Politics

The Rise and Rise of Amit Shah (and What this Means for the BJP)

Children blow conch shells as flower petals are showered on Amit Shah after he was re-elected BJP president, in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Children blow conch shells as flower petals are showered on Amit Shah after he was re-elected BJP president, in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Without any doubt, Amit Shah getting a second term as Bharatiya Janata Party president is proof that Prime Minister Narendra Modi retains complete control of the party organisation. The successful ‘election’ of Shah last Sunday confirmed that the ruling party and government will work in sync. Discordant voices heard during the Vajpayee regime from within the party and when the United Progressive Alliance was in power will not be heard and the BJP shall remain subservient to the ‘leader’ – controlled directly or via remote control. In this case, Shah is Modi’s ‘gadget’ to exercise total control of the party.

To be fair to Modi, he is not the first Indian prime minister to make his party an appendage to his personal and political agenda.

Indira Gandhi progressively assumed control of both government and party after first becoming prime minister 50 years ago in January 1966. All Congress PMs thereafter (there were only two – Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao) prior to Manmohan Singh were also party presidents. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could not hold the post because the BJP practised the principle of one-person, one-post and after Lal Krishna Advani stepped aside, party apparatchik, Kushabhau Thakre was given the charge. But the moment Vajpayee began exercising control, especially after renewing his mandate in October 1999, he got Bangaru Laxman installed as party chief.

In contrast to the subjugation of the party by the government, the Left Front evolved a different structure. During the heady days of LF rule in West Bengal, the party completely dominated the government at the lower and middle levels.

Vajpayee could not reach Stalinist levels of control over the party, but Modi succeeded from the beginning and this has just been reaffirmed. In the week that followed the Modi-led general election victory in 2014, there were deliberations within the Sangh parivar on who should take charge of the baton from Rajnath Singh as he moved to government. The name of JP Nadda had cropped up at that time. He had all things going for him – the backing of the RSS for being an activist from his student days, and a non-controversial past. He was also an old Modi loyalist, having spent time in the Himachal Pradesh state unit when Modi was managing the state’s political affairs as general secretary of the party. Yet when Modi made his viewpoint known – because Shah scored more on both loyalty and performance factors – there were few who opposed his choice. Thus, the man whom his detractors within and without have considered manipulative, arrogant and ruthless became president.

Sohrabuddin and Snoopgate

To understand the importance of Shah in the rise of Modi, one has to revisit the period in July 2010 when the Central Bureau of Investigations filed a charge sheet against Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. He was arrested and placed in detention for several months. Until the moment Shah was grounded by investigations in the case, he was being considered a vital cog in the wheel that would manage Modi’s eventual move to Delhi. His arrest and detention slowed the momentum down somewhat. There was also consensus that the bio-chemistry graduate would move into the chief minister’s office in Gandhinagar once Modi made the transition to central politics. A one-time chairman of the Gujarat State Chess Association, Shah obviously shared strategy and much more with Modi.

The extent of their association surfaced in November 2013, by when Modi was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Shah was general secretary commandeering the party’s campaign in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh. This is when the story broke that Shah as home minister of the state had ordered the tapping of a young woman’s phone as she moved around Gujarat and even Bangalore. Despite the tales woven by BJP spin doctors, few believed that Modi had no interest in keeping track of the woman and monitoring who she conversed with. But eventually, just as all cases against Shah – including Sohrabuddin – have ‘crumbled’ one by one after the Modi government assumed office, this case too, labelled ‘Snoopgate’, was closed after favourable statements were obtained from the woman and her family.

If the period between 2010 and 2012 can be said to the most difficult period in Shah’s political career, the time beginning September 2012 – when the Supreme Court granted bail to Shah in the Sohrabuddin matter – and allowed him to once again visit Gujarat – till early 2015, can be said to be his golden period.

In this time, he contested successfully for the Gujarat assembly once again, was appointed general secretary of BJP, was given charge of UP and declared ‘man of the match’ by Modi in a stirring recognition of his abilities in delivering the BJP a majority in the Lok Sabha. The following months also saw the BJP register handsome electoral victories in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. In the states that went to polls prior to J&K, Shah propounded the ‘go it alone’ argument and despite scepticism over the BJP breaking ties its oldest electoral ally – the Shiv Sena – the party was able to form the government as senior partner. The BJP may not have been successful in accomplishing ‘Mission 44+’ in J&K, but the fact that it was able to eventually share power for the first time in the state was seen as another success for Shah. It seemed he had the Midas touch and nothing that he undertook could go wrong.

Bouncing back from Bihar

But by late 2014, whispers were being heard and his arrogance became a commonly discussed subject in hushed tones in party circles. The charges against Shah were two-fold: that he had alienated the office of the BJP president from the party’s mid-command and cadre, and that the BJP’s collegiate and collective style of decision-making had been abandoned for a top-down form of decision making in which there were no consultations and only diktats were issued. The electoral debacles in Delhi and Bihar have been attributed to these two factors because few were willing to say that the blame could be placed at Modi’s doorstep. It also demonstrated that Shah performed well when the going was good but not otherwise.

Larger than life. Amit Shah at a recent political rally. Credit: PTI

Looming Large: Amit Shah at a recent political rally. Credit: PTI

Shah weathered the storm that gathered after the Bihar verdict that saw the first open rebellion in the Modi era. Now, Modi has managed to secure another term for his ally, a decision which would have clearly been accompanied by a certain amount of give and take. Assurances of being more inclusive and consultative in his work style would have been made on his behalf as well as personally. This will be a daunting challenge because being more open to ideas besides one’s own can be a tall order for someone so steeped in self-belief.

As president for a second term, Shah’s task is cut out. His first challenge will be to ‘befriend’ the party and become an endearing leader rather than one who merely evokes fear and awe. Shah has completed 17 months as BJP president with the benefit of the plea of being an ‘outsider’. But this excuse will no longer be to his benefit, especially as he has to work towards the evolution of the party from the loose collective it still is to a more structured party. Rigid hierarchies do not readily find acceptance in India and Shah will have to become more accommodative. The BJP has a tradition and political philosophy that is at variance with the ‘His Master’s Voice’ culture of the Congress. Shah’s success or failure will depend on his ability to come to terms with this reality.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist. He has written a biography of Narendra Modi and his latest book is Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984Email: nilanjan.mukhopadhyay@gmail.com