When Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel decided to throw open the gates of the New Secretariat and Swarnim Sankul I and II to the public on September 21 after visitors were restricted in March 2020 due to the pandemic, he instructed ministers and senior officers to meet BJP’s MLAs and MPs and address the issues faced by party workers and the people two days a week. His government also rolled out an agenda for a massive outreach by the BJP to its core constituencies through the government machine.
With just about a year to go before Gujarat goes to polls, the Patel government faces an uphill task, having taken charge in the middle of devastation caused by a flood in Saurashtra amid the party’s waning popularity in its core constituency – the Patidars.
The government has also faced two major challenges in its first week in charge — the decision by Ford Motors to withdraw from India and shut its Sanand plant, and the huge haul of heroin seized from the Kutch and the Porbandar coasts.
The opposition has taken note of both issues — Independent MLA Jignesh Mevani, a fierce critic of BJP is backing the Ford employees who are to lose their jobs after the manufacturing plant closes down, while the Congress has attacked the government over the heroin haul.
In short, the two-day monsoon session of the House —the government’s first — which is scheduled to start September 27 is likely to be a stormy affair.
The Patel government’s key focuses seem to be the agrarian community, youths, Patidars and OBCs, and the new ministries have hit the ground running — usually, new ministers would immediately return to their electoral constituencies for receptions or felicitations, but this time, the newly-inducted ministers have got down straight to work.
The state government has managed to fully cover more than 1.75 core and partially cover over 4 crore of its eligible population with the Covid vaccine, as the number of daily Covid cases has been hovering around less than 30 – for the past one month. On Friday, the government further relaxed the Covid restrictions while also allowing holding garbas during Navratri, one of the most popular festivals of Gujarat – on the streets with a cap of 400 persons.
Education Minister Jitu Vaghani — himself a Patidar — has announced extending the beneficiary base of the Mukhyamantri Yuva Swavalambhan Yojana (MYSY), a scholarship scheme for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), which had been announced by the Anandiben Patel government in 2015, in a purported response to the Patidar agitation seeking OBC quota.
The ministry has also proposed to replace percentile with percentage and also relax the annual income cap of Rs 6 lakh. Last year, around 65,000 students benefitted from the scheme and the number is expected to increase this year due to mass promotion of Class 10 and 12 students.
Among the first decisions the government has taken was to increase the ex-gratia amount for the recent flood-affected people of Jamnagar, Junagadh and Rajkot districts under different heads, and Minister of State for Panchayats (Independent Charge) Brijesh Merja announcing hirings for 15,000 vacant posts in district and taluka panchayats, for which he set a six-month deadline.
With social media campaigns highlighting roads destroyed due to the rains, Minister for Roads & Buildings Purnesh Modi hit upon a novel way to connect to the people when he posted a phone number and an email id, where the public can send information about roads needing repairs in their areas and under jurisdiction of the state government.
The decisions clearly seem to be a conscious effort to change the sentiment within the ruling party organisation towards the government while also projecting its image as being ‘pro-people’.
On September 11, Vijay Rupani had abruptly resigned as Gujarat CM and the following day Patel was elected as the leader of BJP’s legislative party.
Immediately after being sworn in as chief minister on September 13, Patel oversaw the rescue and relief operations in flood-affected districts of Jamnagar, Junagadh and Rajkot while also visiting the region.
Days later, a brand new 24-member cabinet was sworn in — an experiment to contain anti-incumbency and to bring in fresh faces.
A senior leader of the BJP state unit said, “There can be one risk with new inexperienced ministry —the bureaucracy can turn powerful”.
In the first cabinet meeting on Wednesday , Patel issued several instructions that included mandatory presence of all the ministers and top officials in their offices on Mondays and Tuesdays to attend to the general public — including party workers — as well as MLAs and MPs.
“The message we got from the CM is clear. We have been elected as MLAs because of the party and we have to work for the party. Earlier, there were complaints of ministers not remaining present in their offices and not attending people’s and party workers’ grievances. That culture has been sought to be changed,” said a newly-appointed minister.
According to this minister, earlier some top officials “behaved autocratically” and MPs and MLAs had to seek appointments and “even had to wait outside their chambers before being allowed entry”. Patel has now instructed officials to attend to the MPs and MLAs on priority on Mondays and Tuesdays, when ministers will also have to stay in office to address issues, this minister added.
On Sunday, the government extended the term of former bureaucrat K Kailashnathan as the chief principal secretary to the CM — a post he has held since 2013, when Narendra Modi was the CM.
A BJP leader said, “Entry inside the New Secretariat, SS I and II, non-availability of ministers and top officials not meeting MLAs was one of the major areas of concern for the party. It is difficult to evaluate the government in its first week, but I can clearly see that the government is remedying those areas of concern.
“This was the reason why (during the tenure of Vijay Rupani government) party president C R Paatil had started the practice of having two ministers sit at party headquarters Shree Kamalam for two days every week to listen to the issues of the party workers. With this government and its current initiatives, I do not think that practice is required. Unlike the previous government, the equation between the party and the government is immensely amicable,” the leader said.
On the government’s performance in terms of governance and policy issues, the leader said, “That will be known only after the two-day Assembly session is over next week.”
Over the last week, Patel and the new ministers met many former ministers in Gujarat government to seek guidance.
Agriculture Minister Raghavji Patel, who visited the flood-affected areas twice, told The Indian Express, “My immediate priority is to see that standing crops damaged by the excessive rainfall are surveyed at the earliest and farmers are paid compensation. I am trying to ensure that the party and the government remain on the same page while making decisions. My predecessor R C Faldu and former minister Chiman Sapariya (who also hails from Jamnagar district) are respected seniors and I’ve the good fortune of getting their counsel in arriving at decisions.”
Minister of State for Transport, Civil Aviation, Tourism and Pilgrimage Development Arvind Raiyani said, “I am aware people back home are eager to welcome me but that will have to wait for some days. We have not made any policy decisions but are busy drawing up plans for the next 100 days. My top priority is to ensure timely completion of ongoing projects like construction of bus stations and depots of the Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation (GSRTC) and projects of yatradhams (places of pilgrimage).
“Secondly, we want the public transport services cover all the villages. We will realign and re-launch rural routes of GSRTC which had been cancelled for lack of passenger traffic… I have reached out to R C Faldu-saheb (the transport minister in Rupani government) in this respect,” he said.
Meanwhile, Minister of State for Kalpasar and Fisheries (Independent Charge), Narmada, Water Resources and Water Supply Jitu Chaudhari said, “We are at present going through the presentations of the works… We have to give priority to speed up the work left by the previous government. Those works which are in tendering process will be cleared speedily within the time frame.”
The 2000-odd Ford Motors workers at Sanand who stare at the prospect of joblessness could be an embarrassment for the Patel government. A state official said they are already talking to the workers’ unions that comprises of those who have been absorbed directly from state-run skill centres or Industrial Training Centres (ITIs).
“The BJP government has been trying to project a positive image of itself before the upcoming state assembly elections. Any mishandling of the Ford Motors worker’s problems can dent the state’s image as an employment destination,” the official said.
— With inputs from Gopal Kateshiya, Avinash Nair, Ritu Sharma and Kamaal Saiyed