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Can a tired Keshubhai be any real challenge to Modi’s might?

“Rajkot will show that Keshu Baba will win not just from the region but will become CM…..”, an enthusiastic speaker said at an event that was billed to be a grand show of strength by Keshubhai Patel and his newly formed Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) on Saturday.

He and other party leaders cried themselves hoarse proclaiming that theirs was the real Jansangh or BJP, founded on the ideals of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhaya, just in case their audience wasn't familiar with history. It wasn't completely incongruous to reach into history when according to official estimates about 20 per cent of the state's voters are below 29, born before the BJP was founded in December 1980.

Does Keshubhai just want to dent Modi's victory margin? AFP

The 82-year-old Patel on whom the Congress and other rivals of Narendra Modi are pinning their hopes, particularly on denting the BJP’s prospects in Saurashtra region, appears to be too tired to be a challenger in any real sense. The one time powerful and venerable leader came to the dais supported by his associates and read from a written script while sitting on a sofa. A challenger to a leader of Modi’s strength and stature should have appeared more energetic and with an outline for future.

The crowds were present, but they weren't the kind expected from a party that claims to be poised to overthrow Narendra Modi’s regime in Gujarat. Patel’s supporters were quick to hail their rally a great success. For them Keshubhai’s oratory did not matter as much as his clout over the Patel community and influence over Modi’s support in the Sangh Parivar.

Patel chose to highlight Modi's regime as being one that was corrupt, fearful, arrogant, anti-farmer, a usurper of land and guilty of many other failings.

"Corruption and crime rates have gone up and local industry is being ignored" he said.

The dais was full of has-beens from the BJP and RSS ranks. In his opening remarks Keshubhai’s most prominent colleague, Govardhan Zadhaphia, happily went through the long list of the RSS leaders and spiritual gurus in saffron robes backing them.

The party also attempted to strike an emotional cord with the audience by distributing cricket bats with GPP  written on them. With the bats the party also attempted to lay claim to Saurastra's cricketing icon, Cheteshwar Pujara, who incidentally featured in Modi’s Gujrati new year Diwali greetings as well.

The Congress found barely any mention, which only furthered speculation that the two parties were working in tandem against their common enemy, Modi. There is also speculation that there will be an informal understanding between the two over the selection of candidates.

Modi’s rivals believe that Keshubhai’s USP lies in garnering the support of the “Hindu Divided Family” and attracting the support of dejected elements of RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and other affiliates of Sangh Parivar. They hope that the groups, which have been feeling marginalized during the 11 years of Modi’s rule, will vote for the GPP and dent the BJP’s prospects.

In last assembly polls in 2007, BJP had sweeped Saurastra and Kutch region, winning 43 of 68 seats. The calculations are the BJP can’t go up from these numbers, so if the influential Leuva Patels, Keshubhai’s community, vote for him then Modi’s numbers could go down.

History is not in Keshubhai’s favour – all those who claimed to form a 'real' version of the BJP after parting ways from the parent party --Madan Lal Khurana in Delhi, Uma Bharti in Madhya Pradesh, Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Shankar Singh Vaghela in Gujarat -- failed miserably. The first three returned to BJP and fourth one joined Congress.

But unlike the others, Keshubhai sympathizers say it is not about winning or losing elections for the octogenarian but cutting into Modi’s votes. If Modi’s seats are reduced to a number lower than 110, Keshubhai and his backers will feel vindicated.

The degree of success, Patel can be expected to achieve is unpredictable presently but once the tickets are distributed for the state polls many BJP rebels could join Patel's campaign, something that could only bolster his chances further.