Gujarat makeover: BJP’s powerful central leadership detected a caste rumbling in its bastion, and took quick corrective action


In picking Bhupendra Patel as Gujarat chief minister, BJP hopes to run the last lap before elections 15 months away by projecting a governance reset to voters. This knack for pre-empting anti-incumbency by spotting stirrings of unfavourable undercurrents felled CMs of Uttarakhand and Karnataka earlier. Despite five years as CM, Vijay Rupani’s low key style of functioning had outlived its utility and he was in danger of becoming a lightning rod for discontent. During the Covid second wave, horrifying sights of patients waiting outside hospitals for admission and frequent Gujarat high court strictures had marred Rupani’s record.

The dominant Patidar community, around which the Gujarat Hindutva project was initially anchored, was also bristling over non-accommodation in the two poles of the state BJP – CM and state president. Raghubar Das’s defeat in Jharkhand seems to have taught BJP that an unpopular CM is a risky proposition heading into elections. Even BS Yediyurappa, despite his firm base among Karnataka’s Lingayats, couldn’t resist the BJP high command’s logic for replacement beyond a point. The post-2014 BJP’s makeover into a mean election fighting machine that’s ferocious about protecting its governments means CMs are on a tight leash.

Gujarat has been BJP’s impregnable fortress for over two decades and powered PM Narendra Modi’s rise. BJP hasn’t lost assembly elections here since 1995 and has governed continuously since 1998. Yet 2017 did appear tricky before Modi’s appeal to voters and Congress’s weak booth level organisation won it for BJP on polling day. Cut to 2021, Congress is in further disarray. Its 7.5 percentage point vote share difference with BJP in 2017 state polls widened to 30 in 2019 general election. Defections have been frequent, and a generational shift in state leadership has lost momentum. But Rahul Gandhi is reportedly searching for a strong helmsman to replicate Ashok Gehlot’s 2017 Gujarat election management.

This coupled with AAP’s strong wooing of Patidars and Congress voters would have alerted the BJP leadership. Though any division of opposition votes should suit BJP. Bhupendra Patel’s anointment, like Basavaraj Bommai and PS Dhami, signifies that when defensive BJP, otherwise propping up non-dominant groups, switches seamlessly to rallying support among dominant castes. A crowded frontline of powerful Gujarat netas who are leading lights in the national BJP and Union Cabinet endows the CM-elect with the luxury of fronting a well-oiled political and administrative machinery. But the task of soothing Patidar discontent, responsible for his mentor Anandiben Patel’s exit, is perhaps his cross alone to bear.

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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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