The sudden resignation of Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani – the third CM of a BJP-ruled state to step down in recent months – has stunned political observers. Though Rupani and the BJP have predictability refrained from explaining what triggered the surprise move just a little over a year before Gujarat goes to polls, political circles in the western state had been abuzz with speculation of the CM’s imminent ouster for some months now.
Sources in the BJP’s Gujarat unit say support for Rupani within the party’s legislative party had been dwindling for several months. Rival factions led by the state chief CRR Patil, senior minister Nitin Patel and others had been quietly reporting to the BJP’s central leadership about Rupani’s “growing unpopularity”.
While Rupani has, for now, kept his counsel and expressed confidence in the BJP returning to power in the state in next year’s assembly polls, sources say ties between him, Patil and a host of state leaders, including senior cabinet ministers, had been severely dented in recent months. The alleged mismanagement of the COVID pandemic under Rupani’s watch was routinely used by his detractors to criticise his administration, say sources. It is learnt that several BJP legislators had been complaining to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda about growing public anger against Rupani and that the BJP could suffer an embarrassing electoral setback in the state if it went to polls under his leadership, despite a largely defunct political opposition from the Congress party.
The BJP had registered its narrowest electoral victory in Gujarat in the past two decades when, in 2017, it went to polls with Rupani as the CM. There was speculation back then that the BJP might bench Rupani after the polls and place its faith in a leader from a dominant community like the Patidar. Rupani belongs to the Jain minority community, which comprises just about 2 per cent of the state’s electorate, and the BJP had been battling an aggressive campaign by the electorally formidable Patidars. However, despite the lacklustre poll performance, the BJP endorsed Rupani for another term even as Nitin Patel, the other frontrunner, was reportedly accepting congratulatory messages from his supporters following rumours that he was in line to be the CM.
Now, as Rupani makes a quiet exit from office, Patel, CR Patil, Union minister Mansukh Mandavia are among some of the leaders whose names are once again doing the rounds as possible CMs.
BJP sources say the party has to make a choice between a Patidar community leader or a leader from some other OBC community. Choosing a Patidar, the community that helped the BJP stay in power in Gujarat for nearly three decades before Hardik Patel’s Patidar Andolan soured these ties, could help the BJP rebuild old political bonds. It would also effectively dent the Congress’s hopes of consolidating the Patidar votes with help from Hardik Patel, who is currently working president of the Gujarat Congress and has been lobbying hard to be elevated as Pradesh Congress president.
If the BJP chooses an OBC leader, it would serve two purposes. It is expected to signal the BJP’s growing patronage of the backward castes WHICH constitute a massive vote bank. More importantly, it would further bolster the party’s image among the community members in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls early next year and where the BJP has been trying to woo non-Yadav OBCs away from Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. The BJP’s OBC outreach has been a work in progress. The recent reshuffle of the Union Cabinet saw an unprecedented number of OBC leaders being inducted into Modi’s council of ministers. Also, having an OBC CM would help the BJP withstand some political pressure from opposition parties and the community leaders who have recently renewed calls for caste-based census.
For the Congress, which has been facing one crisis after another in Gujarat and almost all other states, the swift change of guard in Modi’s home state also presents more problems. Though the Opposition party plans to go to town claiming Rupani’s performance was so bad that his own party had to bench him, Congress sources admit that a new CM who represents an important vote bank and has a better public image could substantially reduce anti-incumbency against the BJP. Besides, if the BJP does choose a Patidar leader as CM, the Congress will have to redraw its strategy with regard to Hardik Patel and his followers.
Like in Uttarakhand, where the BJP has had three CMs in the past eight months, or in Karnataka where the party finally replaced BS Yediyurappa with Basavaraj Bommai, the Gujarat change of guard may cause some immediate embarrassment to the saffron front. However, with the Congress still struggling to resolve its internal crisis and step up as an effective Opposition, the BJP hopes that a swift change of guard, followed by a massive push for populist politics, will help it tide over the present embarrassment by the time Gujarat, or Uttarakhand for that matter, go to polls.