Six months after the BJP won a massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections making Narendra Modi the Prime Minister again, the party had a reality check in Jharkhand.
It lost the election to the alliance led by Hemant Soren; a result which was foretold by some in the party citing the extreme unpopularity of Chief Minister Raghubar Das. There were some voices to drop him as Chief Minister before the elections but the same got lost in the din. The party lost.
Senior leaders in the BJP now cite this “Jharkhand lesson” to explain why the BJP has changed five chief ministers already this year, the latest being the one in Gujarat, Vijay Rupani. The top leadership feels it is best to do damage control before the damage actually happens.
“It is not that signs were not visible before that,” a senior BJP leader who has looked at Haryana says. He cites the Haryana election in October in 2019 where BJP failed to hit the majority mark and had to seek an alliance to be in power. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s image seemed to have cost the party though he was chosen as the chief minister again and is presently BJP’s oldest serving chief minister in the country.
Sources say the Jharkhand result and the near-brush in Haryana with defeat made BJP realise that unpopular and non-performing chief ministers had to go, and well in time before the party faces the next election. “The party is prepared to be criticised for frequent chief minister changes but is not prepared to lose elections anymore. All means to achieve the end result will be used,” a senior party leader said.
Will this trend continue? There are already murmurs now in the political circles of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh on what the BJP’s next move will be. Himachal Pradesh goes to polls along with Gujarat in the end of 2022 while Madhya Pradesh polls in end of 2023.
The first such ruthless decision came when Trivendra Singh Rawat was dropped as the Uttarakhand Chief Minister early this year after some of his controversial decisions irked people. The prospect of that impacting the 2022 Uttarakhand elections loomed amidst a revived Indian National Congress (INC) under Harish Rawat in the state. His replacement, Tirath Singh Rawat, had to be dropped five months later as he failed to utilise an early window and contest a by-poll.
The second such decision was not projecting the sitting Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief minister face for the Assam elections where the party faced a challenge from the INC-Ajmal alliance and a general perception that Himanta Biswa Sarma was a more popular figure. Sonowal was eventually replaced with Sarma after BJP won the elections with its strategy to go ambiguous during the campaign on who the chief minister will be.
Dropping Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa on the grounds of his advancing age was another such decision taken by the BJP to bring in a generational change in the leadership in the only southern state that the party is in power. This asserted the party leadership’s authority that it was not dependent on Yediyurappa’s legacy to win Karnataka election in 2023.
Rupani’s exit from the Gujarat Chief Minister chair only reinforces the point that BJP is simply not ready to lose an election like the one in Jharkhand on account of an unpopular chief minister, especially when it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.