Outcomes influence attitudes and the outcome of the just concluded elections is that the improved fortunes of the Congress is having a profound influence on the attitude of the BJP in Gujarat.
Gujarat BJP leaders who had lost their larynx during the decade and a quarter long Narendra Modi rule in Gujarat have found their voice after the polls. The first ‘presentation’ came when Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel demonstrated the strength of his vocals after BJP chief Amit Shah sought to hollow out his power entrails while leaving the deputy chief ministerial hard cover intact.
BJP leaders fondly relate how Congress in Gujarat is remotely controlled from Delhi. That the BJP is walking the same beaten track became evident from the pitiable plight of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and his entire Cabinet sworn in on December 26 and made to wait for the next two days for allocation of portfolios, a process which normally takes just a few hours after swearing-in. Why? The Prime Minister was busy with the Triple Talaq Bill in Parliament and with party chief Amit Shah, also similarly engaged, Gujarat was put on hold. It was former state party chief Jitu Vaghani, now a minister who let the cat out of the bag when he said that the Cabinet meeting here was delayed because of the ongoing Parliament meeting. The Cabinet meeting, kept waiting into the night before the portfolios were cleared from Delhi. Thereafter, all hell broke loose. Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel had harsh words to say to the chief minister. And for obvious reasons.
Patel, in the new allotment, found himself being stripped off of three key portfolios of Finance, Urban Development and Petroleum and instead given Health, Roads and Buildings beside projects like medical education, Kalpasar and Capital projects. Patel termed it a matter of honour and refused to join. According to him, Finance is a portfolio kept by the Number two in the Cabinet. In this case, it had been given to Saurabh Patel while Chief Minister Vijay Rupani kept Urban Development with himself. Nitin saw this as a move to cut him to size and reacted harshly, refusing to take charge.
Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP would hardly bother. But soon Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti(PAAS) leader Hardik Patel waded into the controversy and so did the rejuvenated Gujarat Congress. “If BJP does not respect him, Nitin Patel should leave the party. We will talk with Congress so that he regains his prestige,” said Hardik. Chimed in Congress leader Virji Thummar, “If he joins the Congress with ten legislators, we will make him the chief minister.” Soon after, three senior ministers were at the doorstep of Nitin Patel and so were RSS prant pracharak Chintan Upadhayay and Sangh leader Hasmukh Patel for an hour-long closed-door meeting. And the Finance portfolio was restored to Nitin Patel.
The behind–the-scenes-story is that Shah had planned Nitin Patel’s wing clipping. In fact, the hope was that Patel would lose the election in view of the PAAS pique against him. So it was decided to resurrect Saurabh Patel, a minister who all along handled petroleum, even finance through the Modi years but was dropped when Rupani was inducted chief minister to replace Anandiben Patel in 2016. Saurabh is the son-in-law of Reliance Baron late Dhirubhai Ambani’s brother Ramnik Ambani. The Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) came under a cloud during Modi rule with it’s accumulated debt of Rs 20,000 crore and complete inability to deliver any gas from its KG basin discovery announced by Modi himself as carrying reserves of 20 trillion cubic feet (TCF). The largest ever find by an Indian company proved to be a hoax. With the CAG venting its mind on the subject, GSPC now sought to be ‘parceled off’ to the ONGC, which can prove to be a major embarrassment to the Prime Minister. Saurabh, who was all along minister-in-charge, would be the inevitable guy in the front when push comes to shove.
Another former minister who failed to make it to the Cabinet despite being elected from Porbandar defeating Congress leader Arjun Modvadia is Babubhai Bokharia. He had been retained in the Cabinet despite being convicted earlier though subsequently cleared but was left out this time. The man had fallen from BJP chief Amit Shah’s grace. Instead, it was ‘Godmother’s’ son Kandhal Jadeja, an NCP legislator from Kutiyana who is being showered with affection ignoring his criminal antecedents for sheer caste calculations. Kandhal defied an NCP whip and voted for the BJP against Ahmed Patel in the last Rajya Sabha elections.
Nitin’s show of defiance against Shah will rank as the first such case in the last decade which has forced the BJP top brass (Read Shah-Modi) to back off and restore the finance portfolio to the deputy chief minister. The last such case was when former minister Gordhan Jhadapia who was dropped by then chief minister Modi, post-2002 refused a Cabinet berth at the swearing-in ceremony on August 1, 2005.
It has nevertheless opened a Pandora’s box with all manner of elected legislators and even ministers openly venting their spleen. If Purshottam Solanki flexed his Koli community muscle stating that being made the minister of state for fisheries was hardly in keeping with the stature of five times elected legislator. “The chief minister keeps 12 portfolios with him. I deserve a better one too,” he was quoted as saying, even as he organised a demonstration in his own support within the ministerial enclave and boycotted the Cabinet meeting. Others followed suit. Jetha bharvad, Yogesh Patel left out of the cabinet, were among those who joined the clamour taking BJP chief Amit Shah by surprise with the sheer intensity of the eruptions. For the moment, the BJP top brass has sought to buy time promising a reshuffle and is considering appointing parliamentary secretaries to provide the perks of power to a larger number but this has its own attendant problems.
The fact is that the new found muscle flexing within the BJP, the deputy chief minister’s defiance included, owes much to the Congress’ renewed vigour in the state and it’s new emerging, impertinent youth order which is more than ready to match the ruling party blow for blow in a slugfest.
Following the defeat of the Gujarat Congress top four - Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modvadia, Siddarth Patel and Tushar Chaudhary - and state party chief Bharatsinh Solanki not contesting the elections, 41-year-old Paresh Dhanani, a Patidar youth is the new leader of the Congress opposition in the Vidhan Sabha. With the force multiplier triad of OBC leader Alpesh Thakore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani already in the Assembly and Patidar leader Hardik Patel making known his opposition to the BJP, the emerging youth leadership of the reinforced Congress in Gujarat is set to give the fractious ruling BJP a run for its money.
It is the Congress’ turbo-charged tail which has begun wagging the BJP’s bulky body in Gujarat!