In the early 2000s, the BJP chief ministers, including Narendra Modi, were regional satraps, powerful in their own right. Post-2014, that has changed and now, as the party heads for another set of Assembly elections, a question foremost – quite like with its counterparts – is, “chehra kaun hai (who is the face of the polls)”?
The BJP’s answer also parallels what the Congress once used to say when CMs were not announced beforehand but decided from Delhi – that this means a “healthy democracy”, with a scope to choose anyone. Like it did then, in the BJP case too, the change is being seen as a centralisation of power in the high command, even as regional leaders lose powers as well as pull, with every election fought in the name of Modi.
Between elections too, the BJP has been changing CMs, meeting little or no resistance. For example, since Modi stepped down as CM and moved on to the Centre, Gujarat has had three CMs – Anandiben Patel (2014-2016), Vijay Rupani (2016-2021) and Bhupendra Patel (incumbent).
In the BJP’s 2017-22 reign, Uttarakhand too had three CMs – Trivendra Singh Rawat (2017-2021), Tirath Singh Rawat (March 2021-July 2021), followed by Pushkar Singh Dhami.
In Karnataka, the party changed its CM in July 2021 from B S Yediyurappa to Basavaraj Bommai; while in May this year, it replaced Biplab Kumar Deb with Manik Saha in Tripura. Post the 2021 state election in Assam, the party had replaced incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal with Himanta Biswa Sarma.
To be sure, the BJP retained some CMs, such as Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh (extremely popular in the state), Dhami in Uttarakhand (despite him losing his own Assembly seat, on account of his efficiency in governance in the short span he was in the post at the time), N Biren Singh in Manipur (despite the intense internal feud), and Pramod Sawant in Goa (after the BJP surprised naysayers and won a comfortable majority in the state).
Now, as Himachal Pradesh goes to polls on November 12, the BJP leadership has not clarified if CM Jai Ram Thakur will remain in the post if it returns to power. In fact, there is a deliberate attempt to underline that Thakur is not the face, as the BJP banks on Modi as the symbol of good governance and hope for the hilly state, to beat the trend of Himachal always voting the incumbent out.
In case of the other poll-bound state Gujarat, while BJP state chief C R Paatil has said that Bhupendra Patel would remain the CM if they won again, there is no such signal from the central leadership.
Meanwhile, in the case of Karnataka, which goes to polls next year, there is intense speculation in party circles that Bommai could be changed if the BJP comes back to power, depending on the number of seats the party wins.
In Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan returned as CM for the fourth time after the Congress government fell, reportedly despite reservations among the top leadership, there is similar speculation. The state too goes for Assembly polls next year. The names doing the rounds as replacement include Union ministers Jyotraditya Scindia and Narendra Singh Tomar, and minister Narottam Mishra, among others.
If Chouhan is among the former regional straps who has seen their influence wane, there is one other who has proved harder for the BJP to subdue: Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. Never on very good terms with the current BJP dispensation, but unbowed on account of the popularity she enjoys in Rajasthan, Raje has hit the campaign trail in the state well ahead of the Assembly polls next year, in a clear message to the central leadership.
Some of the CM reshuffles have been inevitable, after some of those handpicked by the leadership could not return the party to power – such as Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra and Raghubar Das in Jharkhand. In Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar could only form the government after forging an alliance. Incidentally, in all these cases, the BJP had gambled by picking CMs from other than the dominant castes in the states; it later admitted this did not work as expected.
It was wrong though to see the weakening of the CMs as a sign of the party not being as dominant as it would like in states, a top BJP leader argued. The change of guard was due to the “strong and healthy democratic process” in the party, and the BJP giving more leaders a chance at the top than “familial and dynastic parties like the Congress”.
However, others admit that the change of CMs – leaving them overdependent on the national leadership – went contrary to the BJP’s constant call of making the party organisation robust and strong. Party leaders admit the uncertainty regarding their post can make CMs incompetent, even lead to mismanagement of affairs at the state level as they do not command power. One leader pointed to the recent disclosure by Rupani that he was asked to resign just the night earlier to when he did.
In an aside, some leaders talked of the constant round of activities and programmes planned by the leadership for its state units, causing fatigue to set in among MLAs, lawmakers and leaders. This fatigue has been evident in the absence of MPs in Parliament during proceedings, a leader said, despite repeated warnings and cautioning notes from the leadership, including PM Modi.
With the BJP already in Mission 2024 mode, these activities will pick up. However, the gains may not be commensurate as compared to earlier polls.