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BJP runs into rough weather in Gujarat

By Aditi Phadnis
June 12, 2021 14:51 IST
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Will the Modi-Shah combine replace Vijay Rupani as Gujarat CM?
Aditi Phadnis reports.

IMAGE: Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. PTI Photo
 

It seems not a day passes without the Gujarat government getting a rap on the knuckles from the Gujarat high court over its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Either it is that the state government's lawyers are a soft and vulnerable target.

Or it is the personality of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, who (possibly) has been unable to communicate what the state government has been doing to counter the epidemic. Either way, it is a mess.

Consider what the courts have said about the Gujarat government and COVID-19.

The last stinging remark was while hearing a PIL (public interest litigation) petition on vaccine availability.

'Is the government following a five-year plan for procuring the vaccine?' the court asked, reducing Advocate General Kamal Trivedi into hurriedly supplying data about everything the government was doing to procure more doses.

'We are not doubting the bona fides of the government, but there has to be some more action taken, you will have to find out some other sources,' said the court sternly.

Before this, hearing a case suo motu, the high court said flatly that its earlier directions to upload online real-time updates on hospital bed vacancies were being ignored by the authorities concerned.

And before this, the bench told the government: 'You can't sit (in an) ivory tower and decide we will solve this crisis ... you have to come down to the ground level, see what is the situation. Your affidavit does not reflect any of the ground realities reported everyday everywhere.'

'It is giving a rosy picture as if everything is fine and you're doing your best but what is the demand, what is the supply, how much is the shortfall, from where you will bring the resources -- we don't know.'

To be fair, while Mr Rupani certainly heads the government and is responsible for all branches of it, much of the criticism must be read as being directed against the deputy chief minister holding the health portfolio, Nitin Patel.

Mr Patel has never made any secret of the fact that he is a claimant for the top job.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi was predicted to become prime minister, Mr Patel said he would be happy to take on the responsibility of the chief minister of Gujarat. He enjoys the backing of both Mr Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

From Mehsana, the centre of commercial activity, Mr Patel is an almost unquestioned leader of the Patidar community, a powerful caste vote-bank for the BJP that threatened to move away in the aftermath of the Hardik Patel-led agitation but, amazingly, rallied behind Mr Patel (Nitin) even after that phase of discontentment.

Mr Patel was instrumental in holding talks with his community leaders and assuaging their concerns.

While Mr Rupani is seen as an amiable take-everyone-along kind of leader, Mr Patel is much more pugnacious.

In an interview to a local television channel some months ago, he said: 'Experts in the world are saying that the Corona pandemic is going to continue in the world for a long time ... Therefore, the interest of 6.30 crore citizens of Gujarat and their livelihood are important.'

'Till now, we have been strictly implementing lockdown ... Now a stage has come where we have become acquainted with corona ... Now, if business, jobs, agriculture, animal husbandry, labour work continue to be stopped, then not only a person or his family will be in bad condition, but the state's economic condition will also become very weak.'

'It is not appropriate to let that happen. Relaxations are being given in a phased manner ... We are taking steps to encourage economic activities.'

Mr Rupani has been consistent in every phase of every lockdown, saying the state will be guided by the Centre.

That may be the factual position, but it certainly isn't a political position.

But do all the observations of the high court count towards something? Mr Rupani has his image to back him, of being an accessible leader without airs, even if he is considered largely ineffective, even by his own colleagues.

Sometime in the middle of last year, the chief of the BJP in the state was replaced.

Jitu Vaghani, an Amit Shah protege, was replaced with C R Paatil, a Narendra Modi acolyte.

Currently the MP from Navsari, Mr Paatil, a Maharashtrian whose family migrated to Gujarat many decades ago, was handpicked by Mr Modi as one of his campaign managers in Varanasi in 2019 to handle all backroom activities.

This appointment should be considered a warning to both Mr Rupani and Mr Patel.

Mr Rupani can legitimately blame lack of COVID-19 management on his health minister.

Mr Patel, on the other hand, may find it harder to block the advances made by Mr Paatil.

Elections in the state are due in December 2022. So both Mr Rupani and Mr Patel have time to fix things.

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Aditi Phadnis
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