A decision on who will be the next Gujarat Chief Minister is very much likely on Friday. Days after Anandiben Patel resigned from the post, the BJP, which has been ruling the state for the last two decades, is in a quandary. The party is on the back-foot after violent protests, first over the reservation quota for the Patidar community and then the recent flogging of a Dalit family by gau raksha activists.
BJP national chief Amit Shah, who is also an MLA from the Naranpura constituency in the state, is already in Ahmedabad where he is holding discussions with the state party leadership. But what is remarkable about the discussions is how caste has made a comeback into the party’s politics especially when it has to deliberate on the CM choice. Sheela Bhatt, in an incisive article in this newspaper, has written about how such caste calculations never seemed to be a factor when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state from 2001 to 2014. His politics was a “potent mix of Hindutva and development”, she writes. Although Modi’s OBC credentials were played to the gallery by the BJP during the 2014 elections and the Bihar elections last year, it was never a subject of discussion at least in Gujarat where he towered above the party.
Out of the three leaders who are said to be in the reckoning for the top post, Nitin Patel is said to have the most support, obviously thanks to his surname. The BJP is desperate to win back the support of the Patidar community who were loyal supporters of the party till the agitation last year. The disenchantment was evident in the local body elections when the BJP lost a considerable amount of support especially in north Gujarat’s rural areas where the party stood a good chance to win. In the House of 182, there are 44 Patel MLAs, 34 of them from the BJP.
Nitin Patel has been a senior minister in the state government and is said to have the support of both the Prime Minister and the party president. But there are also fears that his appointment may deepen the divide between the Patels and the non-Patels.
The fact that the party is taking its time to decide on the leadership reinforces how crucial a role the caste is playing on the mind of the BJP.