POLITICS

Vijay Rupani As CM Means Amit Shah Will Run Gujarat By Remote Control

His most trusted lieutenant.

05/08/2016 8:48 PM IST | Updated 05/08/2016 8:50 PM IST
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Vijay Rupani, second left, state president of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat, is garlanded as he is selected as Chief Minister of the state, along with Nitin Patel, third left, in Gandhinagar, India, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. Patel will take over as Deputy Chief Minister. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Amit Shah's clout in the Narendra Modi dispensation was on display again as he pulled off a coup in Gujarat with the appointment of his nominee, Vijay Rupani, as the next chief minister. The decision came as a surprise to many in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who, till the last moment, were confident that Nitin Patel would be chosen to succeed Anandiben Patel in deference to the influential Patidar community, which is on the warpath in the state.

Modi gave no indication of his preference through the days of intense lobbying after Anandiben quit. But it was well known in the BJP that Shah wanted Rupani, who he had been only recently handpicked as the party president in Gujarat. Rupani, a first-time MLA with little administrative experience, is a Jain, like Shah himself, which is why it was widely felt that he was not a serious contender. Jains are just 2 percent of Gujarat's voting population, while Patels are the single-most dominant community, at around 15 percent.

On the face of it, Rupani would seem to be a non-partisan choice as he does not represent any significant caste or community interests. At a time when Gujarat is being torn apart by caste conflicts, with both Patidars and Dalits up in arms against the BJP, Rupani could be considered a safe bet who would possibly provide the so-called healing touch.

However, in effect, Modi has handed over his home state to his most trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah. The powerful BJP president will now run Gujarat by proxy through his loyal and trusted aide, Vijay Rupani.

The decision seems to have been guided by election imperatives. Gujarat goes to polls in the winter of 2017 and Modi cannot afford to lose on his home turf. Consequently, he has brushed aside all factions in Gujarat and other considerations like caste to weigh in on Shah's side with an implicit command to deliver the state to him next year. The appointment of Rupani is a message to the warring parties in Gujarat that from now on Shah will call the shots.

In effect, Modi has handed over his home state to his most trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah. The powerful BJP president will now run Gujarat by proxy through his loyal and trusted aide, Vijay Rupani.

When Modi moved to Delhi as prime minister in 2014, he had hoped to manage Gujarat by remote control through his handpicked successor, Anandiben Patel. Unfortunately, she proved unequal to the task. She got bogged down in corruption scandals over land deals involving her son and daughter. Finally, the Patel and Dalit agitations proved to be her undoing.

The deteriorating ground situation forced Modi's hand. He realised that he had to let Anandiben go or Gujarat would slip out of his hands. The consequences would have been disastrous. A defeat in 2017 could have started a dangerous downslide in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

Ideally, he would have liked to send Amit Shah as chief minister. But as every BJP leader explained painstakingly, Shah simply cannot be spared. Modi needs him in Delhi by his side. So now, Shah will do what Modi has tried to do for the last two years — manage the state by remote control.

It's a gamble and a risky one at that. As the experience with Anandiben showed, it is not easy to micro-manage a state from Delhi even with the most loyal of aides. Can Shah do better than Modi? It remains to be seen.

The other X factor is the mood of the Patel community, now that it has lost out in the chief ministerial sweepstakes. Although the Modi-Shah duo has attempted to extend an olive branch to the Patidars by naming Nitin Patel as deputy chief minister, the gesture is unlikely to be appreciated.

It's a gamble and a risky one at that. As the experience with Anandiben showed, it is not easy to micro-manage a state from Delhi even with the most loyal of aides. Can Shah do better than Modi? It remains to be seen.

The Patels see themselves as a hegemonic community and were very upset when Modi was brought in as chief minister to replace their most towering leader, Keshubhai Patel, in 2001. The demand for reservations is actually an expression of anger against what they see as their gradual marginalisation in the state's power structure. Although Modi has accommodated representatives of the community over the years, he has chosen those who are lightweight and have little or no clout with the Patidars. Both Anandiben and Nitin fall in this category.

The choice of Rupani could well be seen by the Patels as another attempt to keep them on the margins.

Hardik Patel, who led the volatile Patidar agitation last year, has warned that he will be back in Gujarat after six months. There are also reports that AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is in touch with Hardik as he explores his political options in Gujarat.

With Dalits starting their 'independence day' march from Ahmedabad to Una, the ground situation remains volatile. Can Shah and his man Rupani bring it under control for Modi?

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