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Covid handling, AAP challenge — what led to Rupani’s exit & who could be next Gujarat CM

BJP's lack of confidence in Rupani delivering Gujarat in next state polls speculated to be reason behind his resignation. Union minister Mansukh Mandaviya a strong contender for CM.

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New Delhi: After Karnataka and Uttarakhand, the BJP high command made changes in a third state — Gujarat — where Chief Minister Vijay Rupani made a surprise announcement of his resignation Saturday.

Sources in the BJP told ThePrint that it was only a matter of time since the party high command was not confident in Rupani’s leadership, especially after the recent civic polls held this February. Though the party won, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed to gain a foothold. Among other factors, the ruling BJP’s Covid mismanagement is seen as one of the factors that didn’t work in its favour.

Several internal polls and an assessment by C.R. Patil, state BJP president, Lok Sabha MP and PM confidant, indicated that under Rupani’s leadership, the BJP was unlikely to win the next assembly election.

The home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gujarat goes to polls late next year.

Sources now say Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying Minister Parshottam Rupala, Gujarat deputy CM Nitin Patel, Lakshadweep administrator Praful Patel and BJP’s UP co-in-charge Gordhanbhai Zadafia are among the strong contenders to succeed Rupani.

Before Rupani announced his resignation, the BJP had sent national general secretary B.L. Santhosh and Gujarat in-charge Bhupendra Yadav to implement a smooth transition of power, according to sources. A meeting of MLAs has been called for Saturday night to take stock of the situation and elect a new leader as the chief minister.

Gujarat is a crucial state for the party and is known as the ‘Prayogshala (laboratory) of Hindutva’.

Also read: 54 Gujarat municipalities had 16,000 excess deaths during pandemic, US scientists report

The ‘failed Rupani experiment’

Speaking to the media after submitting his letter of resignation to the governor, Rupani did not mention what was behind his sudden decision but did hint that this was part of the BJP’s tendency to change leadership.

“I want to thank BJP for giving me this opportunity to serve as Gujarat chief minister. During my tenure, I got the opportunity to add to the development of the state under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership … Now, to further develop the state with new energy and power, I have decided to resign as chief minister. It is well known that BJP as a party keeps changing (leadership) as per requirement. It is speciality of our party that every worker delivers his assigned job to work for the party with same energy,” he said.

However, what really seems to have led to Rupani’s ouster may have more to do with his governance.

A senior party leader, seeking anonymity, said, “Covid fallout was one of the reasons, but it was not the entire reason of his (Rupani’s) fallout with the high command. Covid exposed his lack of experience and his political leadership. It only aggravated his fallout with the prime minister and his departure.”

Noting that even the high court had repeatedly criticised the state’s handling of the pandemic, the leader added, “His political leadership was questioned several times by the PM’s confidant and state BJP chief C.R. Patil, who was sent to head organisation to correct past mistakes.”

Patil took charge in 2020, replacing Jitu Vaghani, a Patidar leader from the Saurashtra region and protege of Home Minister Amit Shah, to make the Gujarat unit aggressive and robust, the leader further said.

“But when Surat was dented in the local body poll where AAP came in opposition, he (Patil) remarked, ‘our crown has been lost’,” the leader said.

Following a change in guard at the organisational level in 2020, the BJP won all eight bypolls after assembly seats became vacant due to Congress legislators crossing over to the BJP. The party also won the municipal and panchayat elections this year.

These victories though, the another BJP leader said, were not attributed to Rupani’s leadership but to the appeal of PM Modi. “An internal assessment was made (and it found that) BJP won the local body polls not due to his (Rupani’s) leadership but due to Modi’s leadership, and he (Rupani) is not adding new experience to administration. In fact, fatigue was felt, which was reflected in the Covid management.”

Another BJP leader said, “Last time, Nitin Patel (deputy CM) was not given chief ministership post despite being a Patidar when Anandiben Patel (former CM) was removed after the Patidar protest. Amit Shah came to Ahmedabad to compel him (Patel) to join the Rupani cabinet since Gujarat is the home state of PM, who made Rupani CM (since he is) Jain by caste, to neutralise the caste equation. The BJP high command realised that the Rupani experiment will not work and they need a face who can galvanise the cadre and administration with new ideas.”

The BJP won Gujarat in 2017 with a thin margin; it secured 99 seats while the Congress 77 in the 182-seat assembly. This was an all-time for the BJP, which weathered a Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel to come to power. The agitation eroded the BJP’s Patidar support base in the Saurashtra region.

Further, the shift in Patidar support to AAP in Surat during the civic polls, has also alarmed the high command.

However, it was the Covid waves, especially the second one that occurred in April-May this year, that was the real test of Rupani’s administrative skill, one which the party now deems he’s failed miserably.

Also read: UP, MP, Goa, Uttarakhand — BJP’s command-and-control is malfunctioning

Next CM contenders

The Covid crisis had caused a shake up in the top tier of the government itself, with Mandaviya taking over the health portfolio from Harshvarshan in a major cabinet reshuffle two month ago.

The Centre had been facing criticism for its handling of the pandemic and the second wave.

BJP sources now say that Mandaviya is perhaps the strongest contender for the chief ministership as someone with administrative experience. However, since he just took on a major cabinet portfolio, it remains to be seen if the party high command will decide to change things up again and move him to Gujarat.

Deputy CM Patel is another choice. A Patidar by caste and among the senior most party leaders in the state, he stands a good chance too.

Meanwhile, Patil, who is the state unit chief, is unlikely to be asked to take over. This even though he is considered close to Modi and was the backroom manager for the PM’s constituency of Varanasi.

Rupala and Zadafia, the Gujarat BJP vice-president and former stater home minister, are also contenders. However, the PM, known to make surprise choices, could also pick Praful Patel.

A senior state BJP leader said the decision will depend on how the high command sees the overall picture. “If they are seeing caste equation and making a change for the future, the Centre’s risk appetite for 2024 (general) election and how crucial administrative experience will be besides caste — these factors will be significant.”

If caste factor is a high priority, a Patidar has a good chance at becoming CM, the leader added.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: In 10 days, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya shows how he’s different from Harsh Vardhan


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