When Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked into a BJP meeting called to discuss names for Gujarat chief minister early this month, he had just one message for the party.
“Amit (Shah) ko chhod kar baki naam par vichar kar len (Discuss any name but Amit Shah’s),” were his opening lines as he addressed the BJP’s parliamentary board.
The members of the BJP’s highest decision-making body had on August 3 gathered at the Prime Minister’s 7, RCR residence to pick Anandiben Patel’s successor.
Modi’s remarks put an end to the talk about the BJP chief returning to Gujarat ahead of the 2017 state elections.
Modi, BJP sources said, had received feedback that only Shah could arrest the party’s slide in Gujarat, where it has been in power for almost 19 years.
The BJP chief, the sources said, was open to the idea of going back to his home state.
But sources close to Shah denied that the 51-year-old was interested in the Gujarat top job. As BJP chief, he was responsible for the party across the country and not just one state, they said.
“The chapter was closed when the message came directly from the Prime Minister,” said a leader who attended the August 3 meeting.
The Prime Minister’s biggest concern was finding a suitable replacement for Shah in Delhi, sources said.
Modi and Shah have shared a good relationship since their days together in the Gujarat government. Shah held a dozen ministries under Modi as chief minister.
The equation stood both in good stead as they moved to Delhi two years ago, Modi as the Prime Minister and Shah as the party chief. And now as the government is buffeted by crises – from the Kashmir unrest to attacks on Dalits – Modi probably needs Shah more than ever to tide over.
Then there are five state elections due in early 2017. The big one will be in Uttar Pradesh that played a key role in the BJP sweeping the 2014 national elections. Of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the country’s most populous state, the BJP won 71.
Modi would not have been as comfortable with another leader as the BJP chief as he is with Shah, the party leader said.
Modi’s message received, the parliamentary board left it to Shah to pick the next chief minister. On August 5, Gujarat BJP chief Vijay Rupani, close to both Modi and Shah, was named the chief minister.
Patel had opposed Rupani’s elevation, saying he didn’t have the experience to lead a state government.
“Shah assured the Prime Minister that he will win Gujarat for him, provided he gets a free hand. The PM went by his advice in choosing Anandiben’s successor,” another BJP leader told HT.