Gujarat’s change of guard

Having turned down the chance to be king, Amit Shah played the kingmaker. As the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was natural that he considered the post of Gujarat Chief Minister a political demotion. But he did not let go of the opportunity to handpick his own man to head the government in Gujarat. That Mr. Shah could trump caste calculations and have his protégé Vijay Rupani elected to the post is an indication of the clout he wields at all levels in the party, and the influence he has on Prime Minister Narendra Modi even with regard to decisions relating to Gujarat, their home State. Mr. Rupani, like Mr. Shah, is more an organisation man with not much by way of administrative experience. A first-time member of the Assembly, he was pushed ahead of Nitin Patel, who will have to be content with being the Deputy Chief Minister despite coming from a dominant caste and laying claim to a wider political base. Clearly, Mr. Shah wanted the government helmed by someone he could count on to implement his ground-level political strategy. That Mr. Modi deferred to Mr. Shah in all of this was the real surprise. Anandiben Patel had been Mr. Modi’s choice to succeed him as Chief Minister; the fact that things did not turn out well for the BJP government in Gujarat under her must have compelled him to allow Mr. Shah a free hand.

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But the elevation of Mr. Rupani is much more than a personal triumph for Mr. Shah. The Patel agitation for reservation quotas had cut into the BJP’s vote bank, and the party leadership would not have thought it possible to win those voters back as a caste bloc with the Assembly elections due later next year. Having at the helm another Patel, chosen by the outgoing Ms. Patel, might not have seemed a smart move to either Mr. Modi or Mr. Shah. In any case, the BJP had built its support base in Gujarat by blurring the caste divides; therefore, appeasing specific caste groups would have been a zero-sum game. Mr. Rupani’s name would thus have suggested itself. But the party is still left with a huge mess to clean up. Despite her assertions to the contrary, Ms. Patel did not step down voluntarily. The circumstances and pressure from the Modi-Shah duo created a situation where she had no other option but to resign. The fact that she would turn 75 this year was no secret, and the sudden change could not have been a part of the original plan when Mr. Modi handed over the reins in 2014. The mishandling of the Patel agitation and the Dalit unrest by the Anandiben government had forced a Modi-Shah rethink of the arrangement in Gujarat. The hope is that a change at the top will work, but it is hard to believe that the BJP’s troubles in Gujarat will subside with a mere shuffle of the leadership pack.