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8 of 20 CMs picked by Modi-Shah had to vacate seat. But it’s not a bad strategy

Vijay Rupani, Rawat, Yediyurappa told to go. It’s not about Modi-Shah’s talent-spotting skills.

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In the first week of August 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s parliamentary board was meeting at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Race Course Road residence in Delhi to select the new Gujarat chief minister who would succeed Anandiben Patel. There was a lot of speculation about then party president, Amit Shah, being interested in the job in Ahmedabad. At the very beginning of the parliamentary board meeting, Modi told his senior party colleagues to consider all names, “except Amit”.

They finally agreed on Vijay Rupani’s name. He was a Shah protégé. Two days later, when senior BJP leaders met in Ahmedabad ahead of the meeting of the legislature party to formally elect their leader, there was a showdown between Amit Shah and Anandiben Patel. The Hindu reported then that Anandiben “almost broke down”, alleging that the Patidar agitation had been “internally engineered” to dislodge her. Shah retorted that he had “no role to play” in it, but he would now decide her successor.

Some would see it as poetic justice when, on Sunday, Anandiben Patel’s protégé, Bhupendra Patel, replaced Rupani, Shah’s protégé, as the CM.

Bhupendra Patel will be the 20th BJP CM to take oath under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s watch since 2014. Eight of these 20 had to vacate the CM’s chair, most of them under compulsion. In the past six months, Rupani was the fourth BJP CM to resign—fifth if one includes former Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal who had to make way for Himanta Biswa Sarma. The others included B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka and Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat of Uttarakhand.

On the face of it, dislodging of 40 per cent of the CMs — 8 out of 20 — picked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah seems to put a question mark on their ability to spot talent. This record may get only worse. Of the seven states that will go to polls in 2022, six have BJP CMs hand-picked by the duo. Going ahead, there is also a question mark on Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar. He has crossed 67 and seems to be at his wit’s end when it comes to dealing with the farmers’ agitation. Modi and Shah may be inclined to look for a new face, instead of going to 2024 assembly polls with a septuagenarian as the party’s face.

No wonder, questions are being raised about the way the two of them have been picking and dropping party CMs. Many commentators are pointing out the emergence of high command-ist culture in the BJP. After all, what’s Rupani’s fault? If PM Modi gives Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath a certificate of excellence in Covid-19 management, why blame the Gujarat CM? Gujarat wasn’t the only BJP-ruled state where courts passed strictures against the government.

Also read: My removal as Uttarakhand CM not the right decision, was untimely, Trivendra Rawat says

Bad strategy? Not really

Gujarat chief ministers have been largely titular since May 2014 when Modi shifted to the Centre. K. Kailashnathan, Modi’s confidante in Gujarat CMO who has got six extensions since 2014, ran the administration in consultation with Delhi. Are the CMs being made scapegoats in the BJP’s larger strategy of beating anti-incumbency? Anandiben Patel was ousted 16 months before the 2017 Gujarat assembly election; her successor, Rupani, 15 months before the 2022 polls; Trivendra Singh Rawat a year before the Uttarakhand election; and his successor, Tirath Singh, six-seven months before that. There are questions galore about the BJP high command Congressifying what was once a party with a difference.

Installing CMs with little administrative or legislative experience suggests over-confidence, if not conceit. Bhupendra Patel will be the third first-term MLA— apart from Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar and Tripura’s Biplab Deb—to be installed as chief minister. Rupani was also a first-term MLA when he became the CM but he had had a stint in the Rajya Sabha. Similarly, Adityanath was a five-term Lok Sabha member, but was never an MLA. Eight out of the 20 CMs Modi and Shah have installed since 2014 had no administrative experience in the state or the Central government — the above-mentioned three, Adityanath, Trivendra Rawat, Devendra Fadnavis (Maharashtra), Pramod Sawant (Goa), and Pushkar Dhami (Uttarakhand).

But, having said that, one can’t discount the success of Modi-Shah’s experiments in states, so far. Look at the larger picture. Of the 20 CMs, they picked, six led the BJP in elections­ — Gujarat’s Rupani in 2017, Maharashtra’s Fadnavis, Haryana’s Khattar, Arunachal’s Pema Khandu and Jharkhand’s Raghubar Das in 2019, and Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal in 2021. Of these six, only two lost — Fadnavis and Das. One may argue whether there is a case to replace Fadnavis with Khattar in the losers’ club. In Maharashtra, Fadnavis-led BJP won 105 of the 150 seats the party contested but it ended up on the opposition benches, thanks to Shiv Sena’s political somersault. In Haryana, Khattar-led BJP couldn’t get a majority and is now at Dushyant Chautala’s mercy to retain power. Be that as it may, Raghubar Das was arguably the only failed experiment. Look at the overall strike rate. Can we really find fault with the duo’s choices of CMs going by their electoral performance? Probably, no. They have forced five CMs to quit — excluding Sonowal — but what matters in politics is the electoral outcome. Their strategy of dropping Anandiben Patel worked in Gujarat in 2017. One must wait to see how it works out in Uttarakhand and Gujarat next year and in Karnataka later. As for Sonowal being forced to step aside, can you make an argument against Himanta Biswa Sarma’s elevation? It was well-deserved.

As for installing CMs who have had no administrative experience, only Fadnavis has gone through the electoral test and he didn’t fare badly in elections. One might have issues about the way such CMs are running their administration, but were or are those with experience doing any better? Haven’t we seen how Adityanath has become the role model for even veteran CMs?

Also read: Bypassed for Gujarat CM chair, Nitin Patel says live in ‘voters’ hearts’, can’t be thrown out

Promoting a new generation

Look at the positives for the BJP. Modi and Shah are promoting a younger generation of leaders. An age-wise break-up of the 20 CMs they installed reads like this:

30-40 years — 1 (Khandu, 37)
40-50 years — 5 (Fadnavis, Pramod Sawant, Adityanath, Dhami and Biplab)
50-60 years —10 (Bhupendra Patel, Sarma, Jairam Thakur, N. Biren Singh, Tirat Rawat, Trivendra Rawat, Sonowal, Das, Rupani, Khattar)
60-70 years — 4 (Anandiben, Yediyurappa, Shivraj Chouhan, Basavaraj Bommai).

This data is based on the leaders’ age when they were first appointed CMs by Modi and Shah; it doesn’t reflect their current age.

Let’s condense the same data to see what age groups of BJP leaders draw Modi-Shah’s attention when they look for chief ministerial candidates. Going by their selection of 20 CMs, there are three favourite groups: Six each in 53-56 years’ and 59-61 years’ brackets and five in 44-46 years’ bracket. Adityanath and Fadnavis were 44 when Modi and Shah picked them as CM, while Sawant and Dhami were 45, and Biplab Deb 46. Himanta Biswa Sarma and Jairam Thakur were 52 years old, Sonowal 53 and Trivendra, Tirath Singh and Biren Singh 56. There is always some scope for hair-splitting. One may argue that Modi-Shah had little choice in Manipur because Biren Singh had switched his loyalty from the Congress to the saffron party before the election and was their only hope in the north-eastern state for the party’s expansion. The same argument can be made about Pema Khandu, too, because he, along with over three-dozen MLAs, joined the BJP to make it the ruling party in Arunachal Pradesh overnight. The six leaders in the 59-61 years’ bracket included Bhupendra, Chouhan, Rupani, Das, Khattar, and Bommai.

These examples show how Modi and Shah have been promoting a new generation of leaders in states. How many of them match up to their expectations is anybody’s guess. But they are trying, at least. Dropping of five CMs has another underlying message: That Modi-bhakti isn’t good enough for CMs’ tenure security. If Amit Shah-commissioned internal surveys show certain CMs are becoming a liability, they can’t hold it against the BJP high command.

As it is, Modi-Shah’s experiments in states seem to be working so far, but the last word on it is yet to come. Next year’s assembly elections are a big test.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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