Naresh Patel interview: ‘If a face like I join any party, not only Cong but any party, wouldn’t I be a CM face? I’d be.’

The Patidar leader and industrialist, Naresh Patel, the chairman of the Shree Khodaldham Trust (SKT), the leading organization of Leuva Patels in Gujarat, declared Thursday that he was not joining politics “for now”, adding that Khodaldham will instead set up an academy to train youths for politics. In an interview with The Indian Express, he shares his thoughts on a range of social and political issues. Excerpts:

What, in your view, is the secret of this sudden interest in Naresh Patel within and outside Gujarat?

Probably because of the way I have led Khodaldham, the way I have led Patidars – bringing them together and then, of course, getting into a lot of social work which doesn’t remain limited to Patidars but transcends castes and creeds. Secondly, anything Khodaldham does, it is important to note, is very meticulous. From day one, I have been telling my teams to draw a roadmap for anything they do and then implement it in the right way. So, that’s one of the reasons Khodaldham has achieved success in its social work journey and we have been able to reach out to people. That is one of the reasons that if I get into politics, I could make some change and probably bring a new system. That’s why people look up to me, and even the media.

Did you anticipate in December last year, when you said you intended to join politics, that your announcement will attract national attention?

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Very frankly speaking, no. I thought it would remain limited to Gujarat or only to Saurashtra or in parts of Gujarat where Patidars live. But during my last trips to south and north Gujarat, I gathered that everybody knows it…That’s the question for everybody, not only Patidars. The media has given me such a hypo!

You say that youth and women want you to join politics but community elders were against that idea. What were the reasons cited by both sides?

There were mainly two concerns. The first and foremost was that, they say, that you have led the community the right way and if you get into it (politics), there will be a vacuum in the system. Number two, lots of Khodaldham projects are pending. For example, we are getting into school education system, from primary (level onward). We want to get into health. Of course, into a regular health system with multi-specialty hospitals etc. which everybody does but with lot of (focus) on preventive care. These are two big thoughts we have in mind for people of Gujarat. They said without you these two projects will be left behind and that there will be a vacuum of leadership… Youth and women wanted me to get into politics because they have seen me working in Khodaldham. I decentralise things, don’t keep everything to myself. There are “n” number of committees and people working for Khodaldham and I delegate powers. What they think is that if you get into the bigger system, there’ll be more people working for it and so more people will benefit from it and things would get better.

You organized the Leuva Patel community around the Khodaldham temple project. Are you happy with the kind of organization you have built – and what next for the community?

Absolutely. I will thank my community for putting so much of faith in Khodaldham and me. What we have done till now is to get together that has benefited the community at large. People living across the world have come closer. Today, if a family in US is having problem, Khodaldham can make things easy for them from here. So, bringing the community together, making it a closely-knit unit have a great benefit. After making this happen, there are lots of things like women potential, coaching for competitive exams etc. The day we laid the foundation stone of Khodaldham, we started coaching for competitive exams for students and from day one, it has been open to everybody. I always believe in two things: It could be a temple or a function that Leuva Patels do but when it comes to health and education, let’s not erect the barrier of “for Leuva Patels only”. It should be for everybody. This is what we are taught in the Leuva Patel community and I believe it is a great idea. We want to bring that in a very big way and really serve the needy people of the society.

Now that you have organized the community, where do you want to lead them to?

In my vision, I want my community to be happy rather than just being prosperous. Prosperity is part of life but what I am seeing right now is that happiness is being snatched away for various reasons. One is, the social problems within the family. And this is not only among Patidars, it’s everywhere. We are now thinking what should be done about it. Now, bringing community together, making them understand things like women empowerment, importance of competitive exams, prosperity, bringing businesses together etc. are part of it. We have been doing this successfully. But my vision is, and I may fail totally, to bring happiness to the community, bring happiness to every community… and how to do it. This is what we are doing now and we have got 10 people looking into what to do (about it).

So, how do you propose to make communities happy?

Basically, by bringing people together in seminars, arranging small meetings in villages and along with social reforms, letting them know what is the right way of living, how you should manage your time etc. Right now, what happens is that if I am doing something, I am only doing that work. There is no sense of time management among people here. There should be something in the morning, whatever you want to do. If it’s something religious, finish that and then do a little bit of your routine work. Then pursue your hobbies, read something, go to nature, be helpful to people, help others. This kind of things would bring happiness to society. This is our belief.

A Patidar mobilisation in the 1980s eventually propelled the BJP to power in Gujarat. Now you have mobilized a section of the Patidar community. Will this also eventually lead to a political change?

The change in system can come only if leaders like me get into it. It’s very clear. You will have to penetrate the minds of people for any change. Patidars need a face. Look at how Patidars converted from Congress to BJP! Keshubapa (Keshubhai Patel, a Leuva Patel leader and ex-Gujarat chief minister) was the face back then. For any change, you need some face.

But now that you have opted out, is there any hope of that change?

Very honestly speaking, no. Nothing in the near future.

Since the launch of the Patidar quota stir by Hardik Patel, the caste-lines in the state have hardened. Khodaldham is also a project of Leuva Patels, although your organization does work for other communities too.

It looks like that right now. But we should bring a change. As I told you, we get together, we have people in millions who get together and make world records. But when it comes to serving the society, we are with everybody. For instance, when it comes to education or agriculture or health, we would not keep any barricades. Such type of approach from every caste will bring people closer.

Keshubhai had attempted a similar thing. He launched his own party with Patidars’ support but it could not take off. Are there any lessons in that for you?

See, any individual on this earth can only make efforts. When somebody attempts something, it’s a great thing. Every human tends to make mistakes. That’s part of it. But of course, you learn a lot of things from everybody, not just Keshubapa, but anybody.

So, what lessons did you learn from the period from your December announcement that you intend to join politics to your yesterday’s announcement that you are not joining it?

It’s a very difficult situation to be in politics, that’s my first lesson. You need to be very, very touchy about ideas, current issues. You have to be very particular about your goals. You have to be very social, you have to be selfish and you have to be ruthless. By touchy, I mean, for instance, there is a burning issue and if you present it in a very touchy manner, you are highlighted. So, you’ve got to be touchy about issues.

In recent weeks, we saw you meeting more leaders of the Congress than that of other parties. Will this have a bearing on your image among your community?

I don’t think so. I have full confidence in my community. They would always believe that anything that Nareshbhai would do will be good for not only Patidars but for others too.

We were told that you had set certain pre-conditions for joining the Congress, including having the power to decide its tickets on 11 assembly seats in Saurashtra.

You are misinformed. These are rumours. I have never asked for anything. If I ever told anything to any party, it was that you should make quick decisions, let’s not keep it lingering. But then, there are groups of people who would say that Nareshbhai wanted to be declared CM face, the high command didn’t accept that and that’s why Nareshbhai is not joining. This is absolutely a rumour. And tell me, if a face like I join any political party, not Congress but any party, wouldn’t I be a CM face? Wouldn’t I be a senior leader? I would be. So, there’s nothing for me to ask.

Hardik Patel was pleading you to join the Congress. But then he himself quit the Congress and joined the BJP. Did this have any effect on your decisions?

Absolutely not. Why would it affect my decision? That’s his individual decision. But let me tell you very clearly, not a single individual influences me in this matter except for my community’s elders and leaders who, from the bottom of their heart, told me not to join politics. They were not only from Rajkot but from across Gujarat, they held meetings with me and advised me against the idea.

Among the three major parties in Gujarat, which one is likely to do the kind of work you would have done if you had joined politics?

I think, if I had joined any political party, it would have aligned with me. My function is very clear. What I want to do is to ensure straightforwardness and transparency. The main aim should be ensuring transparency and things do work out. This is how I have been working and it has been successful. I think any party would fall in my line, looking at my working style.

You have declared that you are not joining politics but with the rider that time and circumstances may make you think otherwise in the future.

Yes, not in the near future but you never know how life may take a turn.

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