Bhupendra Patel takes oath as Gujarat CM (Image: ANI)
With a name that surprised most analysts, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appointed first-time MLA Bhupendra Patel as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He takes charge as the third Chief Minister since Narendra Modi resigned from the post to become Prime Minister in 2014.
This is the fourth change of guard at the top in the last few months by the BJP in various states for making it poll-ready.
The BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1998, and heads the third-longest-serving government in any state after West Bengal (the Communist Party of India-Marxist) and Sikkim (the Sikkim Democratic Front). As Gujarat goes to the polls in 2022, the BJP is wary of facing anti-incumbency, which creeps in during such long tenures.
For the BJP, Gujarat is in many ways Modi’s and Home Minister Amit Shah’s karmbhoomi, and the party leadership has a personal connect with the state. While Uttar Pradesh sends the highest number of MPs, and polls in the state 2022 are considered as the semi-final to the 2024 general elections, winning the Gujarat elections is a prestige battle.
A loss here can be demotivating for the cadre and party.
Patel is the third Chief Minister Gujarat has had in seven years. Modi, in the 12-plus years he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, raised the bar so high and built such huge voter expectations that no leader in the state BJP has been able to live up to expectations. Anyone who occupies the top post is viewed as a pale shadow of Modi.
The selection of Patel, who is being seen as a lightweight, also highlights the dearth of strong second-rung leadership in the BJP in Gujarat. It reaffirms the fact that the BJP will contest the polls under Modi’s leadership as it has been doing for the past two decades.
The appointment of a new Chief Minister underscores the fact that the BJP has taken ground feedback into account. It has proactively attempted to nip in the bud any dissatisfaction building among a section of voters, probably on account of the way in which the COVID-19 second wave was handled by the Vijay Rupani administration.
The move is also likely to appease the most influential caste group of Patidars/Patels (16 percent of the state’s population) who ran a campaign against the BJP government in the run-up to polls in 2017 demanding reservations and inclusion under the Other Backward Classes. Around 50 percent of the community, traditional supporters of the BJP, backed the Congress in 2017.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the community voters made a gharwapsi with two-third of the community voting for the BJP. The Patidar andolan weakened with leader Hardik Patel joining the Congress. The selection of Bhupendra Patel can be seen as rewarding the Patels for realigning with the BJP.
At 59-years, the new Chief Minister is young (by Indian politics standards) but lacks administrative experience at the state level, as he wasn’t even part of the Rupani’s Cabinet. He is expected to work under the guidance of Modi-Shah to deliver the mantra of “double engine ki sarkar”.
While seniors in the race like Nitin Patel, CR Patil, Parshottam Rupala may be miffed at being denied the opportunity, none of them are big enough to challenge the high command’s decision or sabotage the BJP’s prospects.
In 2017, the BJP won by a whisker: TheBJP won 99 seats (-16) and the Congress 77 (+16) in a house with a simple majority of 92.
However, after elections, the Congress lost momentum. The grand old party did not win a single seat out of the 26 Lok Sabha seats from Gujarat in 2019. It has been weakened by defections, and now has only 65 MLAs (-12), with the BJP increasing its tally to 112.
The demise of master strategist Ahmed Patel has also hit the Congress hard. The BJP swept the municipal and local bodies polls held earlier this year, with the Congress losing even in its bastions.
The Gujarat model propelled Modi to a national role, and given this a tight contest again in 2022 would be bad optics. The BJP needed a person with a clean slate carrying no baggage, and Bhupendra Patel fits the bill.
Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker-turned political strategist and commentator. Twitter: @politicalbaaba.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.