Gujarat Assembly polls | The long shadow of Nitin Patel over the contest in Mehsana

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel during a public meeting ahead of the Gujarat Assembly elections on Nov. 24 2022.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel during a public meeting ahead of the Gujarat Assembly elections on Nov. 24 2022.
| Photo Credit: PTI

In Dhandhusan village of Mehsana Assembly constituency a campaign meeting has the local BJP candidate, Mukesh Patel, in full flow about why people should vote for him, and one of the chief reasons cited is that he has been handpicked by outgoing MLA Nitin Patel as his own replacement.

“Nitin bhai decided that he will not fight these polls, and it is he himself who suggested that I contest this time,” he says to applause in the meeting. This assertion attests to the long shadow cast by former deputy chief minister of Gujarat, Nitin Patel, on the contest in Mehsana, a seat he had held since 2012.

Nitin Patel’s recusal from the contest, along with former chief minister Vijay Rupani basically signalled that the BJP in the state wanted to turn the page on the last few years and usher in a new generation of leadership. In all such cases however, this is easier said than done on the ground, therefore when it came to selecting a candidate for Mehsana, Nitin Patel’s nominee, Mukesh Patel, was chosen. All election campaign material from the BJP in the seat has both Mr. Nitin and Mukesh Patel appearing side by side, making the endorsement clear.

There has been resentment in certain circles that instead of giving a fresh start to district politics, this move only replaced Nitin Patel with his nominee. Others caution that the BJP had no alternative.

“Nitin bhai spoke for the party even though the Patidar Samaj in 2017 was against the BJP, he went against his own community people, yet he won. In such a situation, if he is being asked not to contest, one has to heed him on choice of candidate,” said a party worker on the sidelines of the meeting in Dhandhusan. “BJP bought some insurance against any internal sabotage, basically,” he adds. There is also talk that Nitin Patel may be fielded in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls from the state, serving the twin objectives of mollifying him and keeping him out of state politics.

Nitin Patel himself has also begun attending sporadic campaign meetings, but is reluctant to speak to the media. As former Deputy Chief Minister he had been at the frontline of the BJP’s leadership, on one famous occasion he had declared that he was the replacement for Anandiben Patel as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2016, only to have Vijay Rupani pip him to the post that very afternoon. In all those years, says Kishore Prajapati, a BJP worker in the area, “Nitinbhai was the real administrative head of the government.”

In 2017, he beat Jivabhai Patel of the Congress by a smaller margin than before, but as Mehsana was the epicentre of the Patidar reservation agitation, and he himself had been at the receiving end of a lot of opprobrium from his own Patidar community leaders, his victory had a big symbolic effect.

“Nitin bhai’s victory happened because in this seat Patidars are dominating but also create counter polarisation. Once the Patidar community openly supported the Congress in 2017, many of the communities who opposed the Patidars voted for the BJP,” said Rajitsinh Thakor, Congress’s district president for Mehsana.

Whatever be the case, the symbolism of the BJP triumphing in Mehsana, where the Patidar reservation agitation began gave the party a huge morale boost, and Nitin Patel as the victorious candidate gained heft, not enough to contest another time, but large enough to shed a very big shadow over the seat.

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