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Patel at the helm: The Hindu editorial on the changing of the guard in Gujarat

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Making the fourth guard change in a state this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) replaced Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel as chief minister of Gujarat on Sunday. Although the decision came out of nowhere, the intrigues that led to it had been gathering momentum for some time. To keep all this a secret, the government of Gujarat went so far as to arrest and send to jail a journalist accused of sedition for reporting that a change of guard was on the agenda. The Patels or Patidars have been the backbone of BJP in Gujarat, but Narendra Modi’s rise to the post of chief minister in 2001 has disrupted the warm relations between the community and the party. Anandiben Patel took over from Modi after he became prime minister, but it didn’t last long. A partial ejection of Patels to accommodate a wider range of caste groups in his tent was the BJP’s approach under Mr. Modi and Amit Shah, and their national strategy reflected this Gujarat experience. The Patels have in turn rebelled against the Modi-Shah axis on several occasions over the past two decades. Mr. Rupani was less than impressive in administrative duties or running the social coalition. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed its failures harshly. With the Assembly elections looming, the Patels becoming increasingly agitated and the Aam Aadmi party trying to become a more viable opposition than the rudderless Congress, the BJP has had to act. The Chief Minister-designate is a first-time MLA who was elected in the constituency left vacant by Ms. Patel. The change also underscores the high command culture which is now ingrained in the BJP.

Patel’s return to the helm indicates a reversal of the BJP’s strategy of forming coalitions of diverse caste groups under a leader from a marginal caste. Mr. Modi projected himself as a backward class leader in 2014, and subsequent leadership choices at various levels largely followed this trend. There have been exceptions, such as Yogi Adityanath, a Rajput, who was elected chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Within and outside the party, the ruling castes resented it and the BJP has now started to feel the pressure. When it came to replacing veteran hobbyhorse BS Yediyurappa, a member of the dominant Lingayat community as chief minister of Karnataka, the BJP ensured that his successor was from the same community. The current standoff between the party and Jat farmers in UP and Haryana is also indicative of the tension between the BJP and a dominant social group. The party’s chief minister in Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, faces the heat. These communities negotiate for a greater share of power under the Hindutva tent of the BJP. The BJP acts partly under pressure, but it also perhaps feels more confident in supporting marginal communities and poorer sections to accommodate its traditional supporters.

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