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Why choosing chief ministers for Gujarat and Himachal is BJP's new headache

Modi and Amit Shah have to pick leaders who will lead the party into the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, help retain the 2014 footprint and ensure wins in 2022.

 |  8-minute read |   21-12-2017
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The BJP improved its national footprint by winning Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assemblies. Till the morning of December 18 it seemed certain that if the BJP won the two states Vinay Rupani will return as chief minister of Gujarat and Prem Kumar Dhumal, anointed chief ministerial pick during the campaign, will head the government in Himachal.

However, due to varying reasons, the verdict has upset BJP's plans. The party won Himachal Pradesh but Dhumal lost the election. Now, the BJP has to find a replacement. A narrower than expected victory margin, setbacks in regions such as Saurashtra and the need to balance caste aspirations demand that the BJP reconsiders the decision of Rupani returning as Gujarat chief minister.

The BJP has to carefully pick leaders who as chief ministers will lead the party into the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, help retain the 2014 footprint and ensure wins in 2022.

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Alerted by the Gujarat experience, the party bosses don't want to start the five-year term of the governments in the two states by triggering displeasure among any section.

During the Gujarat campaign, BJP president Amit Shah had made it visibly clear that Vijay Rupani, the incumbent Gujarat chief minister, will get the chair once again. In fact, Rupani displayed this "assurance" in a leaked video recording during the campaign. He was heard pleading to some independent candidates, who had filed nominations from Rajkot, to back down and not jeopardise his case as he was the "lone CM from the Jain community". He faced a formidable Congress opponent in Rajkot - the richest of all in Gujarat. While pollsters said Rupani faced a tough battle, the sitting CM not only won with a morale-enhancing margin of 55,000 votes but also under his watch, the BJP won each of the four seats in Rajkot city and six out of eight in the district.

Right after results were out, Rupani addressed a press conference thanking the voters like a man on the verge of returning to the captain's cabin. On December 18, after the celebrations at the BJP headquarters, the party parliamentary board - which decides all top matters - held a long meeting, analysing poll results in the two states but didn't decide on who will be the CM. It could have simply decided and announced Rupani will continue. Instead the decision was left pending and a team of central observers led by finance minister Arun Jaitley was asked to visit the state capital to feel the pulse by meeting elected MLAs and state leaders.

Within 24 hours, speculation on Rupani's exit from the CM's office and entry of someone who is "more aggressive" with a greater mass following and "strong RSS past" replacing him started doing the rounds.

The rumour mill churned out names. The first on the list was minister for information and broadcasting and Rajya Sabha MP Smriti Irani. The minister rubbished the "buzz" instantly.

On Wednesday morning (December 20), the name of Parshottam Rupala gained momentum. Rupala is a minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet and a Karva Patel by caste. There is logic backing the speculation about Rupala replacing Rupani. The BJP sees 24-year-old Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel as a pivot for political challengers to the BJP as he has managed to stroke quota fires among the powerful Patidars in the state and has become immensely popular among the youth. Since Hardik is a Karva Patel, a section in the BJP feels that Rupala, a fiery orator with mass appeal, could tame the rising star's political fire. But insiders say that Rupala may not be Prime Minister Modi's first choice.

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By Wednesday evening, another name entered the scene. Mansukhbhai Mandaviya, another minister in the Modi council. He is a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat and is known more for using a bicycle to reach Parliament before he was inducted as a minister. If Patidars are 15 per cent of Gujarat voters, Leuva Patels are over half of the Patidars. If the Karvas, driven by Hardik, went against the BJP or the Nota button on the EVM machines, the Leuvas, the BJP knows, stayed with it. Mandaviya born in a farmer's family is a trained vet. He became a MLA in 2002 at the age of 28, the youngest legislator ever in Gujarat. In 2005, he organised a 123-km long padyatra for girl education in 45 educationally backward villages of Palitana. In 2007, he organised his second yatra for the beti bachao campaign covering 52 villages. Both the campaigns are now key mantras for the Modi government.

The terms of Rupala and Mandaviya in Rajya Sabha end in February 2018.

But a lot is still going in Rupani's favour. He was made chief minister after the Patidar tumult in Gujarat against the Anandiben government. Shah was gunning for her and Rupani's non-controversial past helped him since he belonged to the Jain caste considered "neutral". The BJP picked him at the height of the Patidar agitation to replace Anandiben, another Patidar leader. Though Rupani with his accessible and soft-spoken nature managed to calm tempers in the state, he was no Narendra Modi. Policy implementation, administrative controls and the grip over the bureaucracy weakened. The payments to cotton and groundnut farmers faltered creating deep unrest in the rural belts, where the BJP has taken a severe beating in the polls.

The question here is will PM Modi and BJP president Amit Shah replace Rupani?

Logically, it's the best and perhaps the only time to make the switch. With Amit Shah guiding the exercise, the top leader's choice can be dressed as the choice of newly elected MLAs. The BJP can balance the caste equations and get a strong organisational man to lead Gujarat.

But there is a catch. Replacing Rupani will virtually mean admitting that his tenure as chief minister had faults and the BJP's tally of 99 reflects a "failure" since Rupani was always considered the face with Modi-Shah duo doing macro-management. Removing Rupani thus may dilute the BJP's win and arm the Opposition which is targeting the prime minster.

The BJP benefitted from Hardik Patel's agitation for quota for Patidars as several OBC castles at the receiving end of social aggression of Patidars counter polarised and voted for the BJP. Appointing a Patidar can cause heartburn in this new catchment zone for the BJP.

The Modi-Shah duo knows that things have changed in Gujarat. In the absence of a communal polarisation, the caste element has got magnified. Many segments of the population like traders, youths, farmers and women have indicated that the BJP is no more the most preferred party for them. The party needs someone who can execute policies, strengthen administration, keep caste groups engaged and whose presence causes no major upsets. It's a tough balancing act. Rupani may survive if the negatives of change outweigh the benefits. The choice has to fit all existing political criteria as the BJP would like to retain its 2014 sweep of 26/26 seats in the next Lok Sabha polls.

Himachal may be a smaller than Gujarat but the BJP has to make a big choice. In a way the defeat of Dhumal, the two-time chief minister of the state, has offered the BJP an opportunity to bring in a new younger leader. Dhumal is 73 years old and in 2022 the party rule of not picking people above 75 for crucial posts will disqualify him. Interestingly, the BJP's task has been made easier by the fact that three more contenders for the CM's post - Gulab Singh Thakur, Maheshwar Singh and Satpal Satti - too lost the election. This has opened the field for the BJP top brass to make a well weighed choice.

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In this situation there are two names being cited as "favourites"- health minister JP Nadda and five-time Mandi MLA Jairam Thakur. Nadda is seen as Modi-Shah's go to man when it comes to special political assignments and has long experience of working in Himachal. But Dhumal and Nadda have been two power centres in the state and the friction between them has been intense. Sending Nadda from the health ministry to the Himachal CM's office will not go down well with Dhumal. He led the campaign. But his rival benefiting because he lost will be the proverbial salt on his political wounds. Also to accommodate Nadda, the BJP would have to ask one of its elected MLAs to quit and make way for his entry in the Assembly.

Then there are caste equations to be taken care of. To counter Vir Bhadra Singh, a Thakur, the BJP picked Dhumal. Himachal Pradesh doesn't have multiple layers of caste such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Here Thakurs are most dominant constituting 35 per cent of the population followed by Brahmins in terms of influence. The move to project Dhumal worked but his electoral loss has upset the plans. Since Nadda is a Brahmin, his elevation may displease the Thakur voters. This tips the scales in Jairam Thakur's favour.

Still sources say it's not a done deal yet as the choices cannot be viewed in black-and-white. In the past, facing caste conflict the Modi-Shah duo has opted for someone from the "non-dominant castes". This was seen in Gujarat when Anandiben Patel quit and Rupani a "caste neutral" leader was handpicked. Similarly, in Haryana dominated by Jats and Brahmins, Manohar Lal Khattar, a Khatri, was sent to the CM's office. The decisions kept caste tempers calm but the choices didn't really turn match winners.

With a clear verdict in two states, the governors aren't in a hurry so the BJP can take its own time to decide the "who next" in a couple of days. But it needs to decide well as a lot of future will depend on what the BJP does in the next 48 hours.

Also read: How Jayalalithaa hospital video will impact RK Nagar by-poll

Assembly Elections 2018
Assembly Elections 2018

Writer

Rahul Shrivastava Rahul Shrivastava @rahulshrivstv ‏

The writer is national affairs editor, India Today TV.

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