He got a second term as party president unchallenged. He reversed the BJP’s defeat in Bihar by engineering a spectacular victory in Assam. He defused the Patidar revolt in Gujarat. Narendra Modi’s trusted party chief’s next big challenge is to win the Uttar Pradesh elections in the face of note ban blues.
Some men choose their destiny. Some men are chosen by destiny. The high priest of the BJP, Amitbhai Anilchandra Shah, belongs to the latter category. 2016 has been the Year of Amit Shah. He is one of the few party chiefs who wields enough clout to make or mar even high-profile careers in the organisation and the government. Nobody enjoys the trust of the prime minister like the ‘Hanuman’ to Narendra Modi’s Ram, as a senior minister remarked.
The governing party has had a stormy run, with surprises sprung on it in Bihar last year and springing a pleasant surprise in Assam this year. In January, the bespectacled, deceptively soft-spoken politician from Gujarat—who prefers white kurtas unlike his mentor’s sartorial flair for colour—was elected BJP president for a second time. The Modi loyalist’s coup of the year was Assam, where he took the BJP to its maiden electoral victory in the state May, defeating three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
The party scored 60 seats, in contrast to its previous strength of five MLAs. Under Shah, the BJP registered an energetic upswing in Kerala, when it opened its account in the Assembly even as the Left wave swept the state.
The BJP doubled its vote percentage to 15. In Modi’s Ground Zero, Gujarat—which is also Shah’s political playground—he neutered the new poster boy of reservation Hardik Patel and his Patidar agitation by swiftly replacing Anandiben Patel with decisive administrator Vijay Rupani as the chief minister.
The agitation had hogged the limelight in 2015. When the sun set on 2016, it was evident that Lord Shiva—who Shah worships fervently and regularly at the legendary Somnath Temple—has been kind to him. The BJP ended December with massive wins in local body polls in Chandigarh and Maharashtra, where both Punjab-hungry Arvind Kejriwal and the irascible NDA ally Shiv Sena are challenging demonetisation. In early December, the RSS reportedly sent a note to Modi warning that unless the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are pushed ahead, the BJP could suffer serious setbacks. Shah knows politics is driven by perception. Victories in the Lok Sabha by-elections and local body polls in many states boosted his image as BJP’s Chanakya.
Shah’s organisational abilities. He believes in thorough preparations and is equally resourceful to scale up the level of campaigning to make the rivals look small. The BJP chief is also tech-savvy.
Relies excessively on a few trusted lieutenants. Since he seeks to micro-manage party affairs, independent-minded politicians have begun distancing themselves from him. He is also seen as a status quoist, for he has not brought any major changes in the BJP’s approach.
Shah became BJP chief because Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted a “perfect” government-party coordination. Elections in five states are his opportunities to prove his mettle and grow out of Modi’s shadow.
Demonetisation is Modi’s biggest decision yet, but it is the loudest threat to Shah. If BJP loses state elections in 2017, the Opposition may galvanise to throw an alternative front for 2019. Losses in 2017 can also make the silent dissidence in BJP vocal against Shah’s style of functioning.
The credit for the BJP’s golden run in 2016 in Congress bastions goes to Shah, thanks to the robust party infrastructure he created on the ground. The BJP president delegates responsibility even as he holds the reins of the party firmly in his hands. Glory in Assam spurred him to start consolidation and expansion of the party base in states where the BJP footprint is negligible.
“The credit for the BJP’s golden run in 2016 in traditional Congress bastions goes to him, thanks to the robust party infrastructure he created on the ground,” said a senior BJP functionary.
Unlike his idol, Shah delegates responsibility even as he holds the reins of the party firmly in his hands. He allowed his Northeast wingman Ram Madhav to run the show in Assam. Madhav crafted the combination of Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, which turned the tide decisively in the BJP’s favour.
Glory in Assam spurred Shah to start consolidation and expansion of the party base in states where the BJP footprint is negligible. The party returned to Kozikode for its national council meet in September. In the east, after the Bihar debacle, the BJP is building a base in West Bengal to seize the political vacuum left by a weakened Left. Shah entrusted West Bengal affairs to trusted lieutenants Kailash Vijayvargia and Siddharth Nath Singh. The reward was an unprecedented second position in the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha bypolls, where it polled a 35 per cent vote share.
“There is no class area or region where the BJP has not made its presence felt. Under the leadership of the BJP chief, the party won in Assam and opened accounts in Manipur and Kerala. The BJP’s expansion makes it obvious that the party chief is seeking to implement Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan, ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas’,” said BJP in-charge of Jharkhand and Rajya Sabha member Ram Vichar Netam.
Expansion is what Modi’s BJP general is banking on. Sources say in Gujarat, after quelling Hardik, Shah has guaranteed the prime minister victory in the 2017 state polls. Shah had installed Nitin Patel as Deputy Chief Minister to manage the angry Patidar community. In a few months, the BJP registered surprise wins in local elections in the politically volatile Saurashtra region, a traditional Patel bastion. The brewing Gujarat problem was fixed.
The BJP’s advantage in having a party chief like Shah is the synergy he brings between the government and the party, as well as accord with the RSS, which was missing in the previous NDA regime in 1998 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. If the composition and colour of the last Cabinet reshuffle on July 21, 2016, are indications, sources say Shah played a key role in choosing ministers and changing portfolios. The entry in the Modi Cabinet of Anil Madhav Dave; Faggan Singh Kulaste; Dalit leader from UP, Krishna Raj, and Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel bore Shah’s stamp.
Shah’s power is derived from a deep-rooted belief in himself. For the man facing the greatest test of his career in Uttar Pradesh, the past held lessons. Para-dropping outside leaders into state polls, giving tickets to defectors and ignoring the claims of local leaders was a Congress tradition. But in Bihar and Delhi, it cost Shah. In the two states, dissidence found a voice against the party boss. Bihar MPs Shatrughan Sinha, Kirti Azad and Bhola Singh openly expressed their anger in public—unheard in Modi’s BJP.
Slighted Deputy CM of Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, was flying out to Delhi in the belief he could wrangle a Rajya Sabha nomination and even become a minister. Shah’s response summarised the famous line in Mario Puzo’s Godfather, that revenge as a dish is best served cold. Shah chose Gopal Narayan Singh for the Rajya Sabha, ignoring Sushil Modi’s claims. In 2016, he replaced state chief Mangal Pandey with Lok Sabha member Nitya Nand Rai, a Yadav leader. “Shah hopes the Yadavs will leave Lalu Prasad’s stable and vote for the BJP,” said a BJP Lok Sabha member from Bihar.
The message was loud and clear: party loyalists will be rewarded, and rebellion—even from old loyalists—will not be tolerated.
For Delhi, the Shah doctrine was the same. Modi has often punned wryly that the Delhi BJP has too many Vijays (Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Vijay Goel, Vijyendra Gupta). All three leaders reportedly worked at cross-purposes. Shah put his money on popular Bhojpuri singer and Lok Sabha member from North East Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, as state head. In doing so, Shah redefined social engineering in the capital.
“Tiwari will prove to be very effective. It was a well thought-out decision by the party president. Delhi does not belong to any specific class or group. Tiwari will live up to the expectations of the BJP chief,” said former Delhi BJP chief Vijender Gupta.
Party workers say Shah diagnosed that the party was refusing to acknowledge Delhi’s demographic change. Voters from Bihar and eastern UP constitute almost half of the capital’s population, but the BJP wasn’t prepared to change from a Punjabi-Baniya-dominated outfit to a party that gave representation to Poorvanchalis. Arvind Kejriwal had exploited this vacuum to the hilt. “With Tiwari at the helm of affairs, Shah has sought a course correction,” said a Shah aide.
However, he has chosen to keep intact Team 2014, which had delivered. The party constitution mandates that a new party president must change at least 25 percent of office-bearers. But this is the Brave New BJP. “Shah seems to trust the 2014 team highly, and maybe is a little superstitious by not changing it,” quipped a BJP national general secretary.
The BJP’s constitution demands that executive meetings at district and state levels must be concluded after the National Council meeting and before the National Executive meeting. Shah understands how important people connect is to the party’s fortunes. Insiders say that all the office-bearers, including the general secretaries, are kept on their toes. Each has been assigned a state with the responsibility of overseeing district and state level meetings. They have been asked to prepare meticulous reports, which will be deliberated at party headquarters.
“Lok Sabha member Satyapal Singh and I visited Howrah as part of the Parliamentary party delegation for a ground level assessment of areas affected by communal riots. We discovered the unfortunate fact that the West Bengal government has not arrested even a single anti-social element, while senior police officers who sought to take action against the miscreants were shunted out,” said Jagdambika Pal, Lok Sabha member. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims erupted over a procession to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed last week.
Shah’s organisational skill has wrought the party into a vast, well-oiled machine geared to spread the prime minister’s message, expand its mass base and be electorally effective through coordination with its various arms. The leaders have also been asked to collect feedback and seek solutions from the constituents to effectively implement various Centrally-sponsored schemes. Shah has put in place Sahyog events, where people from all over the country come to BJP’s national headquarters at 11 Ashoka Road in Delhi to present memoranda. All ministers have to compulsorily attend these and give on-the-spot solutions.
“Sahyog is a good initiative. I never miss the meetings, during which problems of the people are solved on the spot,” said Union Minister for Human Resources Development Prakash Javadekar. Gone are the days when mantris could luxuriate in Delhi’s salons and hobnob with power brokers. In a marked departure from the UPA era, they are regularly seen engaged in party work. UP and Bihar contributed 105 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 to the BJP kitty. “If their contribution is halved, the BJP will be reduced to about 215 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. Hence, states where the BJP is not a force have to compensate,” says an MP. Shah has meticulously been focusing on Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and the Northeast. “These states hold huge potential for the BJP in the near future,” a senior functionary says.
Apart from his symbiotic equation with the prime minister, Shah enjoys a smooth synergy with the RSS. He hardly misses an opportunity to be seen in the company of Sangh leaders. He attends all the important RSS functions. “The political compulsions of the BJP and the RSS to spread its ideology in new regions have similarities. The RSS is helping the BJP energetically to spread its wings in new regions,” says another BJP functionary.
With about two-and-a-half years to go, Shah’s target is 300-plus Lok Sabha seats in 2019. “There is a vacuum in the Opposition at the national level. Just a few states like West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana hold a near monopoly in the Opposition,” the party functionary adds.
However, the note ban will test the BJP chief’s formidable political and organisational skills. “Its actual impact on the economy is yet to be seen, and much pain is expected in the coming months. India will not scale the 8 per cent GDP growth wall until the last year of the government. Economic stress will percolate at all social levels, which may affect the BJP’s political prospects,” he adds.
Since failures are known to have no fathers, adverse electoral outcomes in UP, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand could make Shah’s path thorny. Many within the party are waiting for him to fail. These states will not be fought on a Modi wave. If Shah succeeds, he will consolidate his identity as BJP’s opening batsman and pace bowler both. If 2016 was Shah’s year, 2017 will be the Year of Affirmation ahead of 2019, the BJP’s Year of Recknoning.
The immediate challenge is to ensure the BJP’s win in at least Uttar Pradesh, of the five states going to polls. It has been apparent that Shah will also lead the BJP campaign to retain power in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Therefore, he has to make sure that the party expands in new areas, which can enable it to stay in power even if anti-incumbency in the cow belt region brings down the BJP’s tally.
His inner circle
Shah’s key men who help him plan and execute poll strategies
Crossing paths Shah with
Congress president Sonia Gandhi at a Dussehra celebration in Delhi
Shah wields the broom with party workers, sweeping forward the PM’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in Mumbai
The BJP president makes a fashion statement with a muffler
Shah, who wants more lotus to bloom in Kerala, arrives for the BJP’s national council meet in Kozhikode