As expected, the BJP has sprung the unexpected. Gujarat’s new chief minister Bhupendra Patel is a quiet man known for his administrative sharpness, clean image, and perfect Hindutva credentials.
He is from the kadva patidar community, one that has been at the forefront of agitations through the last five to seven years. Patel represents Ghatlodia constituency that he won by a margin of 117,000 votes in the 2017 elections, and his elevation is expected to recover the ground the party lost in Ahmedabad and Surat in the last elections.
Patel is now at the wheel of India’s foremost developed state and the BJP’s traditional Hindutva laboratory. In the backdrop looms the legacy of one Narendra Damodardas Modi.
But more importantly, Patel comes to power in an era in the BJP in which no state head can take power for granted.
With the resignation of Patel’s predecessor Vijay Rupani, the BJP has changed five chief ministers in about six months.
It started with then Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal being replaced by Himanta Biswa Sarma right despite an imposing Assembly election victory in Assam. It was followed by a near-comical musical chair in Uttarakhand which saw Trivendra Singh being supplanted by Tirath Singh Rawat, who was quickly replaced by Pushkar Singh Dhami. And then, BS Yediyurappa made way for his close aide Basavaraj Bommai.
It is not usual for the BJP to change chief ministers at such a frenetic pace. Or the BJP as one knew it.
A number of BJP chief ministers served their states for over a decade: Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Yediyurappa, and most notably, Narendra Modi himself. Rotational CM-ship used to be scoffed at in the Sangh Parivar. The RSS had, for instance, expressed displeasure at Uma Bharti being dropped as Madhya Pradesh chief minister and Chouhan brought in. Panchajanya editorial writers must have eventually taken their words back.
There can be strong arguments for and against frequent changes in state leadership by the BJP.
It could indicate the growing centralisation of power in the party; a kind of “high-command culture” it has always lampooned the Congress for. It may convey to state leaders the terse message, ‘If we can make you, we can break you.’
The problem is, it could make the soil fertile in the states for political dwarves. The Congress is again a fit case study for this. Two of the biggest mass leaders it has produced — Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee — had to leave and form their own parties.
A centralised hire-and-fire culture discourages confident decision-making in the states and could spawn spinelessness and sycophancy. Often, the incumbents spend their time double-guessing what Modi or Amit Shah would expect from them, or fail to act thinking that their action may displease the top leadership.
But there are several bright sides to making decisive changes.
By replacing an underachiever with a better candidate quickly, one limits political damage. A fresh face before the elections often helps offset anti-incumbency and rejuvenates the cadre. Such changes also keep pulling the party up from the morass of status quo and stagnation.
Most importantly, it rewards the doer over the survivor. This new BJP suffers no survivors. Rupani had survived a near-electoral defeat in 2017 and constant resentment within his government, but could not survive mishandling COVID.
The BJP may have made up its mind to groom high-performing mass leaders of the future instead of survivors. In trying new faces, it seems to be focused on building a generation of political successors who can take over after a period of astonishing growth the party has seen under Modi and Shah.
Yogi Adityanath right now stands a fair bit above others in that department. Himanta is a star to watch. Suvendu Adhikari, who defeated Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee despite the party’s loss in Bengal and is now leading a turnaround in the face of brutal reprisals, is another man to watch from the states.
Only the future will tell if 59-year-old Patel goes on to join that club of future stars. Right now, he has the confidence of the man that matters. But there is a bigger trust to be gained. That of the people of Gujarat, and of India.