Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision not to axe Najma Heptullah and Kalraj Mishra – two ministerial colleagues above 75 years – from his cabinet has prompted two questions.

One, is the age bar, which he set while assuming power two years ago, and that he forced on the Madhya Pradesh government recently, meant only for those with whom he does not have a good equation? And two, will this have an impact on the fate of Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, who will turn 75 on November 21, and who is under huge pressure from the central leadership to vacate the chief minister’s post ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections in the state?

Age factor

Shortly after he came to power in 2014, Modi used the age rule to keep Bharatiya Janata Party veterans like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi out of the Union cabinet, and to remove them from the parliamentary board, the party’s highest decision-making body.

A week ago, the BJP’s central leadership forced Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to weed out two state ministers above the age of 75. The victims of the age rule included home minister Babulal Gaur, 86, and Public Works Department Minister Sartaj Singh, 76.

Minorities Affairs Minister Najma Heptullah and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Kalraj Mishra are both above 75. Modi’s decision not to apply the same yardstick to his own cabinet has given rise to murmurs in the party.

It is believed that the prime minister’s U-turn on the age rule was caused by his concern that dropping Kalraj Mishra, a prominent Brahmin face in eastern Uttar Pradesh, would send the wrong signal to this upper caste group, which accounts for nearly 9% of the state’s population. Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls next year.

The fact that the BJP is desperate to consolidate voters among this section of the upper caste was clear on Tuesday when, apart from retaining Mishra, Modi inducted one more Brahmin face from eastern Uttar Pradesh. Mahendra Nath Pandey, the BJP MP from Chandauli, is one of three new faces from the politically important state to be induced into Modi’s council of ministers.

Patel strengthened

It remains to be seen whether Modi’s decision to hold his age rule in abeyance will strengthen the party’s position in Uttar Pradesh. What is certain, however, is that it has weakened Modi as well as BJP chief Amit Shah in their tussle against Anandiben Patel. “Now that Modi has dithered on the age rule, he will have problems in persuading Anandiben to give up the post when she becomes 75 in November,” a Gujarat minister, who is considered loyal to Patel, told

As it is, Patel has been working hard to strengthen her position in the state despite the central leadership’s continuous bid to destabilise her. For the last few months, there has been intense speculation that the BJP leadership was planning a possible change of guard in Gujarat ahead of the Assembly elections.

The speculation assumed serious proportions when Patel met Modi and Shah on May 16. The next day she refuted reports of her exit, telling the media in Indore that “nothing like that is on”. But the speculation refused to die down.

In their off-the-record interactions with journalists, the BJP’s central leaders have often suggested that Patel would have to step down once she turned 75. They argued that since Patel poorly handled the Patel quota agitation, the BJP may pay a heavy price if she is allowed to lead the party into the next state elections.

However, Patel acquired a renewed vigour after the BJP snatched from the Congress the Assembly seat of Talala in Gir-Somnath district in a by-election held on May 16.

After that win, her supporters claimed that the party’s central leadership’s argument that she handled the quota agitation poorly was misplaced and that she could very well lead the BJP to victory in the state next year.

Since then Patel too has been doing every bit to quell rumours of a leadership change. She has frequently announced various schemes, and is making an effort to be seen and heard in public more often.

Party insiders feel that Patel’s position vis-à-vis Shah has been further strengthened now that Modi has himself weakened what might have become a potential trap for her.