Vijay Rupani’s unanticipated resignation as Gujarat chief minister and the ‘election’ of little-known, first-time MLA, Bhupendra Patel, who had media persons rushing to Google, as his replacement, appears to be a part of early manoeuvres in a complex series of moves initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
These steps, initiated a couple of months ago, are an attempt to regain political dominance which was ebbing and appearing near the point of irretrievability.
These changes have been accompanied by a not-so-subtle return to leveraging caste identities of leaders being either dropped or those being inducted into the team. This is in contrast to 2014 when the verdict in his favour was seen as making caste identity irrelevant.
It is possible that steps taken so far will conclude next year with a dramatic decision to advance the dates of assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, due in the autumn of 2022, and hold these simultaneously with those in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, due in the early months next year.
Nothing less than a dramatic decision which holds people’s attention has the capacity to ensure the continuity of Modi’s electoral stranglehold on the country’s polity, as well as his hegemony within the party till 2024.
On the face of it, this proposition – that his popularity can no longer be taken for granted and there is no challenge to him from within the party and the Sangh Parivar – may sound difficult to believe, given the overdose of publicity churned out by the Goebellian machinery that paints a picture of invincibility and unbridled supremacy of the man.
But there are signs of cracks in the edifice caused by absolute inept handling of the situation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. There was considerable public anger in the early months after the outbreak of the pandemic, triggered by the suddenness of the nationwide lockdown, the fear of the disease and the virtual shutdown of personal incomes. As it is, the economy was limping along and the lockdown merely worsened the situation and added to financial woes of people.
Yet, there was a degree of understanding among people that the crisis was a once in a century happening. In their perception initially, the government was making efforts and they hoped it would eventually find a way out, and were prepared for a series of stumbles.
But there was no pardoning the Centre for its incompetent and insensitive handling of the brutal second wave of the outbreak. That this horrific phase of the pandemic, which almost left no one untouched, came after much gloating at “defeating” the virus, was particularly damaging.
Evidence of public anger was visible in declining ratings for Modi and in the national outcry at attempts to cover up deaths. This sentiment was palpable in public discourse. Although this may appear to have ebbed, but memories remain and there is potential of this being tapped by a credible and smart alternative.
The Centre invoked laws that centralised power almost completely in its hands and even within the union government, all issues were micro-managed by the PMO. But, blame could not be apportioned to where it was due. The proverbial buck stopped at Modi’s table but since he could not be held responsible, scapegoats had to be found.
Besides the change of chief ministers in Uttarakhand (twice which resulted in three chief minister between March and July), Karnataka and now Gujarat, the much-talked about reshuffle of the union council of ministers also was undertaken in July, when several BJP stalwarts were dropped.
This included ministers ‘holding charge’ of health, law and justice, telecommunication and IT, social justice, information and broadcasting, environment and forests, education, chemicals and fertilisers and labour.
The ‘biggies’ axed in this round of reshuffle of the ministerial council included Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar, Harsh Vardhan, Thawar Chand Gehlot, Sadanand Gowda, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, and Santosh Gangwar.
The message sent by leadership change in states and in ministries was simple: Modi brooked no incompetence and did not approve of independent action. The quality of governance in most BJP-ruled states warrants action similar to those already taken in Uttarakhand, Karnataka and now Gujarat.
Yet, no action has been initiated in states where the administration’s capacities during the second wave came in for criticism. This includes Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, and most importantly Uttar Pradesh.
Of these states, change is almost completely ruled out in Uttar Pradesh, but not because Modi did not wish either a leadership alteration, or at least a re-jigging of the council of ministers, similar to what he undertook at the Centre. But this plan had to be abandoned because Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath virtually put his foot down.
Adityanath also refused to accommodate the one-time Modi-aide, the IAS officer, AK Sharma, who took voluntary retirement in January 2021 and was elected to the Legislative Council.
It was believed that Modi was keen that Sharma be appointed the deputy chief minster with all powers virtually in his hand, following which the state would be micro-managed by a dedicated PMO team, while Adityanath remained the titular head.
This way, Yogi effectively became the first challenger to Modi within the BJP and has reportedly conveyed his viewpoint that the state election in March-April next year should be fought under his leadership primarily after projecting him as the chief ministerial face.
To position himself as the primary leader of the BJP in the state, he has undertaken a publicity blitzkrieg over the past few months, plastering even bus stops in Delhi with his mug-shot alongside that of Modi.
The now much-controversial full page advertisements in the Indian Express on September 12 may have been formally deleted from digital editions and the paper may have declared its ‘error’. But, it must be noted that the adverts were headlined: ‘Transforming Uttar Pradesh under Yogi Adityanath’, ‘Under Yogi UP is Making Industrial Waves’ and ‘UP Under Yogi is Among Top Investment Destinations in the Country’.
Furthermore, no photograph of Modi was published in this spread, indicative that Adityanath is unwilling to share laurels with Modi and wishes himself to be in the centre of the BJP mantelpiece for the state elections.
This is in complete contrast to other states, Gujarat for instance, where Vijay Rupani said before stepping down that the next polls in the state shall be contested under Modi’s stewardship. Yogi in fact, is not the only one who has challenged the Modi norm of low-profile, or faceless, chief ministers.
After the April-May assembly elections in Assam, the BJP leadership was forced to accept Himanta Biswa Sarma as the chief minister, forcing Sarbananda Sonowal to make way. Clearly the aura of Modi within the party has diminished where powerful and popular satraps have emerged. Rupani’s removal appears to be part of a bigger plot to re-establish Modi’s hegemony within the BJP.
He has not just effected a change of chief ministers and used his former ministerial colleagues as scapegoats for his government’s failures, Modi has also backtracked on his experiment with promoting non-dominant communities to leadership positions in states.
In place of the ‘Jain’ Rupani, Modi has now fallen back on a Patidar as chief minister. Likewise, in Karnataka, he persevered with the dominant Lingayat caste in Karnataka with his choice of Basavraj Bommai.
During the re-jigging of the union council of minister, the inclusion of 27 OBCs and 12 Dalits as ministers was emphasised by the BJP’s spin doctors and fed to the media. It was stated that Modi was now the new champion of OBCs after VP Singh.
So how does Modi overcome the challenge from Adityanath while regaining popularity? While much of this would depend on a ‘third wave’ of the pandemic not striking India, it would also hinge on his ability to craft a national not-just-local narrative, as a build up to 2024.
If the Uttar Pradesh elections are held as per schedule with Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur, any electoral reverse – very much a possibility – it would dent Modi’s image too, although this would spell an end for now to Yogi’s challenge.
But if the BJP secures a majority comfortably in Uttar Pradesh with Yogi as its mascot, he would become a real challenger to Modi and this would also jeopardise Amit Shah’s political future.
But if Modi weaves a bigger narrative by advancing polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, may be even Madhya Pradesh, and spin the yarn regarding benefits of “one nation-one poll”, backed by resurgent Hindutva sentiments for which work is already underway, he would be able to quell the challenge from Adityanath.
These are still early days of the manoeuvres Modi has initiated, but it appears that Bhupendra Patel’s appointment shall not be last move. Much of his future strategy would also depend on the response of the opposition. Likewise, after having bared his ambition, Adityanath cannot be expected to abandon his plans. Interesting times ahead.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)