The change of guard in Gujarat wasn't so much about outgoing Chief Minister Vijay Rupani or his replacement Bhupendra Patel or the several other leaders who may have "missed the bus" yet again. It was more about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah's style of functioning.
Some see the decision as a "proof of their arrogance" while others called it "another masterstroke" — in the end, people's opinion about the change in Gujarat was mainly a product of what they thought of Modi and Shah.
The truth is somewhere in between these positions.
This article will argue that the change of CM in Gujarat was the result of political pragmatism on the part of the Modi-Shah duo but with a hint of "high command" culture that they are being accused of.
There are three elements to this:
VIJAY RUPANI REMOVED AS A RESULT OF NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
Clearly, Modi and Shah received feedback that with one year to go for the elections, the BJP may not be in a good position under Rupani's leadership and that there was need for a change.
The need to reach out to Patidars is evident from the fact that Rupani has been replaced by a Leuva Patel leader Bhupendra Patel, who is involved with several community organisations like Vishwa Umiya Foundation and Sardar Dham.
This does reflect a certain degree of flexibility and pragmatism on the part of Modi and Shah. Rupani was made CM in 2016 at a time when caste polarisation in Gujarat was at a high, with the Patidar community demanding reservations and OBC leaders carrying out counter protests.
At that time removing Anandiben Patel, seen negatively by both sides, was imperative and in her place Vijay Rupani was appointed. Being a soft-spoken leader from a Jain background, Rupani wasn't seen in an antagonistic manner by any of the caste groups.
But five years later, circumstances had changed. Caste polarisation isn't as intense now. But the BJP still had to win back Patidars especially in Saurashtra.
There were fears that if Congress projects Hardik Patel or Paresh Dhanani as the CM candidate, it could harm the BJP's base in the community.
Meanwhile, Rupani's failure in tackling COVID as well as the persisting rural unrest meant that continuing with him would only worsen matters.
As a result, Rupani has been replaced by Bhupendra Patel, a Patidar and a loyalist of the very leader Rupani had replaced — Anandiben Patel.
THE CASES OF KARNATAKA, UTTARAKHAND, ASSAM, AND THE UNION CABINET RESHUFFLE
Rupani's removal isn't an isolated case. Modi and Shah have made some more crucial changes in the past one year, in line with changed political realities and calculations. Some of these changes may even be counter-intuitive given their past track record.
BS Yediyurappa was replaced as Karnataka Chief Minister by Basavaraj Bommai. Bommai's appointment was surprising as despite being from a Janata Dal background, he was picked ahead of several BJP leaders with a strong RSS lineage.
But he was seen as the best possible way to balance between the various competing factions in the state unit while also keeping Yediyurappa and the Lingayat in good humour.
In Uttarakhand, the BJP had been on a downslide under CM Trivendra Singh Rawat and the decline continued despite replacing him with Tirath Singh Rawat. Barely four months after this change, Modi and Shah replaced Tirath Singh Rawat with 45-year-old Pushkar Dhami.
While this may not be enough to turn things around for BJP in the state, reports do suggest that the BJP's decline may have slowed down to some extent.
The change of CM in Assam after the BJP's win in the Assembly elections is a slightly different case and represents changing priorities of the party.
Sarbananda Sonowal being from an AASU and AGP background, played an important role in helping BJP capture the Assamese nationalist space and expand in upper Assam.
But his purpose had been served and the party now decided to move to a leader like Himanta Biswa Sarma who was ideologically more pro-Hindutva and displayed greater committment to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act in the state.
It's not just changes of CM, even the reshuffle in the Union Council of Ministers reflected the need to act on feedback from the ground. This is particularly evident in the caste profile of the new ministers from Uttar Pradesh: Two Kurmis, one Lodh, one Pasi, one Dhangar, one Kori, and one Brahmin. Except the one Brahmin minister, the others were part of the BJP's attempts to maintain its hold over the non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit votes, which may have been drifting away from the party.
Now, it's quite possible that their appointment may not prevent these communities from drifting away from the BJP or the changes of guard in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Karnataka don't help stem anti-incumbency in these states.
But at least these decisions do reflect the ability of Modi and Shah to make changes based on changed circumstances and negative feedback. In contrast, the Congress is still struggling to manage Punjab where Captain Amarinder Singh continues to be at the helm despite a great deal of anti-incumbency.
RISE OF HIGH COMMAND CULTURE
While Modi and Shah may have been responding to changed circumstances, the change of guard in Gujarat also reflects the establishment of a high command culture in the BJP. This is something that the party has criticised the Congress for.
Despite his connection to Patidar organisation, there's no denying the fact that Bhupendra Patel is a political lightweight. He's a first-time MLA and won from a known BJP bastion like Ghatlodia in Ahmedabad.
Even if Modi and Shah wanted to appease Patidars, there were several leaders with relatively more political clout that the party could have chosen from such as Parshottam Rupala, RC Faldu, Jitu Vaghani besides of course Deputy CM Nitin Patel, who lost out yet again and may seen his influence reducing even further.
It is clear that the party leadership wanted a political lightweight. The Congress has already called Bhupendra Patel a "remote-controlled chief minister".
Besides the need to control things from Delhi, Modi and Shah are also sending a message that no body is indispensible in their scheme of things.
"Wo kisi ko bhi zameen se laakar pad de sakte hain aur bade se bade chehre ko vaapas zameen par gira sakte hain (He can bring anyone from the ground and give them a position and he can also bring down even the most prominent of faces back on the ground)," this is what a BJP functionary had told The Quint after the Cabinet expansion.
This holds true for CM appointments as well. Modi and Shah want to send the message to everyone in the BJP that no one should take their position for granted, even a first time MLA like Bhupendra Patel, a junior leader like Pushkar Dhami or an "outsider" like Basavaraj Bommai can be rewarded with top positions if the party leadership so wills.
But there's another problem with Modi and Shah's approach. While they do seem to be deft in acting on negative feedback by changing CMs or ministers, it doesn't extend to themselves.
The economic mess, the devastation caused due to COVID-19 or Chinese incursions have all gone without any heads rolling in the central government, except for former health minister Harsh Vardhan. It appears that the negative feedback doesn't apply to key central ministers nor does it lead to any major course correction from the government.
Another exception has been Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who manages to survive despite cricisim of his handling of the pandemic. This is mainly due to the political clout he seems to have acquired independent of PM Modi, especially among Hindutva hardliners. So in the end, the key to survival in Modi-Shah's scheme of things isn't performance.