Abrupt change of leadership in Gujarat meant to convey message that Narendra Modi is still in command
Nobody outside Gujarat knew there existed a Bhupendra Patel in the Gujarat assembly till the other day. Then, this man with a fringe of grey running a half-circle round the back of the head, is handed the baton by outgoing Chief Minister Vijay Rupani who had resigned the day before and who himself had gotten hold of the baton from Anandiben Patel in 2016.
Then, in 2016, it was Vijay Rupani’s time to celebrate. Today, it’s Anandiben’s turn to feel content. To tell the truth, Anandiben Patel took time off from her busy schedule as Uttar Pradesh Governor to congratulate Bhupendra Patel. The grapevine had it that Anandiben knew beforehand that Bhupendra Patel would ascend the throne she once occupied.
In fact, Bhupendra Patel’s elevation was fait accompli, decided by the man who loves to event-manage – Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The PM is in an awful need of image-refurbishment after the twin West Bengal and Covid-19 drubbings. He has to prove to the world that he still has hold of the reins of power. There were enough of the ‘Doubting Thomas’ queuing up in the aisles.
The “failure” of the rumoured move to unseat Yogi Adityanath as UP Chief Minister was a setback. It was easier said than done. The Yogi drove down to Delhi and, then, drove back to Lucknow, unscathed. It had dawned on the BJP that removing the Yogi would boomerang.
Vijay Rupani, however, is not Yogi Adityanath. His sudden and abrupt resignation came as a surprise, but he was told to opt out; he didn’t resign because he wanted to. His handling of the Covid-19 second wave in Gujarat was an albatross around his neck and, by extension, around Narendra Modi’s neck. Another 14 months and Gujarat will go to polls, and leaving Gujarat to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was unthinkable, it seems.
There are also the Patidar – a people very cross and angry with the BJP. And while Rupani is ‘Jain’, Bhupendra Patel is ‘Patidar’. Whether the Patidar will see through the BJP’s game-plan is for the future to tell, but 14 months is both short and long.
Congress party’s Gujarat unit working president Hardik Patel said soon after Bhupendra Patel’s elevation that it wouldn’t work like Modi planned – 14 months is too short a period for the Patidar to forget, and forgive. That Bhupendra Patel doesn’t wield a magic wand to turn the tables for the Patidar community to get themselves out of the Gandhinagar swamp.
That said, Bhupendra Patel has risen from being a "mere unknown" to a significantly "unknown quantity". His strongest ally is Narendra Modi, and – even if Amit Shah feels left out – Shah cannot but run for Modi’s batting partner.
The point is, Modi has sprung a surprise to shore up his receding ratings; add a layer of fresh paint to his peeling aura. Replacing Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel has lent a sense of victory, even if a pyrrhic one. Jettisoning Yeddyurappa was part of the exercise. The abrupt removal of two Uttarakhand Chief Ministers, in short-shrift, was also to convey that Narendra Modi was still in command despite the floating Covid-dead, and the plummeting stock.
The problem for Narendra Modi is, the Gujarat model is out of shape – it is rusty, and has to be beaten into shape all over again. Narendra Modi has ruled Gujarat for 22/23 years, thrice as Chief Minister and, thereafter, with proxies Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani. Bhupendra Patel isn’t any different.
Bhupendra Patel is a first-time MLA, an exceptional candidate for the post of Chief Minister. The task ahead for him is not enviable though. He has to deliver to Modi, and to the BJP, the target of 182 assembly seats in 2022, if the assembly elections are advanced. Modi has been feting the Patidar community over the last one year, attending major Patidar events. Of course, the nervousness has increased with every passing day. The PM has challengers within the party, and it has become essential for him to stamp his authority on the party.
The simple fact is, Narendra Modi is in no position to risk a zero sum game. When the losses are subtracted, he wants to win.
Views are personal