Modi with Bhupendra Patel
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bhupendra Patel, Gujarat Chief Minister in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

Gujarat and Punjab, two important Indian states recently got new Chief Ministers (CMs). In both cases the caste of outgoing and incoming chief ministers played a major role. In India’s so-called Hindutva era, the country’s politics seems to have remained where it was. Caste and identity-based politics is still a driving force of the netas (leaders) and political parties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress’s Rahul Gandhi took opposite largely symbolic decisions, based on the pros and cons of caste aspirations.

Rahul gave the top job to a Dalit Congressman, Charanjit Singh Channi. Modi selected a not-much-known Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Bhupendra Patel to placate the Patels, a dominant and upwardly mobile caste.

Both Modi and Gandhi took calculated risks. The common challenger in both cases is the Aam Admi party (AAP) of Arvind Kejriwal.

AAP has potential to put pressure on Congress in Punjab if it can consolidate the 32% Dalit vote. In Gujarat, AAP has potential to give a fatal blow to Congress but it can also badly hit the BJP in around 25 seats, where the winning margins of BJP were marginal.

In February 2021, AAP’s victory in Surat Municipal Corporation played a role in the exit of Vijay Rupani (AAP got 28.58% of votes and 27 seats out of 120 seats). It majorly hit Congress but shook the BJP too.

One unchallenged leader

Since Modi came to power, he has tackled anti-incumbency and fatigue within voters in his own characteristic style. As early as 2005, he dumped all Municipal corporators in Surat — only to win the elections handsomely. In 2010, as CM he went to Gondal, a small town in Saurshtra on the eve of local elections.

According to the eyewitness, he addressed just one public meeting and said, “I am aware of your plight. Lots of civic works aren’t done. However, I am doing what I can to help you. I have denied tickets to all the BJP corporators.”

Modi’s job was done. Without even pleading much for the votes, the BJP won in Gondal — once again. This year, Modi introduced, via state BJP president C.R. Patil, tough terms to select candidates in local civil and panchayat elections.

The BJP rules said the municipal councillor or panchayat member who has enjoyed three consecutive terms will not be repeated nor members of his/her family.

Also, those above 60 will retire. In one stroke, he retired hundreds of BJP veterans in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar municipal corporations. In February 2021, 68 sitting corporators of Surat Municipal corporation were dropped.

Even if this “cull” — aimed to retain votes — fails in 2022, the BJP will gain in the long term as Modi seeks to inject fresh blood in Gujarat BJP. The BJP is in power in Gujarat since March 1998 — without any break. All the Gujarati children and youth below 23 have no experience of any other party.

As BJP rule is nearly two generations old, many ruling party ministers have spent more than half of their public career as ministers, enjoying the frills and luxuries that come with power. This has made some of them thick skinned.

A domino effect

“Modi’s move to sack the CM and the ministers will have the domino effect as all ordinary workers would think that if a builder MLA of Ahmedabad can become a chief minister, then anybody can be made a CM by Modi,” a BJP MLA told Gulf News.

One Gujarati TV anchor summed it aptly, “How delightful! These ministers sacked by Modi will go home in private cars and will know, at last, that fuel price costs Rs100/litre.”

The crux of the matter is that Gujarat is no more an easy state to win for the BJP. Corruption has been institutionalised, while education and medical treatments have become unaffordable to poor and the middle classes. BJP fatigue is taking its toll on some development targets.

The political compulsion of any CM in Gujarat is to take all the blame. It can be a lose-lose situation for state leaders as they know the reality — that the BJP has been able to retain its core votes because of Modi’s popularity and personality cult.

It’s been a hopeless situation for Rupani, where anyone above additional secretary level, was looking towards Delhi and wouldn’t take his direction as the final decision. Even in his absence from the state, Modi’s presence hangs heavy in all official meetings. Gujarati bureaucrats are manipulating this fact.

Modi looms large

Rupani had to go not because he wasn’t able to deliver but because he couldn’t connect with the masses under the terms of his appointment. Under the huge presence of Modi, he couldn’t grow.

Gujarat is in a peculiar situation where BJP voters see in Modi, both leader of the nation and a reflection of their regional aspirations.

In the last seven years the Congress has been unable to do anything about the unsustainable administrative arrangement.

AAP is trying to expose the arrangement of remote-controlled neta-giri (leadership) but it is an irony that BJP’s strength and the weakness is the same. Gujaratis vote for or against Modi. In 2017 election, BJP had 49.05% vote share while Congress had 41.44% of vote share.

Will a weak Patel as CM get the votes for the BJP? No. That hard work only Modi and Amit Shah will do. The Patels are a fit case to study for scholars of political economy. Their relationship with Modi and the government in Gandhinagar is akin to a share broker in a stock exchange. They will remain invested in Modi till his stock is high.

Patels have vested interests in multimillion businesses of real estate, groundnuts, cotton, spices, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, engineering products, diamonds and in small and medium scale industries.

If Modi manages to win the upcoming UP elections for the BJP and economic growth remains upwards, Patels are likely to remain with the BJP. If not, things might change. Never underestimate the power of money in Gujarat.