Appointing Gujarat BJP chief, a test for Amit Shah, Modi

To appoint a Patel or not? That’s the question haunting the BJP’s decision makers. The leadership has been caught in a dilemma over the selection of the new president of the BJP in Gujarat. Some say it is for the first time in over a decade and a half that the BJP is struggling to appoint a party president.

In theory, the commune of party representatives from each of the 182 Assembly constituencies and 41 districts and city party chiefs in consultation with senior party leaders, decide on electing the state party president. “The party president is critical to functioning of the party. He is the connect between the government and party workers. He is the one who can keep the party motivated and its system running,” say senior leaders of the party.

Observed a party worker: “There cannot be one day without a party president. R C Faldu has been our president since he took over the post for a second time in April 2013. We do not have the practice of having a working president in our party”. Faldu’s term as state party chief ended on December 31, 2015.

Gujarat is not the only state where the party president has been asked to continue beyond his term has ended. It is one of the 10 states where the party is yet to appoint a new president. However, in Gujarat, the recent spate of political events and the upheaval among the Patels – traditionally the strongest support base for the BJP – and its fall out on other castes and communities has created a peculiar problem for the organisation and its leadership.

There are as many as 14 aspirants who are keen to take over the reins from Faldu. Those in the race include current party spokesperson I K Jadeja, Saurashtra strongman and minister in Anandiben Patel government Vijay Rupani, former state party president Purushottam Rupala etc.

The vexed issue for the BJP is whether to appoint another Patel as its party president or appoint someone representing the other backward classes (OBC). Patels are socially, economically and politically the affluent class accounting for almost 12 per cent of the state population. Compared to this, the OBCs form about 54 per cent of the state populace.

These statistics have assumed significance with Patels creating a virtual crisis for the BJP by first launching a state-wide agitation seeking reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Led by the 22-year-old Hardik Patel, they then followed it up by sending a loud and clear message to the BJP leadership by showing the door to the party in the last local self government polls held in late November, 2015.

The BJP, which romped home every time Assembly elections were held in the last more than two decades, saw its candidates fall like nine pins in over 2/3rd of the local government bodies in rural Gujarat.

Though the Anandiben government has tried to crush the Patel revolt by putting most of its leadership behind bars under various charges including sedition, they continue to raise their voice. “We will decide who the chief minister would be in 2017 (when the state goes to polls),” harps Hardik every time he gets an opportunity to speak out.

Counter-balance

His words were again echoed by 39-year-old Alpesh Thakor, who has emerged as his counter-balance and voice of communities that have direct benefit of reservation in the state. Alpesh too followed the footsteps of Hardik and organised a show of strength by collecting over three lakh people of his community to send message to the state not to mess with the quota policy or take their voice lightly.

“It will be the down-trodden, the poor, the oppressed who will decide the chief minister in 2017,” he told his followers at a huge rally in Ahmedabad recently.

Other than these voices, what is intriguing about selection of the state president is the political one-upmanship within the party. There is a speculation that a power struggle is on between Anandiben and BJP national president Amit Shah to control the state unit in the post-Narendra Modi era.

Historically and unlike Congress, the BJP till recently had relatively strong regional leadership and powerful chief ministers. “In Congress, the high command appoints state presidents not just to strengthen the party but also to keep a tab on its chief ministers. This is not so with the BJP,” said a BJP leader. But it may not be so from now on.

The party presidents Gujarat were not lightweights like A K Patel, a former MP. Keshubhai Patel, who later became the chief minister, was earlier the party president in 1980s. With the BJP coming to power in the mid-1990s, the state party chief would be a person who enjoyed trust of the chief minister. The appointment of Amit Shah, Purushottam Rupala or even R C Faldu as presidents when Modi was the chief minister, is indicative of this policy.

The chief ministers from the saffron brigade, be it Keshubhai, Modi or even Shankersinh Vaghela who formed a separate party later, were of course pretty powerful. “The problem, other than the caste conundrum, is that today Gujarat does not have a tall leader. Anandiben is the chosen nominee of Modi. Most of the party functionaries and leaders are relatively minnows compared to their predecessors. I would not be surprised that like the Congress, the BJP high command appoints state presidents as it has done in some of the states,” a senior BJP functionary said.

“The party is anyway being revamped to gear up the cadre for the next Assembly elections likely. The prime minister cannot afford to lose his home state.”

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