Sidhu attack turns into self-goal

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Over the past few days, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has attacked Keshubhai Patel with words so strong that these have shown signs of backfiring against the BJP. His comments have upset many in the Leuva Patel community, one of Gujarat's most dominant and the one from which Keshubhai, 84, draws much of his influence.

At a public rally in Keshubhai's Visavadar constituency in Junagadh, BJP MP Sidhu had called the former an "anti-national" leader. He reportedly said voting for Keshubhai would be akin to eating gaumans (beef).

The strongest signs of the backlash from the Leuva Patels, who command 12 per cent of the votes in Gujarat, were felt by Keshubhai's opponent, Kanu Bhalala of the BJP, in Visavadar on Friday. Bhalala had to leave the venue of a mass wedding when Keshubhai refused to share the stage with him in the wake of Sidhu's comments. When Keshubhai threatened to leave the venue, the local community rallied behind him, leaving Bhalala with no option but to depart.

Naresh Patel, chairman of the Leuva religious organisation Khodaldham Trust, had appealed to his community to stand by Keshubhai.

"Sidhu's comments have hurt the pride of Gujarat where the cow is given the status of one's mother," said Naresh Patel. "This is an insult to the entire Gujarati community, not just Leuva Patels. Most Gujaratis are vegetarian on grounds of religion and the comment has hurt their sentiments."

Keshubhai has said he should be hanged if there is any truth in Sidhu's allegation. "Calling me anti-national is tantamount to comparing me with Ajmal Kasab. Anti-nationals are hanged," he said. He has alleged the BJP itself is the "biggest killer of cows and the largest seller of gauchar (grazing land)".

Keshubhai Patel on Saturday appealed to the Election Commission to take suo motu action against Sidhu, who he said had been instigated by Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, Bipin Jagjivan Rughani of Rajkot has filed a complaint in the chief judicial magistrate's court there, seeking registration of a defamation case against Sidhu. Rughani too described Sidhu's comments as an insult to "all of Gujarat".

Sidhu's comments, which have ended up rallying many Leuva Patels together, appear to have been part of a BJP strategy. He targeted Keshubhai repeatedly from Thursday to Saturday.

"Sidhu's comments have been misunderstood," BJP general secretary Vijay Rupani said when contacted.

Until Sidhu made his outbursts, Gujarat's BJP leaders had chosen not to make remarks against Keshubhai, their party's first chief minister until his eventual replacement with Modi. All the attacks had been from Keshubhai's side. In January, he had made an indirect attack on Modi. By July, when he had held 10 conventions across the state, his attacks had become more frequent and he had gone to the extent of calling Modi a devil, equating him with Hitler and describing him as a magician. All this while, neither Modi nor any BJP leader had said a word in public about Keshubhai.

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