Gujarat minister Nitin Patel's ambitions may have to take a back seat now

Topics Coronavirus | Gujarat | Lockdown

Nitin Patel, Gujarat Health Minister
Not so long ago, on 29 February, Gujarat’s Health Minister, Nitin Patel bared his heart. At the stone-laying ceremony of the Maa Umiya temple — the tallest to be built in Ahmedabad — he said: "I have reached here at this junction only because of the blessings of Maa. Otherwise, everybody knows that I am on the one side, whereas everybody else is on the other."

It took no time at all for the Congress to respond. The Congress MLA from Lathi (Amreli), Virji Thummar, while speaking on the 2020-21 Budget said: “The health minister, who is also the deputy chief minister, Nitin Patel, is doing a good job and we support him. But his own party does not. I make him an offer: defect to the Congress, along with 15 other BJP members, and we will be ready to make you the chief minister.”

This was not an empty boast. In the 182-member Assembly, the BJP has 103 seats and the Congress 73. The BJP immediately defended Patel and said the Congress was dreaming. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani remained quiet.

But Patel’s ambitions might have to take a back seat after the Covid-19 crisis in which Gujarat has seen a meteoric rise in cases and deaths. A Gujarat High Court (HC) Bench pulled the state administration up for its handling of the pandemic, especially in Ahmedabad, the city with the most number of positive cases and deaths in the state.

 

 
The Division Bench of the high court had last week described Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, the state’s biggest Covid-19 facility, as being “worse than a dungeon”. It asked if Patel and Chief Secretary Anil Mukim had any idea about the problems facing patients and staffers. To this, Patel had responded that in the last two months, he had visited the civil hospital five times.

“I have held three meetings with experienced and renowned private doctors and seniors of civil hospital, kidney hospital, and heart hospital on the civil hospital campus... Chief Principal 
Secretary to the CM K Kailashnathan, Additional Chief Secretary Pankaj Kumar, who is holding special responsibility of Civil hospital, and Principal Secretary (Health) Jayanti Ravi were also present in those meetings,” Patel said. “Our family members are concerned and they stop us from stepping out. In such a scenario, I have never avoided going out.”

In the complex caste politics of Gujarat, a rap by the court is not much of a political setback. The deputy CM is elected from the Mehsana constituency, a Patidar stronghold, from where Patel — a commerce graduate — also runs a cotton ginning and oil industry.

It is to the Patidar community (to which he belongs) that Patel owes a debt of gratitude. He is an almost unquestioned leader of the powerful caste votebank for the BJP that threatened to move away in the aftermath of the Hardik Patel-led agitation, but amazingly rallied behind Patel even after that phase of discontentment. Patel was instrumental in holding talks with his community leaders and assuaging their concerns.

While Rupani is seen as an amiable take-everyone-along kind of leader, Patel is much more pugnacious. In a recent interview with a local TV channel, Patel said: “Experts are saying that the Covid-19 pandemic is going to continue a long time… Therefore, the interest of 63 million citizens of Gujarat and their livelihood are important. Until now, we have been strictly implementing the lockdown… Now, a stage has come where we have become acquainted with coronavirus… Now, if business, jobs, agriculture, animal husbandry, and labour work remain stopped, not only a person or his family will be in a bad condition, but also the state’s economy. It is not appropriate to let that happen. Relaxations are being given in a phased manner…”

Rupani, by contrast, has been consistent in every phase of lockdown, saying the state will be guided by the Centre. That may be the factual position but it certainly isn’t a political position.

Patel has held senior positions in the government and enjoys the backing of the party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2014, when Modi was predicted to win, Patel had said he would be happy to take up the chief minister’s post when Modi becomes prime minister. But in the aftermath of Covid-19, that ambition may have to be nursed for a while.


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