Self-styled pundits in the mainstream media and keyboard warriors of social media were disappointed on 12 September on knowing none of their speculated picks finally made it as the new chief minister of Gujarat. In the three assembly elections that the present prime minister of India fought as the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi would overhaul the look of his state government in the run-up to the election to beat even the slightest possibility of anti-incumbency. Now, the BJP leadership has entrusted Bhupendra Patel with the task of steering locally the party to another victory in 2022. Ignorant of the way Modi and his trusted team function, however, the too-clever-by-half commentators are wondering aloud why an experiment that has ‘failed’ in Uttarakhand and Karnataka would work in Gujarat. They forgot that the realities and dynamics of the three states are mutually distinct. Shivraj Singh Chouhan had faced in Madhya Pradesh not so long ago sheer dreariness of the voter over a long innings by one party just as West Bengal saw similar fatigue of the people when they replaced the CPM with Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in 2011. Strings of governance tend to loosen when a party remains at the helm term after term, with several top-rung leaders taking the people for granted, which is what had happened in Madhya Pradesh. In Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was a political misfit, simply not as suave as Jyoti Basu. In Karnataka, the Lingayat support base could take an old and jaded BS Yediyurappa this far and no further.
In Gujarat, a question that will always be asked is what special thing a government has done in a state where the people themselves are specially gifted (in entrepreneurship). Modi faced the question too. With a refusal to resort to populism, by always talking about “6 crore” Gujaratis, turning a semi-arid region fertile and, most importantly, being a victim of decade-long slanderous propaganda against him by leftists, which his people could see clearly, today’s tallest leader in the BJP answered the question. But the absence of Modi at the local level may be a situation for the new chief executive like Clement Attlee after Winston Churchill in the UK. Nothing can be done about the charisma some personalities have and others don’t. It can be said that Rupani’s low profile was not helping, recalling also how Anandiben Patel could not quite fill in the shoes of Modi either. Yet there are issues in Gujarat other than the void left behind by Modi’s move to the union government. Bhupendra Patel’s predecessor Vijay Rupani had almost lost it five years ago for there were Patidar and three other factors that drove voters to the INC camp: Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor. While the third has since joined the BJP, the fourth, demonetisation, is now distant memory even in a business-driven state like Gujarat. One is not sure Covid-19 will remain as big an issue by the time December 2022 arrives as notebandi was five years ago. The task cut out for Bhupendra Patel is avoiding the lackadaisical style of Raghubar Das, whose leadership cost the BJP Jharkhand, and the confused state of Tirath Singh Rawat, who could not figure out in his brief tenure if Trivendra Singh Rawat was wrong, what exactly the opposite direction was supposed to be in Uttarakhand. Patel knows he will be under constant watch too.
Assurance for the new chief minister, however, is the fact that there is a significant third player in the field now. Unlike parties ranging from Uttar Pradesh’s BSP, Hyderabad’s AIMIM, Bihar’s JD(U), etc, the AAP does not enter a state with any kind of resignation of an also-ran. Arvind Kejriwal has reckoned that Gujarat is looking at a Delhi 2015-like scenario where the BJP was repeatedly failing to defeat Sheila Dikshit-headed INC. Gujarat’s INC appears like BJP’s Delhi to the AAP. If Congress supporters and other anti-BJP elements are indeed thinking the way Kejriwal presumes they are, the AAP will make a mark next year in this state. So sure is the INC that the AAP may be right in its calculation that, since the campaign started, the IT cell of the oldest party is attacking the new entrant with more ferocity than it is attacking the ruling party. If this slovenly opposition strategy sustains for the next 15 months, Patel is safe. Importantly, the INC does not have in Gujarat an Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan or Kamal Nath of Madhya Pradesh. This makes the party’s prospect all the more hopeless in the state. The planners in the INC must be despondent, looking at the party’s 7.5% trailing margin behind the BJP in 2017 widened to 30% in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. No wonder, defections are rampant in Gujarat Congress.
Finally, while the BJP leadership surely factored in the disarray in the rival camp, it inherits the culture of the RSS where a John or Jane Doe of yesterday rises to eminence tomorrow. This was a reason the headline-happy observers had Bhupendra Patel nowhere in the mind. What was at one point the bane of the BJP in the absence of Modi at the helm in New Delhi, with even a mandal mantri fancying his or her chances of becoming the prime minister someday, is now a celebration of internal democracy in the organisation. An appreciation of this process in the BJP is but a politically incorrect realisation for those given to clichéd journalism.