Brought in mid-term as the Gujarat Chief Minister by the BJP in 2016 and removed mid-term in a sudden move on September 11 last year, Vijay Rupani recently got an assignment as the party in-charge of Punjab and Chandigarh. Rupani speaks to The Indian Express on taking charge of Punjab, meeting his goals during his term as CM, and why he thinks BJP will return to power in the state with a bigger majority. Excerpts:
How do you view your appointment as the BJP’s in-charge for Punjab?
I consider myself lucky for the fact that the party assigned me work first at the city level and then at the regional level… I was assigned responsibility to serve as general secretary (of the BJP’s Gujarat unit) for four terms and eventually as CM. Now, I have been assigned a role at the national level, and my experience of working at the state level will be useful. This is an opportunity given by God, that I have got to work at all levels. Secondly, Punjab is a weak state from the point of view of the BJP. When the party has given me the responsibility of the state, it must expect that I go there and work hard and get results. Thus, the party has reposed faith in me. This means a lot to me. I view this as a challenge and an opportunity to prove my strength.
Punjab has been ruled by the Akali Dal and Congress for years, but this time round it has witnessed political change in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party coming to power there. Your party no longer has an alliance with the Akali Dal. What type of challenge do you think you will face?
The BJP has only two MLAs in Punjab. People of the state have seen governments of the Akalis, Congress and now of the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP government there has got off to a poor start as it is mired in a lot of controversies. New questions are popping up. If the BJP works as a strong Opposition, the next government in that state will be of the BJP. Besides, the trust and confidence people of the country have shown in Narendra Modi will also come in handy and the people of Punjab will entrust the BJP with power.
Your appointment as Punjab in-charge comes a year after you resigned as the Gujarat CM. Were you expecting such a role at the national level?
At the state level, the top post is of the chief minister. I have also served as the pradesh pramukh (president of the state unit). Therefore, it is natural that my services be used at the national level.
What do you think your stamp was as the CM?
I was always tense that the hard work that Narendra Modi put in, the way he took Gujarat forward and created its image, should not dissipate as I became CM after him. To ensure it did not happen, I worked with all my energy, day and night, and I am satisfied that I didn’t allow development projects to be stalled anywhere. I took decisions speedily, led a decisive government. I worked honestly and in a transparent manner. We took numerous new decisions and drafted numerous new policies. I am also happy that we won all the elections, be it to panchayats or municipal corporations or bypolls or Assembly seats, during my five years as CM. We won everything.
What according to you was the highlight of your tenure as CM? Rajkot, your hometown, did benefit.
Not only Rajkot, I worked for sustainable and all-encompassing development, be it the development of south Gujarat, tribals, Kutch or Saurashtra. We did all this in a full-fledged manner. Overall, we addressed issues concerning farmers to women and youth to agariyas (saltpan workers). But I draw a lot of satisfaction from the SAUNI Yojana. Water shortage is a big problem in Saurashtra and Kutch and it gives me a lot of satisfaction that I could address that. I oversaw the completion of the SAUNI Yojana and took Narmada waters to almost every village in Saurashtra. In Kutch also, I sanctioned most of the projects (of Narmada) and the work is starting now.
What are the projects that you think remained incomplete?
Hardly any. Serving as CM is like running your stretch of a relay race and then passing the baton onto the next runner. I ran my course and then passed the baton onto Bhupendrabhai (Patel).
When were you asked to step down?
Aagla divasey ratre j kidhu ane mein bije divesey aapi j didhu (They told me the previous night and I submitted the resignation the very next day).
Did the party give you any reason?
Mein puichhuye nathi… ane eney karan nathi kidhu mane. Puchhat to kahet kadach. Pan mein puichhu pan nathi karan, hun partyno hammesha shishtabaddh karyakarta rahyo chhu. Partiye je mane soipu e mein karyu chhe. Partye mane mukhyamantri banavyo to mein kairu. Partye mane kidhu ke badal kariye chhiye to badal, bhai! Ema mein partyma kadi pan, jene kahiyene ke ek sara karyakarta tarike koi vaatma mein kyarey partyne vandho lidho nathi ane mein bijey j divase rajinamu aapi didhu… ane hasta hasta aaipu chhe, thaidaine nathi aaipu (I did not ask for a reason and therefore they didn’t give me one. Had I asked, they would have told, perhaps. But I didn’t even bother to ask as I have always been a disciplined worker of the party. I have always done what the party has asked me to do. The party made me chief minister, so I became one. Then the party told me that they are replacing me and I told them to do it happily. As a good worker, I have never gone against the party line, and therefore tendered my resignation the very next day… And I submitted it with a smiling face, not a sulking one).”
After an election, the legislature party elects its leader, and that leader becomes the CM. This is a democratic process. But the same procedure is not followed when a chief minister is removed midway. Generally, orders come from the party high command. Do you think that is also a democratic process?
Even after one completes one’s tenure, the next CM is decided by the high command. The legislature party meeting is merely a procedure, and it should be that way as such decisions impact the entire party, be it the Congress or the BJP. The CM candidate is decided by the party high command even after elections. The high command directs the legislature party to elect the one chosen by it as the latter’s leader. This has to be treated as democratic as, eventually, someone has to decide who that leader will be. A situation wherein everyone considers himself a contender for the CM’s post is not desirable. Such a scenario may lead to groupism. So, the high command’s decision is always the final decision.
Has your contribution been sought in the running of the government?
Not much. Actually, the matter ends with my stepping down. My contribution remains limited to important meetings. I am in the core group of the party and also in the parliamentary board. I attend party meetings too and make my contribution at these forums.
Does the present government seek your guidance?
That is not necessary, maybe, and I don’t intervene unnecessarily.
What are you views on the party’s handling of the stray cattle control Bill? The government had to withdraw it.
I think they are handling it well. There is nothing new in the withdrawal of a Bill. Sometimes one has to do it, and there is nothing wrong as, after all, the government has to respect the feelings of the people and take decisions accordingly.
Employees of many government departments, farmers, maldharis are protesting these days. In the 2017 elections, which were fought under your leadership, the Patidar quota stir was on and the BJP had ended up with its lowest tally since 1995. What are the prospects of the BJP in the coming Assembly elections, as per you?
The government is taking decisions as willed by the people. Some agitations have been withdrawn already. In the run-up to elections, such demands and protests are natural. We know beforehand that such things will happen. Employees also know it well that this is the ideal time to press the government and get whatever is possible. This goes on. But I believe our party’s seats will increase this election. In 2017, the Congress was strong. But now, it is a sinking ship. In 2017, the Congress was fighting elections with the confidence of forming a government, whereas today, it is fighting an existential battle. Therefore, the BJP will win more seats.
AAP is getting a lot of attention.
AAP is not a big challenge, for the simple reason that people of Gujarat have never believed in getting things for free. They are khamirvanti (enterprising) people. They are self-prodded people and a traders’ community. Narendra Modi, who is from Gujarat, is leading the Central government and therefore it is like mosale ma pirasnaar (mother serving meals at her parents’ home). People understand that it is beneficial if there is a BJP government here too. So, I don’t think that AAP is a big challenge here.
How do you see the slogan of ‘Double engine ki sarkar’?
The ‘Double engine ki sarkar’ slogan was coined during the Assembly elections in UP (earlier this year). But I would go a step further than that. Today, Gujarat is the ultimate authority in Delhi — Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of the country and Amit Shah is the Home Minister of the country. Just look at how much advantage Gujarat has! An AIIMS is being set up in Rajkot, an international airport is being constructed in Rajkot, Gujarat has got the opportunity to host the National Games, big stadiums are being constructed, Metro train, bullet train — Gujarat is getting all this because there is our government at the Centre. Gujaratis understand that they stand to gain from this. Had there been another government here… we had to do andolan (agitation) even for the Narmada dam project.
The PM talks about cooperative federalism but the BJP raises the slogan of ‘Double engine sarkar’ during election times. Do the two sit together well?
Elections and campaigning are a different subject. We have only reinforced federalism and governance as envisioned in the Constitution. We have not removed any government. You check the history of the Congress reign and see how many governments were removed and President’s rule imposed. We haven’t imposed President’s rule in any state. We are explaining to voters that it is beneficial to have a double engine ki sarkar. Are we doing anything wrong here? We are not suggesting that we won’t allow other governments to function. But if the mother is the one serving meals at her parents’ home, she does it with a sense of entitlement. For example, when I was the Chief Minister and if anyone from Rajkot came to me with a problem, even at midnight, it would get solved as I would have a direct relation with that person. Similarly, if Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister, Gujarat has a direct link there and we can even goad him to get something done.
While you have been assigned Punjab, what role do you see for yourself in the Gujarat Assembly elections due in a few months?
I am going to be fully active in the Assembly elections in Gujarat. We will give our sweat and blood to ensure that the BJP forms a government with two-thirds majority.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I have been in public life for the past 49 years and will complete 50 years in public life next year. BJP workers like us work with the dream of making Bharat Mata powerful, that poverty, unemployment, corruption etc are eliminated from India, that its history and heritage revive. We are the people who work for translating this dream into reality. Therefore, we don’t harbour expectations nor give importance to any post, ticket to contest elections, or elections per say. However, since we are into politics, we have to fight and win elections, and we are doing that. But we are people who work for this dream and dedicate our entire life to that. Therefore, I don’t need to think about what the party would do for me in the future. I have never asked for anything in the past and yet the party gave me everything… I am committed to doing in the future whatever the party asks me to do. I see a bright future for India, the BJP and me.