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Vijay Rupani – PM Modi’s ‘Proxy CM’ or a Formidable Political Force in Gujarat?

Vijay Rupani is only the second BJP CM after Narendra Modi to complete a five-year stint as the CM in Gujarat.

Updated
<div class="paragraphs"><p>File image of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, used for representational purposes.</p></div>
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(This story was first published on 11 August 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives in light of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani stepping down from his post.)

In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) decision to replace Anandiben Patel, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, with a lesser known, low-profile, non-Patidar leader, Vijay Rupani, took many by surprise.

On 31 July, as Rupani kicked off week-long celebrations of his government's five years in power, he become only the second BJP CM after Narendra Modi, and fourth overall, to complete five years at the helm in the state.

But, despite achieving this rare feat, critics continue to call Rupani a 'proxy chief minister' handpicked by the party high command for being 'obedient and 'non-ambitious'.

In this article, we look back at Rupani's five-year tenure as the captain of the BJP's ship in the state and his achievements (or the lack of it) as he enters the coveted club of full-term chief ministers in Gujarat.

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But First, A Quick Recap

Vijay Rupani grew up in Rajkot where he joined the RSS as a school boy. Growing up, he made his way into politics when he joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and got involved in the students struggle committee during the Navnirman Andolan of the 1970s.

For years after that, Rupani grew in ranks in the RSS, the Rajkot civic body and the BJP, where he served as a four-time general secretary of its Gujarat unit.

Transport Minister in Anandiben Patel’s Cabinet, there was nothing particularly striking about Rupani's political career which made him a chief ministerial contender, that too in the presence of regional heavyweights like Nitin Patel and Saurabh Patel.

Yet, he was the 'chosen one'.

It is noteworthy that at a time when the Patidar agitation in Gujarat was at its peak and BJP's victory margin thinnest in almost two decades, the party high-command trusting Rupani – a low-profile Jain leader – for the top job, was by all means a huge gamble.

Did BJP's Gamble Pay Off?

If we look back at Rupani's tenure, not much has changed in Gujarat in terms of growth and development as compared to the terms of previous chief ministers. The growth rate has more or less been steady, except for a slight fall in the pandemic year.

And even as he continues to face flak for the state government's handling of the pandemic and the condition of farmers across the state, his survival in a post-Modi Gujarat finds its roots in several other factors.

Performance in Local Body Polls

Under Rupani's tenure, the BJP has won the rural and urban local body polls. The party registered thumping victories in municipal corporation, municipality, and district panchayat elections.

In fact, in several places, the party performed better than it had during the Modi era. By winning 483 out of the total 576 seats across the 6 civic bodies as compared to the previous election, where it bagged 389 seats, the BJP vastly improved its own performance.

However, most political observers credit these victories to Prime Minister Modi, under whose name and banner the elections were fought.

Senior columnist and writer Urvish Kothari calls Rupani a 'rubber stamp' chief minister.

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"Vijay Rupani has lived up to the expectations of his party command, which in his presence continues to micromanage the state politics. From distribution of portfolios, to wielding influence over bureaucracy, Rupani has very little in his hands."
Urvish Kothari, Senior Columnist and Writer

He further adds that Rupani, since the beginning, has come across as an obedient and non-ambitious chief minister who is taking care of the state of Gujarat in PM Modi's absence. "Rupani has cultivated an image which is not that of a shrewd politician. He is seen as a harmless administrator who never wanted or expected to have the top job, but was trusted with it by the high command."

The Patidar and Other Caste-Based Agitations

When Anandiben resigned as CM of Gujarat, political observers expected another Patidar, possibly Nitin Patel or Saurabh Patel, to take over the reigns of the state.

However, the appointment of Rupani, a low-profile Jain leader, did little to douse the prolonged Patidar agitation. Jains are a significant minority in Gujarat.

Over the years, while Rupani has managed to survive the Patidar and other caste-based agitations – mostly because, as a Jain, he is not seen as a threat or a rival by the Patidars or the OBCs in the state – the party has itself not been able to make any significant progress in renewing its Patel connections.

Tussle With the Deputy

To make matters worse, an internal power tussle with deputy Nitin Patel, has time and again given fodder to speculations around Rupani's resignation.

The power fault-lines within the party started showing in early stages when Patel was visibly upset over portfolio allocations. Newly elected chief minister Rupani, took away several key portfolios – notably, finance, petrochemicals and urban development – from Patel leaving the latter visibly upset. To sort things out, the central leadership had to step in.

Since then, rumour circles have been rife multiple times over the years regarding a change of guard in the Gujarat BJP, most recently after the state government's failure to manage the COVID pandemic.

And almost each time, the central leadership had to step in, to put speculations to rest.

Disarray in the Congress

Gujarat Congress' failure to turn a strong anti-incumbency and change of guard in BJP to its favour, has hugely contributed to the survival of CM Rupani.

There have been several reports of organisation chaos and factionalism within the party.

Following a humiliating defeats in local body polls, Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) president Amit Chavda and the leader of the opposition (LoP) in the Assembly, Paresh Dhanani, have handed over their resignations. However, the party is yet to find their replacements.

Further, timely rumours about Hardik Patel, quitting and joining the Aam Aadmi Party, do not do much to help the Congress.

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The story of Rupani's survival is that of a political underdog who makes his way through every challenge thrown at him, but here's the thing, while virtually addressing the seventh day of celebrations marking five years of Rupani, Home Minister Amit Shah summed it for us when he said that Prime Minister Modi “has put a system in place in Gujarat where development happens automatically.”

Clearly, juggling between tags of a promising 'underdog' and a 'rubber stamp' chief minister, the real five-year success of Rupani will be tested in the BJP's strategy to contest the Assembly polls next year – will the party fight the elections in Rupani's name or will he continue to function under the shadow of the Modi-Shah duo.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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