There are two acts in the BJP’s drama of changing chief ministers in Gujarat this year. The first act was played out in Gandhinagar. Vijay Rupani, who was made the chief minister in 2017 when the party fell below 100 seats in the 182-member Assembly, resigned on Saturday, with a year and two months to go before the next election in December 2022. (There is speculation that the election could be brought forward to February next year. There was no perceptible dissidence against Mr Rupani as there was against B.S. Yediyurappa in Karnataka or Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat in Uttarakhand before him. Mr Rupani fell on the sword as it were without a murmur in the manner of a good stoic.
The second act in the drama is the invisible stage instructions from New Delhi. The silent manner in which Mr Rupani resigned and Bhupendra Patel was brought in without any hullabaloo does not speak of a smooth transition as much as it does of the ruthless moves on the chessboard, where one of the chessmen is quietly removed and thrown into the box. Surely, someone from New Delhi must have called up Mr Rupani in Gandhinagar and given instructions, and he promptly did what he was told to do. And it seems New Delhi knew who to replace Mr Rupani with, though there was some mild speculation about chief minister aspirants. It was a predetermined move.
It reminds many people of how leaders were changed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the pre-glasnost era. Usually, the outgoing leader was shown to have left for a dacha, mostly on health grounds. The Kremlin machine was quiet and smooth. The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has worked out a similar mechanism, at least in Gujarat. Commentators have used the euphemism of high command in the BJP, which decided on these matters and made the quick moves. The high command is a mystery because party president J.P. Nadda does not seem to have any role to play in the matter, and the central parliamentary board was not involved. The two decision-makers are Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah. If there is a high command, then it comprises the Prime Minister and the home minister. That the two leaders are from Gujarat must have made things so much easier.
There is no need to read conspiracy theories into the chief ministerial reshuffle. As the 2022 election looms large, the high command seems to have realised that it cannot go into the election with Mr Rupani, a Jain. The 2017 Assembly election was a stark reminder that in a post-Modi Gujarat, elections are fought on political issues. The Patidar agitation in the run-up to the election had significantly hurt the BJP. The three leaders who had emerged then — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur and Jignesh Mewani — gave a boost to the Congress challenge to the BJP. The Congress got 77 seats, and the BJP 99. The percentage of votes that the BJP got — 49.05 — did not matter. The Congress, with 41.44 per cent votes, was quite behind.
But that gave Prime Minister Modi a real scare. When he visited the old BJP office on New Delhi’s Ashoka Road — the Kremlin-style party headquarters was not yet ready — to be facilitated for the victory in his home state, Mr Modi was not in an exultant mood. He was agitated and sounded the warning that he would not allow Gujarat to slip back into caste wars. As long as he was at the helm in Gujarat, from 2002 to 2014, the BJP was a united Hindutva force. The Congress had of course played the caste card when it got the Hardik Patel-Alpesh Thakur-Jignesh Mewani trio to lead the Opposition battle. The Congress and the other Opposition parties usually resort to caste politics to counter the Hindu card of the BJP.
The choice of Bhupendra Patel as chief minister shows that Mr Modi and Mr Shah clearly saw the writing on the wall. A Jain cannot lead the BJP into the elections because the powerful Patidars will slip away. Whether placing a Patidar at the head of the government in the final lap will help the BJP remains a moot question.
The Prime Minister and the home minister are sure to campaign on all-India issues of national security, especially the challenge posed by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and global jihad. The campaign cannot afford to focus on governance achievements in the state because that will raise eyebrows about the change of chief ministers.
But with Mr Modi and Mr Shah away in New Delhi, it might be difficult for them to sway the voter the way they could have when they were there. The 2017 Assembly election result was a clear indication that it is not a cakewalk for the party, and they will have to fight a hard campaign. In 2002, Mr Modi used the barb against then chief election commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh that he had postponed the election after the carnage in Godhra and the riots that followed. This time around, the theme of global jihad might come handy. But the Gujarat electorate may want to weigh the issues differently.
Whatever the rhetorical leitmotif, what is expected to save the BJP is the Patidar vote. And the BJP can harp on the OBC theme with some justification because the Central government had recently passed the constitutional amendment allowing state governments to decide on the OBC list. But that could only open the proverbial Pandora’s Box, and further accentuate the differences between the different OBC segments.
Mr Patel’s choice as chief minister is a nod to the caste factor in the election, and the right-wing party has to work out its strategy at the ground level. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP targeted the non-Yadav OBC sections and cobbled together a successful coalition of the Most Backward Classes. It may not work in Gujarat. In the recent West Bengal Assembly election, the party sought to woo Namashudras, the dominant dalit section. But it did not work. The caste conundrum stumps the BJP strategists as much as it does other political parties. In a way, the caste challenge makes for a level playing field for the political parties, in what can only be called negative politics.