An admission of no confidence in its government or a ‘masterstroke’ that could stave off any electoral damage on account of anti-incumbency, call it what you will, but the BJP has, once again, left its rivals and political observers stunned with the swearing-in of an entirely new council of ministers in Gujarat.
The induction of the 24 new ministers in the western state that goes to polls in December next year came just days after the party replaced Vijay Rupani with first-term MLA Bhupendra Patel as Gujarat’s new chief minister.
If Patel’s sudden rise from a backbencher MLA to the hot seat of Gandhinagar left everyone surprised, Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony, which brought in a new council of ministers after purging the government of its entire ministerial strength, was no different. The oath-taking ceremony, held after five days of suspense over who all would make the cut and amid rumours of massive unrest among senior members of the erstwhile Rupani cabinet over speculation of their imminent exit, saw the BJP experimenting with its novel ‘no repeat’ formula. In doing so, while the party took the brave risk of showing the door to every member of the Rupani cabinet – including sulking party veteran and now former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel – it brought in a completely new set of ministers, a majority of whom have served between one or two terms as MLAs and have no administrative experience.
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The induction of the new ministers, however, also indicates the BJP’s realisation that it needs to urgently address dissatisfaction among the state’s electorate over issues ranging from alleged non-performance of the Rupani government to skewed regional and caste representation. The heavy reliance that the BJP has placed on the Patidar community – besides the CM, the 25-minister-strong government now has six Patidar ministers – can also be viewed as an admission by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo of underestimating the electoral might of the community that can influence the poll outcome on 75 of the state’s 182 seats. The state’s 14 per cent Patidar vote bank, which had shifted en bloc to the BJP in 1995 following the Congress’s reliance on the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim (KHAM) consolidation in the 1980s, has been the principal ingredient of the BJP’s recipe for staying in power for the last 26 years. However, in wake of the Patidar Andolan of Hardik Patel – currently the Congress party’s Gujarat working president – the community’s formidable vote bank had split between the BJP and the Congress, giving the saffron party its biggest electoral scare since 1995 when it narrowly returned to power in 2017 with 99 seats against the Congress’s 77 seats.
Rupani, a Jain, had failed to win over disgruntled sections of the Patidar community. Now, with just over a year left for state polls, the BJP is attempting a definite course correction with a Patel chief minister and six more Patidar ministers (Jitu Vaghani, Rushikesh Patel, Raghavji Patel, Brijesh Merja, Arvind Raiyani, Vinod Moradia). Even here, the party has been careful to give near-equal representation to the two dominant sub-castes of the Patidar community – the financially affluent Kadva Patels of North and South Gujarat and the working class, numerically stronger Leuva Patels of Saurashtra and Central Gujarat.
Besides the Patidars, the BJP has also gone all out to woo the overarching electoral majority of backward classes and the tribals. Of the 24 new ministers sworn in, as many as seven are from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) bloc – Purnesh Modi, Arjunsinh Chauhan, Jagdish Panchal, Mukesh Patel, Gajendrasinh Parmar, Raghavji Makwana and Devabhai Malam. This brings the OBC representation at par with the Patidars in the council of ministers. The BJP’s messaging of its patronage to the OBCs in Gujarat is also likely to be highlighted by the party during its campaign in Uttar Pradesh that goes for assembly elections early next year. The saffron party’s OBC outreach has been a work-in-progress in recent years and the expansion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet earlier this year was a not-so-subtle reminder of this fact as the Centre went all out to emphasise that OBC representation was now at its highest ever in the Union Council.
Also read: Amid rumblings of dissent, Bhupendra Patel’s new cabinet sworn in
Similarly, Thursday’s cabinet formation also saw the induction of four tribals – Naresh Magan Patel, Jitu Chaudhary, Nimisha Suthar and Kuber Dindor – as ministers. The Dalit, Brahmin and Rajput communities have been accommodated with two representatives each while the party has given one berth to a Jain (Amit Shah aide Harsh Sanghavi, BJP’s two-term MLA from Surat’s Majura) to appease the community after the unceremonious exit of Rupani.
On the regional representation front too, the BJP seems to have caused a disruption in the established practice of successive governments – including its own past regimes – of having a disproportionately high representation of ministers from the state’s North Gujarat and Saurashtra regions. Thursday’s exercise shows that the BJP is now keen on reimagining Central Gujarat and South Gujarat as the state’s power centres while also continuing with its patronage of Saurashtra.
The new council of ministers, including the chief minister, has seven representatives from Central Gujarat – Bhupendra Patel, Pradipsinh Parmar, Jagdish Panchal (all from Ahmedabad), Arjunsinh Chauhan (Kheda), Rajendra Trivedi, Manisha Vakil (both from Vadodara), Nimisha Suthar (Panchmahal) and Kuber Dindor (Mahisagar). Similarly, South Gujarat has also been given seven ministerial berths with Purnesh Modi, Harsh Sanghavi, Mukesh Patel, Vinod Moradia (all from Surat), Kanubhai Desai, Jitu Chaudhary (both from Valsad) and Naresh Magan Patel (Navsari) representing the region. From Saurashtra, the BJP has roped in its former state unit chief Jitu Vaghani, Raghavji Makwana (both from Bhavnagar), Raghavji Patel (Jamnagar), Kiritsinh Rana (Surendranagar), Brijesh Merja (Morbi), Arvind Raiyani (Rajkot) and Devabhai Malam (Junagadh).
The BJP, it seems, is aware of the in-roads that the Congress hopes to make in North Gujarat and also of a possible backlash from a section of the Patidars loyal to disgruntled BJP stalwart from Mehsana, Nitin Patel. It is evident that the biggest loser in the BJP Gujarat power game has been Nitin Patel, the former deputy chief minister who, with Bhupendra Patel’s nomination as the CM, has now missed the state’s highest executive’s chair three times in a row – in 2014 after Narendra Modi left Gandhinagar to become Prime Minister, in 2016 when Anandiben Patel was replaced with Vijay Rupani and then again in 2017 when Rupani returned to office despite leading the BJP to a below par electoral performance. While Nitin Patel hasn’t openly revolted against the BJP yet, the possibility of him and his sulking supporters denting the BJP’s poll prospects in North Gujarat cannot be wished away.
Lastly, the BJP has also awarded some turncoats who won the assembly polls in 2017 on Congress tickets but then deserted the party for a saffron waltz in the following years. Senior Jamnagar MLA Raghavji Patel, once a confidante of former chief minister and vocal Modi baiter Shaktisinh Vaghela, had won the 2017 polls on a Congress ticket. He was among the Congress’s rebel MLAs who had triggered a row during the late party veteran Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha election by not only cross-voting for the BJP but also, in contravention of the rules, displaying his ballot paper to BJP members. Raghavji had been expelled from the Congress but returned to the Assembly by winning a bypoll and has now been rewarded with a cabinet berth. Similarly, Brijesh Merja, who had been awarded by the Congress with an assembly poll ticket thrice in the past – he finally won on the party’s ticket in 2017, only to desert it for the BJP and win a bypoll in 2020 – has been inducted as a minister of state with independent charge. Another former Congress MLA who won on a ticket from the Grand Old Party in 2012 and 2017 from Kaprada in Valsad but later defected to the BJP is Jitu Chaudhary, now a minister of state with independent charge.