Anandiben Patel, the new Chief Minister of Gujarat, is a long-time confidante of her predecessor Narendra Modi, and is often described as Gujarat’s “Iron Lady”. The stern-faced Anandiben, regularly seen wearing colorful saris and a bindi (the dot many Hindu women wear as decoration on their forehead), has been a Gujarat government minister since 1998 and has built a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense taskmaster like Modi.
The septuagenarian is not seen as a mass leader and many say she lacks charisma. Rajiv Shah, the former political editor at the Times of India newspaper in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, who has met her several times, described Patel as “extremely curt”. But many agree she has evolved into an effective administrator credited for improving the state’s schools and playing a key role in infrastructure development.
Patel first came to the attention of senior BJP party leaders in Gujarat in 1987 when she was given a bravery award for rescuing two female students from drowning. On her official website she described the episode as “a life changing event” which propelled her into the role of president of Gujarat BJP’s women’s wing. After three decades as a teacher, Patel was elected in 1994 as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
Four years later, she secured a seat in state assembly polls on a BJP ticket in her home state and was made minister of two departments – education and women and child welfare – by Gujarat’s former chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Under Modi, Patel’s responsibilities grew. Since 2001 when he became Gujarat’s Chief Minister, she has been in charge of a number of departments including revenue, roads and buildings, disaster management, and urban development and urban housing.
For years now, she has been seen as the second in command. “When Modi is out of the state, she is the one virtually in charge,” The Indian Express newspaper wrote after featuring her for the first time this year in its annual list of the 100 most powerful Indians. The two leaders have a close relationship. “Those who cannot reach the CM [Modi], approach her for permissions and sanctions,” the Ahmedabad Mirror newspaper remarked in a 2012 article.
Patel’s estranged husband, Mafatlal Patel, a former BJP member with whom she has two grown-up children, once complained about Modi’s influence over his wife in letters to the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “When she entered politics, she severed all ties with the family for no fault of ours. Her behavior has become deformed and Narendra Modi is responsible for it,” Patel was quoted as saying in a 2009 news article. Possibly the only other individual to enjoy as close a connection with India’s next Prime Minister is Amit Shah, a former Home Minister of Gujarat, who led the BJP’s successful poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh state.
Shah is also an accused in the extrajudicial killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a Muslim civilian, and is still on bail. Patel, who was odds-on favorite to take over in Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital, has long had differences with Shah. Siddharth Varadarajan from the Delhibased Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, has described the pair as Modi’s “acolytes” and says that is why they have been able to flourish politically.?
From a young age, Patel broke gender barriers. Her parents enrolled her into a primary school where she was the only female student and it was the same story years later in 1960 when she entered college, according to the biography on her official website.As a politician, she has championed women’s issues.
But as Gujarat’s first female Chief Minister, political commentators say it is unlikely she will prioritize issues like maternal mortality and female literacy despite a human development index report released by a government-appointed panel last year categorizing the state as “less developed”. ?Instead, they say, she will govern like her predecessor and portray herself as a business-friendly leader to ensure rapid economic growth in the state of 60 million people.