Having lost six ministers, and a Speaker in the recently concluded assembly elections, the priorities for the BJP, which is looking at a second term for a Narendra Modi led government in the 2019 general elections, is to keep the status quo in Gujarat.
Retaining Vijay Rupani as chief minister and Nitin Patel as his deputy, especially after the Saurashtra region cut the ruling party’s strength down by 11 seats in the current election, was thus imperative, to assuage the region which has been the bedrock of the BJP’s rise in the 1990s. From 1995, when it gave 32 of 52 seats to the BJP which went on to form the first government in Gujarat under the chief ministership of Keshubhai Patel, the BJP is down to 19 (of 48 seats post delimitation), indicating a loss of Patidar votes from the region.
It is also noteworthy that after 1998, when the BJP won 45 of 52 assembly seats and all the seven Lok Sabha seats in Saurashtra when the elections to both were held together, the BJP presence in the region had gone down marginally. The 1998 assembly election when the BJP put up its best show in Saurashtra was also contested by the breakaway BJP group led by Shankersinh Vaghela- the All India Rashtriya Janata Party (AIRJP), which won only four seats, of which only one was in Saurashtra.
Rupani may not be seen as a tall leader in the BJP, but with his roots in the RSS and ability to steer clear of controversy he is seen as someone who can contain the opposition. Most importantly, he represents the Rajkot West seat from where Narendra Modi won his first election in 2001 with Rupani as his election manager. Rajkot which has been a BJP bastion, is also seen as the party’s ‘talisman’. Keshubhai Patel, the BJP’s first chief minister belonged to Rajkot, although he won the elections from Visavadar seat.
Although BJP president Amit Shah had declared Rupani as the party’s “CM face” and said that the elections would be fought under his leadership, in the course of the election there were doubts raised even on his retaining his own seat with the Congress putting up a formidable candidate, Indranil Rajyaguru, against him. Eventually, however Rupani won with a huge margin of over 50,000 votes.
For many in the BJP, Vijay Rupani’s career graph has been enviable. After winning the byelection to the Rajkot west seat which was vacated when BJP veteran Vajubhai Vala was sent to Karnataka as governor, Rupani was appointed cabinet minister for water supply, transport, labour and employment in Anandiben Patel government in 2014 and at the peak of the Patidar quota agitation was also made Gujarat BJP chief in 2015. He was allowed to keep both jobs, as an exception. He soon replaced Anandiben, to become the 16th chief minister, in the following year.
Now with activist legislators Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and former Patidar quota leader Lalit Vasoya, powering a renewed and larger opposition bench of the Congress, Rupani, being a Jain and therefore seen as ‘caste neutral’ is the best defensive player for the BJP to hold the fort at least till the national elections in 2019. Before that, in January 2019 the state will also host the Vibrant Gujarat summit.
Besides, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who can be credited for changing the course of the election in its final moments, might not be able to spare as much time to campaign in the national election in Gujarat, having vacated the Vadodara seat in the Lok Sabha which he won in 2014, in favour of Varanasi.
The party also has to win back the angry Patidars who voted against it from Saurashtra, to be able to repeat the feat of 2014 when Gujarat did not give a single of its 26 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress. To patch the caste polarisation betrayed in the assembly election, the BJP will have to seek recourse to the RSS’s Hindutva umbrella as a counter to the Congress’s ‘soft Hindutva’ plan under the leadership of a re-invented Rahul Gandhi. Rupani can be the perfect vehicle to further this agenda, his last government having set examples with the tightening of the cow protection law and the stress in his speeches on Gaay, Ganga and Ram Mandir.
Rupani’s new dispensation has five MLAs from Saurashtra and six Patidars. Kishor Kanani who makes his debut as minister, is a Patidar MLA from Varachha in Surat, has origins in Saurashtra and could be taken as the sixth Kathiawadi in the ministry. Rupani’s latest bio data sent out by the government also describes him as a “safal andolankar (successful activist), who led the movement for waiving off fees for Economically Backward Class (EBC) students”, a purported message to the new legislators on the opposite side.
The Congress with its entire top brass defeated in the assembly elections and former Leader of Opposition Shankersinh Vaghela gone, is expected to be a more aggressive challenger in the house.