BJP President Amit Shah. Photo: Reuters
As president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah
has twice prevailed over it and its power elite. Including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The first occasion was when he fixed a target to enrol 100 million members when the BJP embarked on a national
online campaign in this regard. That was in 2015, months after he took charge. “There were few takers for the ambitious goal he’d set. Many of us advised him to curtail the number to 300,000 but he refused to listen,” an office-bearer recalled. Shah fell short of the mark by a little less than 20 million but with 88 million entrants, the BJP emerged as the world’s largest party.
The second occasion when Shah demonstrated that he would have his way was in the prelude to the Uttar Pradesh election. He insisted the BJP would not field a single Muslim candidate. Modi felt the party ruling at the Centre must “appear” to be “inclusive” and put up a few Muslims; he was backed by a majority. Why indulge in tokenism, was Shah’s answer, in a battle where every seat counted. He won.
However, BJP insiders labour the point that Shah’s “displays” of inflexibility were not a means to assert the party’s place against the Modi government and, by implication, position himself as the PM’s co-equal. A pragmatic view of their equation is that Modi periodically bounces an idea off Shah to test the waters and seek wider validation, without claiming authorship. “As the PM, he could not be seen opposing the idea of putting up Muslim candidates. As BJP president, Shah was in a position to argue against it politically and emphasise the idea was against the party’s interests. It’s a division of labour,” a party official said.
Of Shah’s mandate, a BJP general secretary explains, “He knows the government can function smoothly if the party is robust. The BJP has to expand and the dimensions of expansion have changed. The president has institutionalised the notion and practice of expansion by creating space for new communities, becoming socially acceptable and employing mechanisms that are transparent, sustainable and durable.”
Shah’s dedication to the party organisation is in full swing during his current 95-day tour of all states including those where the BJP barely exists. It makes him a cardinal element in Modi’s soaring political mission. That’s why Modi indulges his protégé, who, back in 2003, had told his mentor off. As Gujarat chief minister, Modi had put Shah, then a junior minister, on a panel to oversee a ‘Narmada Yojana’ rally with two other ministers, Ashok Bhatt and Bhupendrasinh Chudasma, to publicise a grandiose irrigation scheme. Shah told Modi that Bhatt and Chudasma were “too senior” to take orders from him and, therefore, he would excuse himself from the committee. Modi dropped the veterans and allowed young Shah to go solo.
An insider said, “Shah’s modus operandi is simple. He seeks a target from Modi, strategises, goes for the bull’s eye and delivers the results. The secret of their chemistry is that Shah is an expert in second-guessing Modi. He knows when Modi would want an election to be (communally) polarised and when he would want the development theme to be emphasised. He acts, never reacts.”
So, despite the mortifying misses in the Delhi and Bihar polls that followed a string of hits, Modi backed Shah. And, Shah vindicated the faith reposed in him by swinging UP after 15 years.
As Shah darts across the country from Tripura to Lakshadweep, spending three days in each state, he has demonstrated he means business. In Telangana, his message to party workers was to go on the front foot, take on the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi, don’t worry over whether the TRS will vote the BJP-led NDA way in July’s presidential election, be alert and fire up booth management.
To hammer the last point, at meetings, he pulled out papers with names and details of booth committee members and arbitrarily phoned some to cross-verify their antecedents. “He wants to weed out the fake ones,” said G Kishan Reddy, the Telangana party head. He demurred a suggestion that such a method would cause a trust deficit between leader and cadre.
In Thiruvananthapuram, where he laid the foundation stone for the BJP headquarters, a party leader sought to fill him in on the construction plan. A person unknown to the leader contradicted his information. When the leader objected, Shah informed him that the person was a builder he’d brought to peruse the blueprint.
Among the features of his “goal-oriented” template was constructing an office in every district, like the CPI(M) did in its heydays, linking the office real-time with the central headquarters and setting up libraries in these. Himself an avid reader, Shah is said to pore over district gazetteers before visiting a place, to ferret out little known but politically significant data.
To underscore the place of the party office in the BJP’s schema, Shah has set a precedent by staying in one wherever it existed. Among the other norms he pursues is putting up in government guest houses when there is no party office and using commercial, not chartered, flights. “We are saving crores. In the past, bills used to be enormous from prolonged stays in four-star and five-star hotels,” a functionary says. In his ongoing sojourns, Shah’s only regret was that he could not play the nagara at the Somnath temple in Gujarat because it was mechanised. Not many know that he’s a music aficionado who likes playing percussion instruments like the dhol.
Shah & NDA allies: Striking the right chord
Amit Shah’s comfort level with the 47 constituents that make up the National Democratic Alliance depend on whether their partnerships with the Bharatiya Janata Party were initiated and cemented before he became the president or after. After Shah’s takeover of the BJP in September 2014, he got more pro-active in searching out new friends and co-opting them. He maintains a civil but formal relationship with the parties whose existence in the NDA predated his emergence — such as the Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal, Telugu Desam, Lok Janshakti Party, Rashtriya Lok Samata. And, can claim credit for bringing several entities of the northeast, old and new, into the NDA fold. Barring the Sikkim Democratic Front, whose leader, Pawan Chamling, has a personal rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the newbies such as Bodoland People’s Front, Mizo People’s Front, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, Manipur People’s Party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), People’s Party of Arunachal, United Democratic Party, Hill State People’s Democratic Party and Manipur Democratic People’s Front were courted and won over by Shah. The AGP, a difficult nut to crack, regardless of its intrinsic or perceived strength, acted up before the Assam elections. They demanded a seat share that Shah believed was disproportionate to their real worth. With the help of Himanta Biswa Sarma, now an ace BJP strategist who’d defected from the Congress, he beat the AGP leaders down to accepting what he considered was reasonable.
Indeed, Sarma and Ram Madhav, the BJP general secretary minding much of the northeast, are Shah’s eyes and ears to the eight states the party had eyed for years. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, shortly after Shah was appointed as its general secretary in charge in 2013, he spotted a potential in the fledgling Apna Dal that represents the backward Kurmi caste. He sewed an alliance with the Dal before the Lok Sabha poll, pandered to the demands of its leader, Anupriya Patel (now a central minister), taking full advantage of the caste following she commanded. By the time the UP assembly election came, he sought the hand of another caste-based entity, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, clinching a fruitful partnership. In Kerala, too, Shah has collected a few allies. Notably, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena that represents the backward caste of Ezhavas and the Kerala Congress (Nationalist). However, the motley NDA spectrum in the state has a long way to go.