Ahmedabad: In appointing Anandiben Patel’s protégé Bhupendra Patel as the chief minister of Gujarat, the BJP seems to be correcting its 2016 mistake of ignoring the dominant Patidar caste for the chair.
Bhupendra Patel, a low-profile first-time MLA, was chosen to lead the state Sunday, with just over a year to go before the assembly elections in Gujarat. Vijay Rupani, who resigned as CM a day earlier, proposed Patel’s name in the presence of central observers and Union ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Pralhad Joshi. Tomar made the eventual announcement.
Patel is the MLA from Ghatlodiya constituency, which former CM and current Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel represented from 2012 to 2017. Bhupendra Patel has served as the chairman of the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA).
The announcement was preceded by hectic political activity, which began Saturday night as senior BJP leaders Bhupender Yadav — the Union minister for environment, forest and climate change — and general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh held several meetings with MLAs to build consensus. Tomar, who was in Srinagar, and Pralhad Joshi, who was in Hubballi, were asked by party chief J.P. Nadda to rush to Ahmedabad to oversee the legislature party meeting.
Sunday morning, Yadav and Santhosh met with C.R. Patil to brainstorm on names, and finally, the central BJP high command gave its go-ahead on Bhupendra Patel’s name at around 2 pm.
Why he was chosen
Bhupendra Patel came into PM Narendra Modi’s good books when the latter was chief minister of Gujarat, and Patel took over as chairman of the standing committee of AUDA. He implemented the then-CM’s vision of development of Ahmedabad by constructing bridges, redeveloping and beautifying the city. Patel, an engineer, worked under Anandiben Patel’s guidance when she was CM, and once she was appointed governor, she recommended his name to fight from the Ghatlodiya seat she had held. Bhupendra Patel beat Congress’ Shaktikant Patel by over one lakh votes in the 2017 assembly polls.
More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic when the entire Rupani government was blamed for its mishandling of healthcare, Patel helped people by arranging oxygen cylinders and beds in hospital.
A senior BJP leader told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity that Patel’s down-to-earth image and earlier work certainly went in his favour. “Since the party had to choose someone from the Patidar community, his ability to perform without any hang-ups of being a big leader, and skill of working with everyone were plus-points,” the leader said.
A Gujarat BJP leader, meanwhile, said this decision came from the PM after Amit Shah’s protégé Rupani “messed up” Gujarat politics in the last five years.
“The prime minister trusted Anandiben Patel’s advice in selecting Bhupendra Patel. If Anandiben had not convinced the PM, Nitin Patel or someone else would’ve been CM. The PM still holds Anandiben in high regard, but it’s a stop-gap arrangement till the elections. After the elections, Mansukhbhai Mandaviya (current Union minister) will be the CM,” the second leader said.
A third BJP leader said by choosing a Patidar as CM, “PM Modi has ensured that Hardik Patel (of the Congress) and the Aam Aadmi Party will not get the backing of the community”, and that “the BJP will form the next government with a huge majority”.
The Patidar factor
Patidars, or Patels, are the most influential community in Gujarat, economically and politically. They make up 12 to 14 per cent of the population, but every third MLA in the state is a Patidar. The community has influence on 70 to 90 assembly seats out of the state’s 182.
Before 1995, Congress’ Madhav Singh Solanki managed to rule Gujarat without Patidars’ support by creating a KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) vote bank. But the BJP rode their support to power in 1995, and kept it through Narendra Modi’s long stint as CM. But in 2015, when the Patidar agitation for reservation started, it changed the dynamic.
The first sign of their resentment towards the BJP came in local body polls in November 2015 — the ruling party didn’t win a single tehsil panchayat in eight districts. The party had won 269 out of 323 local self-government bodies, but in 2015, the number came down to 125. This eventually led to Anandiben Patel losing the CM’s chair, echoing how Keshubhai Patel had been removed for mishandling the aftermath of the devastating Kutch earthquake in 2001 and a by-election defeat. Then-PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent Narendra Modi to try and keep the party in power in the assembly elections due next year.
To assuage the Patidars when Anandiben was removed, the BJP brought in Vijay Rupani, a Jain, for caste-neutrality. And he kept the state in the BJP’s kitty in the 2017 assembly elections, albeit thanks to a rigorous campaign by PM Modi.
But the numbers told a story — the Congress, supported by the Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel, achieved its best performance in three decades by winning 77 seats, while the BJP got 99, enough for a majority but the worst since 1995. The fact that the Congress won 54 seats in Saurashtra, a Patidar stronghold, was a clear indication of the community’s departure from the BJP. According to CSDS data, the BJP’s support among the two Patidar sub-castes Kadva and Leuva fell to 51 per cent and 68 per cent respectively from 78 per cent and 63 per cent in 2012. Meanwhile, the Congress got 27 per cent of Kadva and 46 per cent of Leuva Patel votes, up from 9 per cent and 15 per cent in 2012.
To balance the caste equations, PM Modi inducted Parshottam Rupala and Mansukh Mandaviya into his cabinet in July this year, but the party felt it was not enough to bring back the Patels, now that Hardik Patel is the working president of the Gujarat Congress and the AAP has made inroads by winning 27 seats in the Surat local body polls in February this year.
The failure of Vijay Rupani’s government in handling the pandemic and a sluggish economy was another threat to the BJP’s fortunes in the 2022 elections, so getting the Patels back on board was an important step the party high command felt it needed to take.
Since the failure of its experiment in Jharkhand, where the BJP ignored the dominant tribal community to make OBC leader Raghubar Das the CM and lost the next election in 2019, the party has been paying more heed to dominant communities in its choice of CMs. It did the same by appointing Basavaraj Bommai, a Lingayat and Yediyurappa protégé, to replace him as CM in Karnataka, despite several murmurs about appointing a Brahmin or a Vokkaliga.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)