Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah would have been the new Gujarat Chief Minister had it not been for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which opted for his protégé Vijay Rupani instead. In the RSS view, it was not possible to send Shah to the state as he has been helping the Bharaitya Janata Party prepare for the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa early next year. The Gujarat elections would be towards the end of 2017 and if any need is felt to send Shah there, a review of Friday’s decision could be taken at an appropriate time.
Sources said that Shah was the preferred choice of the party workers in the state, as he is seen as a worthy successor to Narendra Modi in Gujarat. He knows all the regions extremely well and has a very wide acceptability. He is also considered to be the only man who can help steer the party to victory in the Assembly elections due to both his proximity to the Prime Minister as well as his extensive understanding of the ground situation. Initially, Shah himself was inclined to go back to his home turf, but Modi and the RSS thought that his utility in the national capital was more at this point of time.
The outgoing Chief Minister, Anandiben Patel was keen that a nominee from her community should succeed her, given the gravity of the Patidar agitation, which is seeking to alienate the powerful Patels from the BJP. She was batting for Nitin Patel, the senior most minister in her Cabinet who belongs to Mehsana in North Gujarat, which is the epicentre of the Patidar uprising. However, the RSS and Modi had made up their mind that they would not wilt under any pressure and gave Shah and Nitin Gadkari (who was an observer) the go ahead to choose the right kind of candidate.
Sources said that Shah wanted Rupani, who is very close to him and like him is also from the Bania community. When the BJP president was going through hard times in the wake of the Sohrabuddin encounter case, he would often be Rupani’s guest in New Delhi. The CM designate was at that time a Rajya Sabha member. However, the RSS’ reason for choosing Rupani was that he belonged to Saurashtra region, which has not been as affected by the Patidar protests as other parts of the state. The idea was to consolidate the BJP position in one area before looking at others. The thinking within the RSS was that in addition to Nitin Patel, there was a scope to have another Deputy Chief Minister from the tribal region. Evidently, this has not happened, because it would have minimised the political advantage the BJP wished to derive from making Nitin Patel the deputy of Rupani. Giving a contrary view, Gujarat BJP sources said that Nitin Patel was a lightweight and belonged to the Kadva Patel sub-caste, while the majority of Patels like former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel are from the dominant Leuva Patel sub-caste. He would have had a negligible influence over his own community and its future attitude towards the BJP.
Rupani was also chosen as he enjoys extremely cordial relations with all prominent leaders of the state. He has the knack of carrying the workers together with him and has supporters also in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which had a troubled relationship with Modi during his tenure as Chief Minister. In fact, after he was appointed the president of the Gujarat unit of the BJP, Rupani made it a point to visit the VHP office in Ahmedabad to reach out to senior leaders. He has acceptance, though not the experience and may need Shah to be on his side constantly to take crucial decisions.
Rupani is flexible and believes in taking everyone along, unlike his predecessor Anandiben Patel and his new Deputy CM Nitin Patel. Nitin Patel is known for his temper and reluctance at adopting a conciliatory approach. Rupani was the only minister in the Anandiben Patel Cabinet who was jailed during Emergency. A hardcore RSS worker, Rupani has risen from the grassroots and was first elected to the Rajkot municipal corporation in 1987. At the time, he used to travel extensively on his Vijay scooter. Subsequently, he served as the mayor.
A law graduate from Saurashtra University, Rupani was a favourite of Keshubhai Patel. Keshubhai, who is also from Rajkot, had made Rupani chairman of the election manifesto committee of the BJP. During the Vivekanand Yuva Vikas Yatra in 2012 to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech in Chicago 150 years ago, Rupani was handpicked by Modi to oversee all the arrangements.
Going by the caste factor, Rupani belongs to a community which has barely 1% presence. In political circles, his selection is being likened to that of K. Rosiah by the Congress in Andhra Pradesh following Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s untimely demise in a helicopter crash in 2009. Rosiah too was a Bania who have less than 1% vote share in that state.
The RSS and the BJP are banking on Modi to help in the state polls as it would be very crucial for the party to retain Gujarat ahead of the 2019 Parliamentary elections. However, there is a section in the party which feels that Rupani is a proxy for Shah and would eventually clear the way for him to be the CM at a politically apt time.
BJP’s detractors are viewing the developments very closely and believe that if the Patidars join hands with the Aam Aadmi Party in the state during the run up to the elections, the Sangh Parivar would face a massive challenge. The possibility of a Patidar-AAP tie-up could be also a worrying feature for the Congress, which would be relegated to the third place if such an eventuality arises. Some in the Sangh feel that the rise of AAP would also contribute to the Prime Minister’s overall vision of a Congress free India.
The coming few months would determine how the new Chief Minister renews the pledge of the party to give good governance, which was Modi’s USP when he was at the helm of affairs in the state. Rupani would, therefore, be expected to placate the Patels, soften the Dalits and carry the tribals and the OBCs with him. The RSS concern is that its political laboratory in Gujarat, which had brought the BJP to power first in the state and subsequently at the national level, should remain intact. Rupani’s selection is in line with the BJP’s recent decisions where they preferred to make a Punjabi as the CM in a Jat dominated Haryana, a Brahmin in the Maratha stronghold of Maharashtra and a non tribal in Jharkhand. Whether the formula works in the Patel bastion of Gujarat is a question which would be answered in next year’s Gujarat Assembly elections.
With inputs from Abhinandan Mishra