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‘Iron lady’ succeeds Modi, sheds tears too

Ahmedabad, May 21: Narendra Modi today stepped down as Gujarat chief minister after more than a dozen years at the helm and his confidante Anandiben Patel was anointed his successor in a misty-eyed transition that would have done her mentor proud.

The revenue minister, whom many call the “iron lady who rarely smiles”, was elected leader of the Gujarat BJP legislature party and will take oath as the state’s first woman chief minister on Tuesday.

Tears rolled down her eyes as Patel, a former teacher, began her acceptance speech and her voice choked when she thanked Modi, barely a day after the Prime Minister-elect broke down while addressing NDA MPs in Parliament’s Central Hall.

“I am thankful to the top BJP leaders and our PM Narendra Modi for selecting a farmer’s daughter like me for such a responsibility,” she said, her voice breaking.

The 1941-born minister beat three other contenders to be elected unanimously at the legislature party meeting in Gandhinagar’s Town Hall this afternoon.

Earlier, Modi had driven to the Raj Bhavan to meet governor Kamla Beniwal to hand in his resignation. Later in the evening he met Assembly Speaker Vajubhai Vala to formally step down as an MLA.

Modi said he was not leaving behind a single pending file. “Though I remained busy in campaigning during the election, I used to call officers as soon as I got free at night and finished my work,” he said, addressing some bureaucrats.

He fought back tears during his farewell speech to the Assembly. “Forgive me if I have done anything wrong. This is my fourth term as CM. As I am going now and don’t know when I will come back here, I want you to forgive me if you have felt that I was not up to the mark in my work or there was any shortcoming in my conduct.

“Today is the day of forgiveness. I respect you all and this House. I especially thank the Opposition,” Modi said, acknowledging the contributions of Congress leaders, especially former chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary, who had advised him, and the current leader of Opposition, Shankersinh Vaghela, his former political guru.

But even on the “day of forgiveness”, Modi could not resist a dig at the Congress. “After elections, 14 states and six Union territories are now Congress-mukt (free),” he crowed. Modi, who throughout the campaign harped on his humble roots as a tea boy born in a backward community, claimed that all tea vendors had turned against the Congress.

Patel, too, spoke of her down-to-earth early life as a farmer’s daughter. “I studied while working in a farm and then became a teacher. When I joined the BJP, I was a blank slate,” she said in her acceptance speech.

A cabinet minister since 1998, she started her political journey as president of the BJP women’s morcha in 1987 when she was still a teacher at Mohniba Kanya Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad.

Patel had shot to fame that year when she jumped into Sardar Sarovar reservoir to save two girls from drowning and won a gallantry award from the governor.

When Modi had first approached her to join politics, she was “reluctant and very hesitant”, said her husband Mafatbhai Patel, 77, who encouraged her to take the plunge. The couple are now separated.

In 1994, Patel became a Rajya Sabha member but was asked to contest the 1998 Assembly election before she completed her term in Parliament’s upper House. She became education minister in the Keshubhai Patel cabinet and has won all Assembly elections since.

Always a cabinet minister, she held revenue, urban development and roads and buildings before her elevation today.

Patel was born in Kharod village in Mehsana district, one of 10 children of Jethabhai Patel, a farmer and social reformer associated with former Prime Minister Morarji Desai. A good student, she got 100 per cent in her SSC math paper.

She did her bachelor’s after her marriage in 1962. In 1966, she moved to Ahmedabad with her husband and completed her MSc.

“She will be the first chief minister who has a gold medal in MSc and also the President’s medal,” Modi said, referring to the best teacher award she once received.

Her husband paid a different tribute to the mother of two. “She is not the delicate type, which is why many people don’t like her. But as a person she is very upright,” Mafatbhai said.

But her most stellar quality — at least where political survival is concerned — appears to be her loyalty to Modi who she has worked with form the time she joined the party. She kept up her ties with him even when he was banished from Gujarat because of internal strife in the party.

The first indication that she would be made chief minister came when she was appointed chairperson of the group of ministers to run the show in Modi’s absence when he was away campaigning. The others in the group were Nitin Patel, Saurabh Patel and Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, all three contenders for the chair.

At the legislature party meeting, her name was proposed by agriculture minister Chudasama and seconded, among others, by BJP general secretary Amit Shah.

BJP central observer Thawar Chand Gehlot announced the election of Patel, who will become the state’s 15th chief minister.