Ahmedabad: Setting aside feverish speculation over the past few days that Nitin Patel would become the next chief minister of Gujarat following the resignation earlier this week of Anandiben Patel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday opted for his well-known protege, Vijay Rupani, for the crucial post. Unlike Patel, who is known for his short temper with party colleagues as well as with others, Rupani is suave and affable – a characteristic lacking in the current tribe of BJP politicians in the state.
The low-profile Rupani, who is 60-years-old, belongs to the Saurashtra region and is the first Jain to become chief minister of Gujarat. Named leader of the BJP in the state earlier this year, he is known for his excellent rapport with both party cadres as well as the administrative apparatus. When he was asked two days ago whether he would like to become chief minister, Rupani told newspersons that he was “not in the race”, adding that he had “conveyed” to the high command that he would rather serve the party.
He said this even as Patel’s men were celebrating with crackers in Mehsana in north Gujarat over rumours that he had been “chosen” as the chief minister.
A politician who has so far managed to remain above controversy, Rupani won the Rajkot (West) seat of the Gujarat state assembly with a margin of 24,000 votes in a by-poll in 2014. A first time MLA, the seat was vacated by finance minister Vajubhai Vala, who was chosen as Karnataka governor after Modi became prime minister. Associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh since his school days, Rupani was a Rajya Sabha MP from 2006 to 2012.
BJP insiders say that while there was considerable pressure from the Patel lobby within the party to make Nitin Patel the chief minister, he lost out because he was “not trusted” either by Modi or BJP president Amit Shah. People in the BJP, especially office bearers in the party, have been heard privately accusing Patel’s men of supporting the year-old Patidar agitation, both morally and materially.
In fact, ever since Patel’s name started circulating in the Gujarat media earlier this week, many in the BJP began expressing dismay, saying he was not only disliked within the party but even in the administration. While this played a role in his being pipped to the post by Rupani, Patel’s clout has at least ensured that he was named deputy chief minister.
When Rupani was inducted in the cabinet by chief minister Anandiben Patel in 2014, many were surprised that he was given the “unimportant” labour and employment portfolio. While differences between Anandiben and Rupani never came out in the open, it is well known that she adopted a hardline approach towards the Patidar agitation, while Rupani wanted to deal with the protestors in a more conciliatory manner. “We must have talks with the Patidar leaders across the table”, he would insist.
Known to be close to both Amit Shah and Modi, Rupani began his political career as an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader and then graduated to the corporation politics in Saurashtra and especially Rajkot. As I.P. Gautam, the former mayor of Rajkot – who was also Rajkot municipal commissioner in the early 1990s as an IAS officer – recalled to this correspondent, it was a “boon” to work with Rupani because he had a good understanding of urban issues.
Known to be cast in the RSS mould, Rupani is a leader who strongly believes that there has to be a Hindutva backdrop to every political action.
He described the recent Dalit agitation against the assault on four Dalit youths for skinning a dead cow as a “law and order problem”, which the state government was trying to solve. Rupani even said, on the record, that caste is “not an issue in Gujarat.”
BJP’s Dalit leaders are said to be unhappy with him for never visiting Una, where the incident took place, or meeting the Dalit victims in hospital, despite belonging to the Saurashtra region where the incident took place.
Rajiv Shah is a former political editor of the Times of India in Ahmedabad