On August 1, Anandiben Patel, the first woman chief minister of Gujarat, became the first chief minister in the country to post her resignation on social media. In an age when social media often dictates headlines, Patel’s move seemed perfect. Her timing was also just right. With her announcement, the media attention has shifted from the ongoing agitation against the public flogging of dalit youths for allegedly skinning a dead cow. Though this has given the BJP in Gujarat some relief, the party is faced with a dilemma: who will fill Anandiben's shoes?
For, there are many contenders for the top post—health minister Nitin Patel, state party president Vijay Rupani, Union minister Purushottam Rupala, education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama and BJP state general secretary Bhikhu Dalsaniya. The name of BJP president Amit Shah, who does not share a good equation with Anandiben, was also doing the rounds, but it has been ruled out by the BJP.
When Anandiben took over the reins from Narendra Modi in 2014, she had an uphill task of living up to the expectations of the masses and the standards set by Modi. Though any comparison between the two would be unfair, she did manage to hold the fort. But insiders said she did not receive much support from the party. That, they pointed out, could be the real reason behind her decision to quit, and not the age factor as mentioned in her resignation letter. A BJP leader from Ahmedabad said she had brought this lack of support to the notice of the party leadership as well. “Anandiben made important administrative changes. But she was not satisfied and appeared angry,” he said.
The fault lines within the party were visible during the April announcement on the reservation for the poor among the upper castes. It was made by cabinet minister Rupani, and not Anandiben, who was seated next to him. She also found herself pushed into a corner during the Patidar agitation, which resulted in electoral reverses for the BJP in the recent civic polls. Anandiben faced attack on the personal front as well. The state government was accused of favouring business partners of Anar Patel, her daughter, by giving land at throwaway prices near the Gir forest reserve.
The new chief minister, therefore, has his task cut out. “The legitimacy of the BJP is at an all-time low. Dalits and Patels, who were the mainstay of the BJP, have drifted away from the party,” said Prakash Shah, a political observer.
Containing the dalit unrest would be a priority for the party and the government. Several NGOs and activists like Jignesh Mevani have been organising protests across the state to keep the agitation alive. Also, the Patidar agitation is far from over. Hardik Patel, who is staying in Udaipur on court orders, has been quite vocal on emerging political situations.
The Congress, which has been out of power for nearly two decades, could benefit from the situation. So, it came as no surprise when opposition leader Shankersinh Vaghela termed Anandiben's resignation as her 'political encounter', without naming Modi or Shah.
Also trying to cash in is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is trying to expand its base in Gujarat. Though the state has always seen a two-party system, the AAP could cash in by highlighting public issues. Given the current backlash against the BJP and the lack of support for the Congress, this is in the realm of possibility.
Gujarat will go to polls only in 2017, but the BJP will have to keep these factors in mind while choosing Anandiben's replacement. If the party plans to placate the Patidars, Nitin Patel, who hails from north Gujarat, could make the cut. The BJP, however, will have to come up with a new strategy to deal with the dalit agitation as it does not have a single dalit face for the top job.
The final call rests with Modi. Commenting on Modi's knack of springing surprises, a BJP leader said: “Sanjay Joshi does not get along well with Modi, or else even he could be named the new chief minister.”