Bhupendra Patel
Bhupendra Patel, Gujarat chief minister Image Credit: Reuters

The giant shadow of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s tallest leader of recent times, looms over any Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician who is the Chief Minister (CM) of the state.

Gujarat, Modi’s home state, has voted for the BJP for six straight terms, yet Anandibehen Patel, Modi’s successor and currently governor of Uttar Pradesh, and Vijay Rupani, who was sacked by the BJP, were dwarfed in their own political space by Modi’s political gravitas.

Ask any Gujarat Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) or a Gujarat senior official and they will always have a Modi story to tell of his sway on the administration during his three terms as CM.

A change of guard

Bhupendra Patel is a first term MLA with no administrative experience. He is an Anandibehen Patel protégé, who has been made CM and satisfies some key criteria. With 15 months to go for the Gujarat assembly polls, the BJP has ensured that the caste balance, delicately poised with Patidar community, is satisfied.

Patel’s appointment is a consensus choice between Amit Shah, union home minister and Patel that keeps both BJP’s warring factions in balance and pitches Modi as the real vote-getter for the upcoming elections.

In many ways the Gujarat election will be a referendum on Modi. Therefore Patel is a safe nominee — of the correct caste — who does not rock any boats.

Rupani, a Shah favourite, had an image problem, post the vicious second wave of COVID-19. The Gujarat High Court had repeatedly waded in and criticised the Rupani government handling of the pandemic.

Despite being in office for five years, Rupani made no impact on the administration and was unable to stamp his authority on the officials.

The call to replace him was taken by Modi who has decided to take control of the way the party and the administration runs in Gujarat. This turned out to be the most significant aspect of Patel’s appointment.

Modi’s writ runs large

With the single exception of Shivraj Singh Chauhan, CM of Madhya Pradesh, all the current BJP CM’s including Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh are Modi appointees. The high command culture of the Congress has been adopted wholly by the BJP 2.0.

The removal of B S Yediyurappa as Karnataka CM, and his replacement with Basavaraj Bommai was a striking example of the Delhi control over BJP. The musical chairs in Uttarakhand saw Tirath Singh Rawat who took office in March this year being replaced by Pushkar Singh Dhami in July.

The only BJP leader publicly upset with the Patel appointment in Gujarat is Nitin Patel, who seemed to break down publicly at not being made CM. This is the second time he has lost out after being the firm favourite. But, unlike the Congress with its endemic infighting and leaders taking pot shots at one another, one teary breakdown is all you are allowed in BJP 2.0.

Senior BJP leaders say that the Rupani’s removal was not a sudden decision at all. They say that Rupani was asked to focus on COVID-19 management.

Eventually Shah and B L Santosh, general secretary (organisation) handled the Rupani removal. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is completely accepting on Modi’s being the last word in Gujarat.

Modi, it is learnt, still has a direct link to senior Gujarat cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials and was extremely upset about the reports he got on Rupani.

Gandhinagar was abuzz with stories about Rupani’s family being involved in government decisions. Modi is learnt to be upset about the image slide and decided to act.

BJP’s image makeover

The BJP is permanently focused on winning elections and the rationale behind removing unpopular CMs is to protect the party from anti-incumbency. The ruling party feels that presenting a fresh face and a new team will ensure an electoral dividend.

The hard reset is also an unblinking focus on projecting the BJP and Modi as winners on all occasions. In 2017 the Congress gave the Bjp a good scare by winning 77 seats to the BJP’s 99 assembly seats. Sensing some voter disenchantment, BJP has upped the number of his campaigns and made emotional appeals to the voters.

After that brief flash when the Congress had gotten on board Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakore, the party has gotten back to its habitual disarray in Gujarat.

The Aam Aadmi Party is a new entrant which will contest in Gujarat this time around but as we have seen in other elections, the AAP vacuums up the Congress’s vote share.

Back to the ruling party — expect a winning campaign in Gujarat with Modi as the front and centrepiece. All factions of Gujarat BJP believe that Modi is the election match-winner. The BJP is set to launch a national campaign on Modi’s birthday with the tag of “Thank you Narendra Modi”.

The BJP is going all out to protect its citadel.