Updated: September 13, 2021 10:52:43 am
The BJP has replaced yet another one of its chief ministers — the third in two months — before the end of his tenure, for reasons that are not officially stated but ostensibly have to do with balancing caste equations and containing anti-incumbency. The party has chosen Bhupendra Patel, a low-profile legislator with no previous experience in government, as the new Gujarat CM, seemingly in a bid to assuage the politically powerful Patel community ahead of assembly polls in 2022. Vijay Rupani’s poor record in Covid management — the Gujarat High Court had censured the government’s functioning — and his inability to win over powerful social groups, may have gone against him. But his exit, in circumstances that are strikingly similar to his elevation to chief ministerial office in 2016, speaks of a larger trend in the BJP.
Political parties are prone to replacing MLAs in elections to dent anti-incumbency, but a change at the top is usually made when there is a threat of revolt by legislators. However, the BJP has visibly downsized the office of the chief minister in states where it runs the government — even assembly elections are fought in the name of the prime minister. The presidential mode of campaign in the general election, which has coincided with the rise of Narendra Modi in national politics in 2014, has percolated down to assembly elections. Gujarat, where Modi has also been the chief minister, is the best example of this trend: Votes are sought for Modi in elections at all levels — Rupani and the new CM, Bhupendra Patel, were not prominent in state politics until their elevation to the state’s top office. After his ouster from office, Rupani compared the change of chief ministers to a relay race: “I was running. Now I will give the flag to someone else. (Now) he will run,” he said. In Uttarakhand and Karnataka, where the BJP also recently replaced CMs, it similarly preferred legislators with limited influence to party veterans: For instance, in Karnataka, it opted for Basavaraj Bommai, who had joined the BJP only in 2008. In Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, the party did not highlight any state leader during assembly elections and sought votes by projecting Modi’s leadership.
Ironically, this rise of a powerful party centre, reminiscent of the Congress high command under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, is at variance with the federal approach the BJP had cultivated and nurtured under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani. That had enabled the party to create a second line of leadership of charismatic politicians in the states. Many of them — Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Uma Bharti, Vasundhara Raje, Raman Singh, Yediyurappa, Kalyan Singh among others — led the party to success in their respective states, which can be said to have laid the ground for the BJP’s spectacular growth under Modi and Amit Shah. The denial of autonomy to state units and agency to state leaders, the preference for faceless runners in a relay race over influential politicians, and the dependence on the high command for electoral outreach, are significant changes in the form and character of the new BJP.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 13, 2021 under the title ‘Shrinking the CM’.