In many ways, the situation facing the BJP in Gujarat today mirrors the crisis of 2001-2002. And this time around, there is no Godhra to give the party a boost.
Ahmedabad: The choice of state party chief Vijay Rupani as Gujarat’s new chief minister is unlike to chase away the chilling sense of déjà vu which has descended on the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat. For the third time in two decades, its chief minister has had to step down midway because of both internal strife as well as external circumstances. Keshubhai Patel had to go twice, first in 1995 and then in 2001, exploding the myth then of the BJP being a disciplined cadre-based party. The exit of Anandiben Patel makes it the third time. On Friday afternoon, Rupani was chosen by the party high command as her replacement, pipping state health minister and media favourite Nitin Patel for the top job.
Earlier too, the party was in the doldrums and desperately needed somebody to extricate it from the morass. In October 2001, it got Narendra Modi to replace Keshubhai. But even six months after this change of guard, the statutory period within which a non-MLA must contest an election, the change to Modi hadn’t helped the BJP much.
The party lost two by-elections and in Rajkot-II, which Modi too, the margin of victory came down to half of what it had been when Vajubhai Vala, who vacated the seat for the new chief minister, had won it in 1998. The BJP was wondering about the choice of leader since Modi didn’t seem to have made much of a difference. The results came out on February 24, 2002 and even as the party was digesting them, the Godhra train incident happened. The rest, as they say, is history.
The situation now in 2016 is even worse than 2002, when Anandiben is being forced to quit and the party needs a saviour. The Patels, the key grassroots base of the BJP, are on the warpath, the Dalits are on the streets and the OBCs have grouped themselves under the OBC Ekta Manch. The Muslim is with the Dalit. All four traditional components of the Congress’s KHAM electoral formula – the Kshatriya, the Harijan, the Adivasi, the Muslim – are coming together. The fifth is the rebellious Patel. What is more, there is no Godhra or the possibility of a Hindu-Muslim conflagration this time that can be used the way Modi did so effectively by the time the state went to the polls in December 2002. So, the new chief minister has to be a magician of sorts.
Elected in 1995 as the chief minister of the BJP’s first government on the back of a strong anti-incumbency against the Congress and an undercurrent of Hindutva ( this was less than three years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid) Keshubhai Patel took charge with much fanfare.
A son of the soil who hailed from a middle class family of the Saurashtra region, the BJP couldn’t have found anyone better. But he had to go in six months, thanks to a big revolt led by veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela, in what was considered to be a game plan engineered by Narendra Modi who had already earned the sobriquet of ‘super chief minister’. Keshubhai bit the dust, while Vaghela left the party less than a couple of years later. But before that, in the wake of the 1995 revolt, Modi was banished from Gujarat and sent to Delhi. A compromise government led by industries minister Suresh Mehta didn’t last even a year.
Gujarat went for another round of elections in 1998 and Keshubhai won again on a sympathy vote as he said he had been wronged. After this victory, he was a changed man and went slam-bang against the Sangh parivar outfits who were believed to have played a role in his ouster in 1995 with the aim of of bringing Narendra Modi in his place. However, internal fissures gradually went against Keshubhai and were accentuated with allegations that his son-in-law, Mayur Desai, ran the government by proxy. It is public knowledge that though Modi was away from Gujarat during all this time, he was in continuous contact with the party’s rank and file.
Alarms bells began to ring when the BJP suffered a big debacle in the 2000 local government elections and some assembly by-polls. By then, the buzz had started and would quickly snowball into the demand that Modi be brought back to take over the sinking ship. The Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank scam, the massive January 26, 2001 earthquake, and the loss to the Congress of the Sabarkantha Lok Sabha seat and Sabarmati assembly seat in the September 2001 by-elections were the final nails in Keshubhai’s coffin with the party leadership sending Modi to take charge on October 7, 2001.
Now it is Anandiben Patel’s turn to be bundled out of office. History has repeated for the party in Gujarat with striking similarities between the exit of Keshubhai and Anandiben. If Patel lost the crucial elections to local governments in December 2000, so did Anandiben in December 2015 – both signalling that the ground was slipping underneath the BJP’s feet. If there was a complete reversal of seats in 2000, the same was the case in 2015. There was a simultaneous fall in vote shares both times. If Keshubhai’s son-in-law Mayur Desai was charged with running a government by proxy, Anandiben’s daughter Anar and son Sanjay were seen as back-seat driving the administration.
If there were allegations of sabotage against Narendra Modi during both Keshubhai regimes, this time around, the circumstances have forced him to act against his one-time protege.
There is, however, one commonality between all BJP governments in Gujarat: In periods when there is no Hindu-Muslim tension, its vote share has inevitably plateaued or fallen.