The ideology-agnostic election strategist Prashant Kishor has proclaimed victory over Amit Shah in the seven-year-long ‘now-here, now-there’ elections contests between the two. In multiple media interactions following the Trinamool Congress’s landslide victory in West Bengal last week, he made two assertions that would have been sneered at for being preposterous, if made by any other person involved in politics.
One, Shah is the “most over-rated political and poll manager. A disaster.” Two, “this (West Bengal assembly election) is my third head-to-head with him and all three times I have defeated him – in Bihar in 2015, in Delhi and in Bengal.” He added, Shah was vanquished even in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, although clarifying that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had contested in the two states in an alliance.
Kishor failed to mention the 2017 state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where his ‘client’ party (the Congress) came a cropper. He took no responsibility and asserted Rahul Gandhi was not a “serious fighter”. Despite his divergences with the Congress party (and family) surfacing in 2016, he stuck to his job and the criticism was post-facto.
Although he was selective in recalling his past battles, Kishor’s claims regarding Shah’s political inadequacies merit scrutiny because they come amidst the most serious political and administrative challenge that Modi faces.
Kishor’s audacious claims cannot be dismissed because he was once an insider who worked closely with the Modi-Shah duo. Despite Shah and Kishor sharing immense mutual disdain, both owe their fame to the fruition of the ‘Modi as PM’ project in 2014.
Both men have consolidated themselves in their respective areas of expertise: While Kishor plays an influencing role in enabling people to select who makes policy, Shah does so personally. Yet, Kishor’s significance cannot be dismissed, for even Shah responds to Kishor’s assertions routinely, underscoring the fact that he considers his adversary significant enough to merit a retort.
In the middle of the Bengal elections, for example, Shah responded to Kishor’s much-hyped claim that the BJP’s tally in the state will be below 100. In 2017 too, an article written by a journalist was posted on Shah’s website, headlined, ‘What Prashant Kishor should learn after drubbing from Amit Shah, Modi in UP.’
A SWOT analysis of Shah is necessary on its own and not just due to Kishor’s assessment. After all, he is India’s second most powerful person. On most issues, the Modi-Shah duo thinks and works as a team. Barring rare instances, they have their way in government, party and with the opposition.
Shah is perhaps the only person whom Modi trusts entirely. On crucial issues, the prime minister also depends on his long-time aide. It has often been said that but for Shah, Modi would not have been able tp wield power to the extent he does.
Although Modi’s ties with several other BJP leaders predated his proximity with Shah, the latter became his closest aide chiefly because the two share secrets. Given that the home ministry was among the bouquet of Shah’s portfolios between 2002-2010 as a cabinet minister in Modi’s Gujarat, several contentious events occurred under his charge.
As allegations of irregularities mounted and culminated in Shah’s arrest, the two came closer. His political resurrection in 2013, when he was given the duty of stewarding the party’s campaign in UP, signalled that little had changed in their commitment towards one another.
Shah’s strength as an election manager lies in channeling the party’s organisational machinery and polarising the electorate, sometimes with success and at times not. In the 2014 elections, the Muzaffarnagar riots of the previous year were a god-sent opportunity. Without doubt, the BJP’s spectacular performance in UP enabled Modi to become the first leader in three decades with a parliamentary majority of his own. But if Shah succeeded in delivering the state to him, this was largely due to the ‘Modi as PM’ campaign which began in 2011 – a project in which Kishor played a pivotal role.
In the 2014 campaign, Kishor and other professionals from non-political backgrounds provided technological support and introduced American-style campaigning methods, which made an impact. But once Shah became party president, there was no space for them because they saw themselves as being bigger than the party network.
In no time, Shah positioned himself as someone who builds the most efficient election machinery, except that in less than 18 months, he suffered two embarrassing setbacks – first in Delhi and then Bihar.
But, with a commanding publicity apparatus capable of reaching hundreds of millions of people and assistance from an unquestioning media, a legend was created. True that with the innovative ‘give a missed call’ drive, Shah built the largest electioneering device in the world. Yet, after several years, questions remain if the expansion of the party was merely on paper or actually on the ground.
Little thought was given to the fact that the mechanism for which Shah was credited drew on the RSS network built over decades. Furthermore, all accolades went to Shah, although the effort to increase the efficiency of the ‘booth-level in-charge system’ (given the catchy tag of panna pramukh) was first devised by Shivraj Singh Chouhan in 2013.
When he became Union home minister after the 2019 elections, Shah handed over the party’s reins. It was said that a system had been put in place, it merely required a backroom manager, thereby the low-profile J.P. Nadda. Still, Shah continued as de facto party president save when blame needed to be apportioned, as in Bihar last year when the election results were too close for the BJP’s comfort. While showering compliments on Shah as poll strategist, party supporters are silent on the defeats in Maharashtra and Jharkhand and the near-miss in Haryana, all under his watch.
In West Bengal too, the charge was led by the Modi-Shah combine, chiefly. The two successfully marketed the untruth of Mamata Banerjee appeasing Muslims to the extent that she was forced to become defensive about inclusive socio-economic policies she introduced. Shah squarely failed thereafter, because of his poor ability to understand regions he is not familiar with and thereby exposed himself as a fixed-formula person.
The former Tripura governor, an RSS old-timer now with the BJP, Tathagata Roy, too was biting in his criticism of the quartet who micro-managed West Bengal for Shah. Calling them KDSA, he accused them on Twitter of sullying the image of Modi and Shah, although Roy attacked the working style that carries Shah’s hallmark.
Kailash-Dilip-Shiv-Arvind (KDSA) foursome have dragged the names of our respected Prime Minister and Home Minister through mud and have sullied the name of the biggest political party in the world. Sitting atop Agarwal Bhavan of Hastings (W Bengal BJP’s election headquarters)
— Tathagata Roy (@tathagata2) May 6, 2021
The four – Kailash Vijayvargiya, Dilip Ghosh, Shivprakash and Arvind Menon – are Shah loyalists and allowed little space to Roy. Shivprakash, a BJP central apparatchik also has pinned a mobile number on his Twitter page asking people for a missed call to endorse the BJP’s campaign against alleged post-poll violence. Roy accused the quartet of being an “uninspired, mercenary bunch of people with no political insight, no analytical abilities, no sense of Bengali sensitivities.” The verdict showed that at least the last accusation could even be made for both Shah and Modi.
The two areas where Shah’s capacity cannot be doubted are fierce loyalty to Modi and his ideological commitment. As home minister, he is relentless in achieving the Sangh parivar‘s ideological objective. But matters not high on the list of ideological priorities are paid little attention.
Thus, he displays little interest or aptitude in matters related to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. For several weeks last year, speculation mounted over his absence in public, both before and after his bout with the virus. This year too, as India continues grappling with a ferocious second phase, speculation mounts on the need for other leaders to play a bigger role in the government’s fight against the virus.
Clearly, unobtrusive efficiency is not Shah’s hallmark, either as poll manager or minister. He remains a leader who plays mainly only on the higher octaves.