By Ashna Patil
Former Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel was sworn in as governor of Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday, the 26th of January, amidst increasingly frail relations between state Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan, and PM Modi and party leader Amit Shah.
A need to control Chouhan?
That Modi and Amit Shah dislike Shivraj Chouhan is hardly a secret. Chouhan was once propped as a rival to Modi by L.K.Advani, the then-president of the party—something Modi had never been able to forgive. Chouhan, much like Sushma Swaraj, was opposed to Modi being projected in the role of the Prime Minister and made every effort to capitalise on the effect of relative communal harmony that prevailed in the state under him while Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. After Modi’s successful ascension to the role of Prime Minister, Chouhan managed to remain on neutral terms by keeping a low profile and supporting statements made by the Centre, such as defending the gunning down of eight SIMI activists by police outside Bhopal, claiming Congress was playing vote-bank politics by questioning the incident.
After three terms, however, it is clear that Chouhan is on the path to enjoying a fourth. Speculations of him being called back into the relatively powerless Union are rife, but that is unlikely. However much of a threat that may make him to the Modi, calling him to Delhi hurts the BJP’s chances of winning Madhya Pradesh again. The party rightly does not want to make the same mistake it did with Parrikar, following which it lost in Goa. Chouhan is popular in the state, seen by the masses as ‘one of their own’, and his policies and actions have greatly impacted the vote bank.
Anandiben Patel thus seems to have been sent there to keep an eye on him. She has strenuous relations with Amit Shah but is on great terms with the Prime Minister, having worked in close proximity with him for years. Acting as his ears and eyes in the state, this will help Modi keep somewhat of a check on Chouhan’s power, or at least keep him informed about it.
A gradual process of rehabilitation
One of the main reasons Anandiben Patel’s reign was cut short as Chief Minister of Gujarat was the mishandling of the Patidar agitation. Though she had claimed resignation due to turning 75—BJP’s de facto maximum age for being CM—political analysts think otherwise. The Patidar community, comprising roughly 20% of the state, is mostly landed, and socially and politically influential. To give in to their demands was ridiculous, but Patel handled the situation with surprising lack of tact, with excessive police violence and detentions. Patel’s curt and almost cold response came as a shock to politicians and general citizens who had assumed she would succeed in appeasing the community while keeping their devotion to the party intact.
Failure to curtail the Patidar stir cost the BJP dearly in the November 2015 local body elections. Then came the wave of Dalit protests, sparked by the thrashing of five Dalit men in Una of Gir district by cow vigilante groups. This too Anandiben was unable to contain, resulting in several suicides and a drop in the vote bank. Upon this was the spread of news of her daughter’s associates receiving great benefits in land deals. All of this culminated with Ben losing touch with her base, and being forced off by Amit Shah. Sulking since then, Anandiben had decided to contest the assembly polls in 2017.
This appointment thus acts as an effective rehabilitation plan for her, especially after the sparking of rumours of her being unhappy with higher BJP management. Not only does this move quell those and re-establish the base of faith in the party, it also allows Patel to play to her strengths in a state with relatively low communal agitation and violence. Most importantly, however, this ensures she is kept out of the Gujarat state BJP internal faction war, with no chances of returning.
Appeasing the Patidar community
This is also a move clearly meant to placate the Patidar community, both in Gujarat as well as Madhya Pradesh. The latter due to police firing at protestors in the Mandsaur district, which killed five and injured dozens. By removing her from Gujarat, BJP pacifies the community that is still angry about her handling of their woes. By re-installing her in Madhya Pradesh, it provides representation to the farmers who are still bitter about the incident. Either way, appeasing the Patidars gives a huge boost to the party for the next elections.
Rise of an alternate power centre
Prior to this, the last full-time governor of Madhya Pradesh was Ram Naresh Yadav, an embarrassment for Congress after he was linked to the multi-crore Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) scam (Vyapam scam). His age-related illnesses further exaggerated his incompetence. Anandiben, on the other hand, can be seen as a determined go-getter from her response as soon as the news broke: on the 22nd of January she took a bus from Ahmedabad to Bhopal, stopping at a temple in Ujjain along the way. She could have just as easily taken her state-sanctioned aircraft, but her choosing the bus and therefore giving media ample time to report elucidates the impression that she is not going to be a mere ‘rubber stamp’ governor.
On the 28th of January, she hauled up a contractor and some Madhya Pradesh officials over the delay in the construction of an auditorium inside the Raj Bhavan in Bhopal. “I have been public works department minister for seven years,” said Patel, who had taken the oath merely five days prior. “Is this the way to do things?” In response, Chouhan asked to speed things up signifying that her opinions and comments about the public works department, and in general, had the necessary political clout. A little after taking the oath, she’d also asked for the computerisation of files instead of keeping records in manual registers and had directed the vice-chancellors to prepare academic calendars. This too has been put into motion with surprising alacrity.
Anandiben Patel has been known as a good administrator, something her stint as Chief Minister often leads people to overlook. Along with the Prime Minister’s support, she possesses determination and assertiveness required to push matters along. With the progress she has already made, it is hopeful that she makes the government act upon issues it usually shies away from and that the rise of this power centre in Bhopal—away from Chouhan—cements subjects effectively.