The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named Vijay Rupani as Gujarat’s new chief minister and Nitin Patel his deputy on Friday, entrusting two of its most powerful state leaders the responsibility of reviving the party’s popularity among voters.
Rupani, who takes charge on Sunday, has his job cut out. He has to placate angry Patel and Dalit communities, battle two decades of anti-incumbency and repair ties between the government and the party. And all this before the state elections that are due by December, 2017.
In choosing Rupani over Patel, who was seen as a front-runner for the top job till Thursday, the BJP hopes that his non-dominant Jain background would help neutralise caste equations in a state where the Patel and Dalit communities are crucial vote banks.
Rupani, 61, hails from Rajkot, the heartland of Saurashtra which has a significant population of both Patels and Dalits.
On the other hand, Nitin Patel enjoys significant clout in north Gujarat, which was the epicentre of last year’s violent protests by the Patidar or Patels demanding quotas for the community in colleges and jobs. His appointment could help woo back the Patels, the BJP’s traditional backers who had begun drifting away.
“The responsibility I have been handed is great and we are thankful for this,” Rupani said after being named the chief minister. “(I) will put in all the efforts to make Gujarat the role model of India.”
Union minister Nitin Gadkari announced the appointments after chief minister Anandiben Patel resigned earlier in the week. Friday’s meeting to choose her successor was attended by party MLAs as well as BJP president Amit Shah. Rupani, seen as close to Shah, was the state transport and water supply minister and Patel the health minister.
The BJP has been in power in Gujarat for two decades but the past two years have seen the party’s fortunes slide in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.
Anandiben’s two-year tenure was marked by deadly protests by the Patidars seeking quotas in colleges and jobs, and more recently, over the public beating of four Dalit men by self-styled cow protectors.
Many accused her government of being out of touch with people’s aspirations, and blamed her leadership for the party’s dwindling support in both rural and urban Gujarat.
The BJP’s vote share in panchayat polls dropped from 50.26% in 2010 to 43.97% last year. Its hold over semi-urban and urban civic bodies also weakened during the period, helping to revive a moribund Congress party in the state.
On Friday, Anandiben proposed Rupani’s name in the meet attended by 121 state BJP lawmakers.
Sources said Shah believed that replacing a Patel chief minister with a non-Patel would not go down well with the Patidar community. This led to the party settling for a new arrangement of a deputy chief minister.
In selecting Rupani, a first-time MLA, the BJP has kept up its tradition of bringing in a non-Patel leader after the untimely exit of a Patel leader. Twice, when Keshubhai Patel had to go unceremoniously without completing his terms in 1995 and 1998, the BJP’s choice was from non-dominant castes -- Suresh Mehta, a Jain in 1996 and Narendra Modi, an OBC in 2001 -- to neutralise caste considerations.
This is also the first time the BJP has selected a Kadva Patel leader in Nitin Patel.
The party was forced to reconfigure its caste calculus after the Congress’s successful social engineering experiment in consolidating what became known as the KHAM -- Kashtriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims – votes.
At the same time, the two sects of the Patels -- Leuvas and Kadvas -- tilted toward the BJP in and brought the saffron party to the power for the first time in Gujarat in 1995.
Since then the Leuvas have dominated the party. The BJP had so far two chief ministers, including Keshubhai and Anandiben, several ministers and even party presidents from among Leuva Patels.