NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a party loyalist on Friday to lead his home state of Gujarat in an effort to broaden his support base ahead of crucial state elections next year.
The decision to appoint Vijay Rupani, the president of his party in the western state and a member of the minority Jain community, as Gujarat chief minister surprised many who had expected Modi to name a representative from a powerful clan that staged violent protests last year.
Instead Modi picked Nitin Patel, a member of the upper-caste Patel, or Patidar, community that took to the state’s streets last year, as Rupani’s deputy, O. P. Panchal, an official in the Gujarat chief minister’s office, told Reuters.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party faces a number of key state elections next year where he will need to reach out to different communities and castes if he is to win.
The 65-year-old prime minister ruled Gujarat for more than a decade. He pitched his “Gujarat model” of rapid economic growth to voters in the 2014 national election and, if he is to secure a second term, can ill afford a setback when the state goes to the polls in late 2017.
Rupani replaces Anandiben Patel, who tendered her resignation on Monday following protests over a lack of job opportunities and social discrimination.
Members of the Patel community rose up last year in Gujarat to demand “reservation”, a guaranteed share of government jobs and college places usually reserved for disadvantaged groups.
Further protests in Gujarat last weekend by the low-caste Dalit community over attacks by militant Hindus who oppose cow slaughter have underlined the need for Modi to appeal to different social groups.
Nitin Patel told Indian news channels on Friday he was determined to start a dialogue with Dalit leaders and find ways to end the agitation.
Dalits are planning more protests to express their outrage at the public beating of four men from their community by cow-protection vigilantes who accused them skinning a cow.
Reporting by Rupam Jain; additional reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Douglas Busvine