New Gujarat model

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Bhupendra Patel, the new Chief Minister of Gujarat, after taking the oath of office at a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan in Gandhinagar on September 13. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI

Bhupendra Patel with members of his Cabinet after they were inducted at a ceremony at Raj Bhavan in Gandhinagar on September 16. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI

Vijay Rupani, who resigned as Chief Minister. Photo: pti

The BJP replaces its Chief Minister in Gujarat—bringing in a member from the resourceful Patidar community—and the entire Cabinet in a damage-control exercise before the next Assembly election that is more than a year away.

THERE may be no crisis within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat, but the party is certainly grappling with a flagging image. Buckling under pressure from the powerful Patel community and perhaps hoping to correct the image problem too, the BJP replaced Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel as the Chief Minister. Rupani, who had replaced Anandiben Patel in August 2016 and led the party to victory in the Assembly election in 2017, submitted his resignation on September 11, and the BJP legislature party met the next day to select Bhupendra Patel.

A first-time Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Ghatlodiya constituency, Bhupendra Patel was sworn in on September 13. On September 16, he inducted 24 Ministers into his new Cabinet, including seven Patidars and seven belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The BJP has followed a no repeat strategy by replacing the entire outgoing Rupani Cabinet. The new-look Ministry is dominated by first-timers, including the Chief Minister. Governor Acharya Devvrat administered the oath of office to the new Cabinet members at the Raj Bhavan in Gandhinagar in the presence of Rupani, former Deputy Chief Minister Nitinbhai Patel and BJP Gujarat unit chief C.R. Patil, among other party leaders.

With 15 months left for the Assembly election in the State, the party is certainly devising strategies to return to power for the seventh consecutive term. Bhupendra Patel’s appointment is viewed as a course correction in order to placate the highly influential Patel community before the 2022 election. He will be the fifth Chief Minister from the Patel community; he pipped several veterans, including Nitinbhai Patel and C.R. Patil, to the post.

Rupani’s failure

Rupani said he was resigning in the “larger interest” of the State and that he was following party tradition by giving senior members an equal chance at governance. Rupani’s vague reasons for exiting do not cover up the fact that he was essentially a colossal failure, political observers say. Under his leadership, the party won 99 seats, the BJP’s lowest tally in Assembly elections in the State. The Rupani government made little progress on the industrial front. Rupani was singularly held responsible for mismanaging the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in Gujarat witnessing among the highest fatality rates in the country. His supporters believe that he was made a scapegoat, but Gujarat is known for being a revolving door for Chief Ministers. While the timing of his ouster was unexpected, it is not unusual.

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Answering the critical question why Bhupendra Patel, Achyut Yagnik, who runs the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action and is knowledgeable about Gujarat politics, says it is an arithmetically calculated decision. “Bhupendra Patel belongs to the Kadva Patel community, a massive and dominant force in Gujarat. If the BJP wants the Patel vote, it must pick a Chief Minister from this community. Previous Patel Chief Ministers have been from the Leva Patel community, a sub-caste considered higher in the caste hierarchy and wealthier than Kadvas.”

Achyut Yagnik says petty politics and an upper caste-lower caste struggle had fragmented the Patel community. The two groups banded together at a State-level Patidar meeting to display a united front. The activist Hardik Patel launched the Patidar reservation agitation across Gujarat in July 2015 demanding OBC status for the community. Through rallies demanding quota for the community, Hardik Patel, who is now with the Congress, initiated what is described as the “rise of the Patidar”. The strategy seems to have worked, Achyut Yagnik says.

Researchers estimate (official figures will not be available as caste is not enumerated as part of the Census) that 13 per cent of Gujarat’s electorate are Patels. During the quota stir, Patels repeatedly stated that they felt let down by the BJP despite the community helping the party win election after Assembly election. Although a wealthy group, Patels have been demanding a quota based on the economic criterion in employment and education. In fact, after the Jan Ashirwad Yatra, launched in the wake of the Union Cabinet expansion in August, during which senior BJP leaders spoke about giving added importance to OBCs, Patels were convinced that the BJP was not interested in the community.

With the Assembly election due late next year, and faced with the threat of losing a significant vote base, the BJP had to take corrective action, and hence Bhupendra Patel was brought in. Of the 17 Chief Ministers who have assumed office since Gujarat became a State, five belong to the Patel community. Babubhai Patel (1975-75 and 1977-80), Chimanbhai Patel (1990-94), Keshubhai Patel (1995-98; 1998-2001), Anandiben Patel (2014-16) and Bhupendra Patel.

Caste and party

Gujarat’s politics can be summed up in two words: caste and party. Historically, it has been a two-party State, with the BJP and the Congress fighting each other in every parliamentary and Assembly election. Regional parties have no presence in the State. A few independent candidates sometimes get elected. Caste is a primary factor in the election, and parties are mindful of matching their candidate to the caste make-up of the constituency.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi resigned as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2014 following his election to the Lok Sabha, he chose Anandiben Patel as his successor. It is believed that although Anandiben Patel was a senior leader, it was the Patel factor that played a major role in her appointment. When Anandiben Patel resigned following the Una Dalit lynching incident and because of her inability to control infighting in the State BJP, Rupani was chosen to replace her.

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“He was an odd choice in a State that is driven by caste dynamics. Rupani belongs to the Jain community, which constitutes a tiny percentage of Gujarat’s population. It was his closeness to Modi and [Union Home Minister] Amit Shah that got him the chief ministership,” says Achyut Yagnik.

Anandiben Patel exited a year before the 2017 Assembly election to allow Rupani to steer the campaign. However, under Rupani’s leadership, the BJP won just 99 seats in the 182-member Assembly, which was a major upset for a party that had swept elections in the past. The absence of a Patel at the helm could have cost the party a few seats, it was reported at that time. Although the BJP won all the seats in the 2021 panchayat elections, there is a palpable nervousness with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) making inroads into Gujarat. The AAP plans to field candidates in several constituencies in the next election, says an aspiring politician who joined the AAP in Gujarat. It is speculated that Surat and parts of Saurashtra will not go the saffron way. Yet, while the BJP may not have too much to worry about as the AAP will probably secure the anti-incumbency vote, a few changes were perhaps on the cards to ensure total victory. An AAP politician said: “Rupani was a vapid Chief Minister. Completely incompetent, as we saw during the first and second waves of COVID-19. They are worried about next year’s election. A shake-up was rumoured and it happened. Rupani needed to go.”

Ashok Shrimali, a rights activist in Ahmedabad, said: “It was Rupani’s inability to control the COVID-19 situation that exposed his incompetency. The complete breakdown or rather absence of health infrastructure caused lakhs of deaths. There are no excuses for this tragedy. Further, Rupani and Deputy Chief Minister Nitinbhai Patel’s visible dislike for each other took a toll on policy decisions. Very little was achieved in the State during Rupani’s tenure. He was a good man but ineffective.”

Who is Bhupendra Patel?

Bhupendra Patel’s name was not on the list of contenders for Chief Minister. A political observer in Gujarat said that while it seemed that Bhupendra Patel’s name appeared out of thin air, a closer look indicated that he was chosen carefully. To begin with, he is a Kadva Patel, who may be considered “lower” than the Leva Patels but have a wider base. Therefore, Bhupendra Patel will have the backing of a massive vote bank. He had served as a board member on two influential Patel organisations, the Sardar Dham and the Vishwa Umiya Foundation.

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A civil engineer by qualification and a real estate businessman by profession, Bhupendra Patel is a late entrant into politics. He began his political career as a corporator in 2010 and worked his way up to become an MLA in 2017 when Anandiben Patel gave up her Ghatlodia seat in his favour on being posted as Governor of Madhya Pradesh. His Patel status and proximity to Modi and Amit Shah are said to have given him an edge over the contenders for the post.

In 1999, he was elected as the president of the Memnagar Nagarpalika. He became the Chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Corporation (AUDA) in 2015 until it merged with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). Bhupendra Patel was instrumental in implementing the Sabarmati River Front project and introducing Ahmedabad’s Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS). Known to be a doer, local people feel he may be more effective than his recent predecessors in the post.

There was a lot of discontentment on the day of the swearing in of the all-new Cabinet as some members of the previous Ministry were peeved at losing their ministership. The new Chief Minister is probably off to a rocky start. Whether he will have the staying power to steer the BJP to its seventh term in the State remains to be seen.

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