursed and he was earning enough to pay for it. But because of the stores selling generic drugs, his expenditure on medicines has come down to Rs 6,000."

The Gujarati in Rupani cannot be suppressed. He smiles broadly: "The bill that we give the customer states clearly what the original price of the branded drug is and the extent of the discount -- in some cases, 70 to 80 per cent."

"There is also an app, so people know what the government has done for them."

I ask him about demonetisation. "No negative effect," he asserts.

"There is a real estate boom in Gujarat, especially in the affordable housing sector. If demonetisation had really been so adverse, you would not have had this kind of boom."

What about diamond cutters and diamond polishers, who were laid off because the cash economy in the jewellery market collapsed?

Not true, he says, not one person has been rendered jobless as a result of demonetisation.

"Yes, initially there were problems. But that was for a month. Today, everything is normal."

He also claims that Gujarat has led the rest of the country in job creation. I don't want to argue.

I ask him about a sensitive topic -- the attacks on Dalits.

"We took the strongest possible action any state government could have taken the moment the incident in Una happened. Every state government faces one or the other problem relating to attacks on Dalits."

"The accused are in jail, the fast-track court is hearing the case. The accused will get a sentence. We gave assistance amounting to Rs 4 lakh the very next day to the families. The police officers, who were negligent, were suspended."

"After that, 10,000 gram panchayats went to the polls. Where the incident took place (Samadhiyana), the BJP was elected to the panchayat. What does that tell you?"

I ask him about the zilla panchayat elections.

"Yes, we lost the zilla panchayat elections. They took place during Anandiben's tenure," he clarifies, much to my amusement.

"It was not just the Patidar movement that had the state in its grip, farmers had some difficulties, it hadn't rained properly... the government was battling many problems," he says complacently.

"Now, more than 18 months later, the BJP has won every election."

This brings us to the next assembly elections in the state, due in 2018.

"You write quoting me: The Patidar community has been with the BJP and will continue to be with the BJP," he insists.

"They know that it is the BJP that has always stood with them."

So the strategy in the next elections? And the chief minister?

I steal a glance at Nitin Patel. He is now wide awake.

"When Narendra Modi was chief minister, Gujarat won 128 seats (out of 182 in the assembly). Now he is prime minister. Modiji is revered by people in Gujarat. So as PM he will get 150 seats, especially after the UP election."

"In the 2014 general election, we got all 26 Lok Sabha seats."

I can see this is not rhetoric, Rupani believes in what he is saying. Nitin Patel is listening keenly.

"As for the rest, we are all workers. Selecting a chief minister is no big deal. Anandiben resigned and everything fell into place smoothly. The same thing will happen again."

Doesn't it bother him sometimes?

There's Modiji, there's Amit bhai, there's Anandiben... so many people to satisfy.

"Not at all! A person like Modiji knows every small village and not just village, he knows the people, the families that live there."

That's exactly what I am driving at, this perpetually looming shadow in the background.

"This is not a problem," he says with a smile. "It gives us direction."

Nitin Patel has lost interest in the proceedings now and the CM is preparing to get up and leave.

He repairs to lunch with his colleagues, but does not invite me to join him.

I have lunch with his assistant. It is a feast and I make a pig of myself.

Aditi Phadnis