The general on the warpath

Amit Shah is crisscrossing the country, creating a booth-level movement that could return the BJP to power in 2019  By Ravi Shankar

Published: 16th July 2017 07:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th July 2017 07:40 AM   |  A+A-

In the mandala of statecraft are words that resound with karma. Juggernaut is one, which owes its etymology to the Jagannath Rath Yatra in Odisha where BJP President Amit Shah is spreading the ideology of the party and preparing the state and party for the Assembly elections scheduled in 2019. Says he, “I’m travelling through states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power and states where it is yet to. The intention of my tour is to strengthen the BJP in all parts of the country.”

In the 35 months since he took over as party head in 2014, he has clocked 5.6 lakh-plus kilometres over 303 tours, holding over 536 rallies. The man never rests, not even inside his campaign vehicle, where his staff fields the endless stream of calls regarding issues concerning the party and the government. Giving quick instructions, the multitasking head of the BJP disposes of matters even as he prepares to address the gathering at the next stop with local flavour and a national message.

Shah’s juggernaut, as it rolls through the Southern and Eastern states, challenging established satraps such as Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Siddaramaiah and the cadre-strong Left in Kerala, aims to capture the 120-odd seats the BJP couldn’t bag in 2014. In 2019, he plans to change the paradigm of electoral campaigning.

His innovation of taking ideology to the booth level with the slogan ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazboot’ (My Booth is the Strongest) has kicked off a mammoth competitive party campaign involving senior party leaders, Union ministers, national general secretaries, volunteers and ordinary party workers on an unprecedented scale. Shah’s purpose is to take the fight to the opponent’s strongholds, using the ripple effect of ideology and political messaging under the Pt Deendayal Upadhyaya Vistarak Programme. In Odisha, he invaded Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-dominated areas in Ganjam, Cuttack and Jajpur districts in a white Scorpio, starting out from the state guest-house in Bhubaneswar—the BJP chief doesn’t believe in staying in luxury hotels or flying business class, which has caused much heartburn among senior leaders, according to a party General Secretary.

In Dakkhin Katiajote village in West Bengal, a Dalit family greets him with jamai ador—the special treatment reserved for son-in-laws—where he asserts the Trinamool Congress cannot stop Modi’s chariot. In Kerala, escorted by scores of motorcycles flying the saffron and green party flag, he garlands colonial-era social reformer Ayyankali’s statue, declaring that nothing can stop the BJP from coming to power. In Odisha, Shah’s convoy is 40 vehicles long, rolling through Rambha, Chamakhandi and Berhampur in Ganjam, and Neulapur and Jarka in Jajpur district—mostly BJD territory. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s constituency is in Hinjli, Ganjam, where Shah gets a warm welcome. Every 10 kilometres or so, Modi’s indomitable general is stopped by crowds choking flyovers and roads, lining the streets of small towns and waiting for him with bouquets and belief at roadside platforms. The crowd is so thick that he can barely step out, but the famed discipline of party cadres ensure that everything goes off smoothly.

The air resounds with cries of ‘Amit Shah Swagatam, Amit Shah Swagatam’.  His instinct for local connect is on display, as he comforts the mother of a BJP worker who was murdered by opponents; at a highway stop at Khordha, he praises the Paika rebels who had fought the British during the great rebellion of 1817. The people there revere Bakshi Jagabandhu, the Paika warrior who was killed by East India Company soldiers. Shah, like his icon Modi, milks the power of the social media effectively. As he moves out from Khordha, he immediately tweets, “The great Paika Rebellion in 1817 was led by Bakshi Jagabandhu Paika Bakshi projecting Lord Jagannath as the symbol of Odia unity.” Unifying Odisha for the BJP—as well as other target states—under the Modi banner is his slogan as he continues his journey to unite all of India under the saffron standard.

The BJP chief is being assisted in his organisational work by full-time Vistaraks of which there are three categories—those who devote their time for one year, six months and 15 days. He had himself worked as one for 15 days. The BJP has so far over four lakh Vistaraks to form booth committees and enrol more members for a nationwide social outreach. On Shah’s agenda are West Bengal, Telangana, Lakshadweep, Odisha, Gujarat and the Northeast.

He says, “The BJP has succeeded in taking organisational strength to the booth level everywhere.” Shah spends three days in each state, visiting polling booths, forming booth committees, and interacting with booth- and panchayat-level workers. In West Bengal, it was in Naxalbari where he sounded the bugle first; it was the womb of the Naxalite movement in India. The flag-off was fraught with symbology—challenging the violence of the Naxals and TMC cadres with combative ideology. He says the government pays armed Naxalites back in the same coin. “We have won over people in these areas with development,” he says. In the state, Shah’s booth committee strategy has been unleashed against the TMC, Left and the Congress by deploying 43 lakh cadres in over 60,000 booths of 77,000 in a three-pronged drive.

The mandate of booth workers is to carry messages on development from their party president to be spread at the local level. Uttar Pradesh was the largest laboratory of Shah’s booth strategy where committee meetings held in 1.40 lakh booths well before the Assembly polls charged the cadre with organisational voltage. His strategy of inclusivity in Kerala to counter the Left involves wooing Christian leaders, many of whom had praised Modi before the 2014 polls: in January, Shah met Cardinal Mar George Alancherry at Kochi.

Amit Shah with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

During his three-day visit to West Bengal in May, he attacked the Trinamool Congress for promoting violence and appeasement politics—a dig at the Islamisation of parts of West Bengal along the Bangladesh border. After the Basirhat riots, this had retrospective resonance. Illegal immigration was also a factor in BJP winning Assam in 2016. In Tripura, where the Communists have ruled for over 24 years, the BJP strength has grown from 2,000-odd members to more than two lakh since 2014. By the time the country gets ready for the 2019 General Elections, Shah expects to set up booth committees in the over 9.7 lakh polling booths across the country—an exercise of such magnitude that it will take all of the BJP chief’s chutzpah and organisational skills to pull off.

The development mantra is integral to Shah’s campaign in these states. Getting off the highway to Hugulpatta village in Odisha, his convoy passes through a narrow unpaved Vermillion mud path running through village green, under the benediction of ancient trees beside which haystacks sleep like dozing hopes in a state infected by mass poverty.

At the public booth meeting, he recalls encountering Odias who come to Gujarat, his home state, in search of work. “I feel both happy and sad. Happy to meet them, but sad that they cannot find employment in their own state.” There are many Odias working in Surat. There is a divine connection too—Lord Jagannath; since both states are home to eponymous temples. Over a million of Odisha’s population of 47 million are officially unemployed. At roadside meetings small and big, attended by crowds ranging from a few hundred to many thousands, Shah promises work so that people can live “in comfort with their parents, wives and children”.

In Hugulpatta, where the houses of the poor are less than four feet wide, his promise has emotional connect. On the stage where heavy hitters such as Central ministers and senior party officials keep Shah company, is also a young man wearing a saffron cap—the local booth head. The BJP chief engages him in an animated discussion.

A local leader garlands the Chief and tries to touch his feet, which he stops with a mild hug. The message from the podium about his working style comes through loud and clear: youth first and no sycophancy, please. He exhorts people to work shoulder to shoulder with Modi to empower their states. His blunderbuss is aimed at corruption in state governments: the joke doing the rounds is that Odisha’s Patnaik government is a ‘PC (percentage) sarkar’—hinting at the reported commission charged by bureaucrats and politicians to get work done. “The Centre is giving Odisha money which doesn’t reach the poor,” Shah announces from umpteen stages; all caravanserais of powerful rhetoric.

His caravan passes through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country; the distant adamantine stretches of the vast Chilika Lake, the passive salt fields of Humma, rows of kewra trees from which ittar is made and the smooth slopes of Barunei hills where the Eastern Ghats begin as a gentle gradient of shadowy violet. Storks meditate on green vistas of paddy where black turbaned palmyra trees interrupt the neat rectangles of fields. Colourful temples glow by the wayside, adorned with figurines of local mythological serpents, lions and icons.

Uttar Pradesh With Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya before the Assembly elections in Basti 

But beneath all the beauty is mind numbing poverty and prejudice; even today Balichhai village in Ganjam is a ghost village, from where its Dalit residents fled after upper caste mobs torched their homes 17 years ago. Burning Dalit homes is not an exclusive feature of Uttar Pradesh’s cast escape but afflicts Odisha as well. Shah’s visits to their homes to share frugal meals of dal, roti and shredded potato are signals of repudiation—that the BJP will protect Dalits as one with them.

Last year, he took a holy dip with Dalit sadhus in the Kshipra river in Ujjain. His strategy of deploying BJP’s Dalit MPs to campaign in 85 reserved Assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh paid off. Last month when he visited Puducherry as part of his Vistarak campaign, he garlanded the statue of the southern poet and freedom fighter Subramania Bharati, a Brahmin who championed Dalits against upper caste prejudice, who had even conducted the sacred thread ceremony of a young Dalit. Through it all, ‘Development’, with a capital D—the catchword, which helped Narendra Modi become Prime Minister—is Shah’s leitmotif.

Modi’s trusted journeyman eats up miles the way an armoured regiment on the offensive does. The Vistrit Pravas, which Shah started in April, involves three-day visits to all states and Union Territories—200,000-odd kilometres over 95 days to review government projects such as Swachh Bharat and Beti Padhao, and the work of various departments with strict deadlines. Booth-level expansion, empowering local workers, strengthening the party’s cultural focus, training Vistaraks and bonding with specific groups are cardinal aspects of this drive.

But it’s not just mass communication that is on the agenda. Shah has been holding intellectual meets in most states he visits. Statements take the place of slogans; he discusses serious issues such as economy and economics, defence, national pride and comparative evaluation—all “without tension”. In Goa, he took the high ground abjuring attacks on Congress corruption but placing stress on the benefits of development. Match. Set. Goal. He explains the government’s banking crusade to intellectuals with candid clarity.

“Can you imagine a life without a bank account?” was his disarming question at a meet in Goa. It was a different Amit Shah on stage; disarming, smiling and even joking—unlike the austere man in spotless white linen at whose word even senior party leaders and ministers are known to shiver. Along with vernacular writers and thinkers, Shah has been inviting a discourse with ideologically-aligned English writers and bloggers, too, holding closed-door meetings to discuss the party’s thought thrust. Going by the response he is getting from dusty roadsides, state highways and exclusive auditoriums, there seems to be a strong undercurrent gathering force in favour of the BJP—a velocity the party chief is intent on harnessing like he did in Uttar Pradesh. In Odisha too, the stress is on progress—lack of toilets, doctors and electricity in villages.

“The spirit of the Constitution hasn’t percolated to the grassroots,” he says.
Sitting in a sparsely furnished room in the Jajpur Circuit House, snacking on grapes and nuts, the country’s second most powerful man says the Modi government has ended many contradictions prevailing in the country. Amit Shah is good at reconciling contradictions himself; being both the ultimate party worker and powerful party boss.

It was from the Jagannath Temple in Odisha that his idol Narendra Modi kicked off his prime ministerial campaign in the state. “Amitji has a strong connection with Odisha since his first rally after becoming the party president was held in Puri, after taking Lord Jagannath’s darshan,” says a party general secretary accompanying him. And it was in Odisha in 2015 that he became an active member in the state from Gopinathpur village near Bhubaneswar by formally inducting 129 new members into the saffron fold—a BJP worker can become an active member by enrolling over 100 primary members.

Both mass leader and number cruncher par excellence, Shah is an enigma to both party men and Opposition leaders; the statistician who understands the power of the electoral calculus by penetrating the grassroots also dominates the most rarefied heights of the party structure. The yatra of Amit Shah is about drawing a roadmap for the party. The karma of Modi’s ‘Hanuman’ is not just to help return the BJP to power with increased land spread in 2019, but also to look beyond this decade to create the Age of Modi in perpetuity.

Karnataka Flagging off a motorcycle rally as part of the party’s ‘Tiranga Yatra’ campaign

Regional Meetings
The entire country has been divided into seven zones. Each zone is expected to hold at least one meeting every year where public representatives or office-bearers do brainstorming for expansion of the party.

Core Group
Every state has formed a core group of 13 members, which is expected to meet at least once in six weeks. Proceedings of the meetings are evaluated by the national president.

Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya  Vistarak  Programme 
Under this, the party has called for full-time Vistaraks. There are three categories of Vistarak—one year, six months and 15 days. So far, over four lakh Vistaraks across the country have volunteered to work for the party. Their task includes forming booth committees, enrolling new members, reaching out to difficult social segments, approaching opinion leaders etc. At the end of this exercise, the party is expected to have a strong organisation till booth level in every corner of the country.

Vistrit Pravas
Office-bearers of 12 central organisations have been asked to visit every state on a regular basis. The thrust is to expand party organisation till the booth level. Pravas entails night stay in government guest houses. Use of chartered flights is prohibited.Dates in the map show the tour programme of Amit Shah during his all-India Vistrit and Vistarak Pravas in 2017. 


‘After Being in Power for Over Three Years, Not a Single Allegation of Corruption Has Been Levelled Against Anybody in the BJP’

Some political yatras are to win elections; some go beyond elections and become movements that perpetuate an ideology. What do you plan to achieve with your visits to the states?
I’m on an 110-day tour of India. The purpose of my tour is to both expand the party’s ideology and organisation. It has nothing to do with elections. I’m travelling through states where the Bharatiya Janata Party has formed the government as well as states where it is yet to come to power. The intention of the tour is to strengthen the BJP in all parts of the country.

How does this micromanagement work?
For the Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya Centenary, four lakh BJP workers have set out as Vistaraks. Each of them will work for 15 days in around 750,000 booths across the country. Over 4,000 workers will work full-time for six months to a year. These Vistaraks will handle each and every constituency, and will make the BJP even more formidable before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

What is the BJP doing to spread its ideology among Indians living abroad?
Our Vistaraks are spreading our ideology. Abroad too, the BJP has units for this purpose.

You’re opening libraries in party offices across the country. What kind of books will they have?
We’ve decided to set up a party office in each district. In their libraries, besides ideological works, there will be books on history, debates on the Constitution and books that contribute positively to national politics. The libraries will be staffed by ideologically-committed scholarly workers of the BJP.

The PM spoke about samarasta (social harmony) and samata (equality) at a recent function in Delhi. How do you plan to achieve them?

If you have development that is sarvasparshi (touching everything and everyone) and sarvasamaveshak (inclusive), samarasta and samata will follow automatically. As far as the spirit of the Constitution is concerned, even after 70 years of Independence, the culture of samarasta and samata ka sanskaar has not percolated to the grassroots. The spirit of the Constitution has not fully been realised.

Kerala In Thiruvananthapuram, paying tributes to social reformer Ayyankali

For years, Uttar Pradesh has been one of the most violent states for lower castes and women. Many parts of it are very poor. How can it be fixed? How does the Centre plan to help Yogi Adityanath?
UP will certainly get its share of development funds from the Centre. As far as the law and order situation is concerned, when the police and administration do not operate under the compulsions of caste and religion, there will be an automatic reduction in violence. I believe three festering wounds, which can lead to gangrene, have been plaguing democracy in India. They are casteism, dynasty politics and appeasement. After the BJP’s victory in UP, the country has been freed from these wounds.

There seems to be a strong demand from J&K political leaders outside the Valley for a trifurcation of the state. Comment?
That must never happen.

The Congress organisation was large. Why did it decline in your opinion?
I feel dynasty and corruption were the main reasons.

Does the BJP want a Congress-mukt Bharat or a BJP-sampann Bharat?
By Congress-mukt Bharat, we mean a Bharat free of Congress culture. Thereby, we want the country to be free of caste-based politics, dynastic politics and the politics of corruption.

Will the BJP be able to carry out a sustained campaign against Pakistan? As a political party, how will it pressure the government to act?
There is no question of pressure. The government is constantly alert for any threats to national security. It is committed to meeting such threats forcefully.

We carried out surgical strikes. This country is prepared to do anything to defend itself. We believe in the politics of strength, and the world has taken note. 

Comment on China policy?
It won’t be proper of me to comment on this at this juncture.

So many of our soldiers and policemen are killed by terrorists. Is anything being done for them and their families?
Every security force in this country has its own rules to honour its men. I believe the forces themselves should decide. Every regiment and every battalion must remember their martyrs, their history and tradition.

You are the most successful BJP president in the party’s history. Any lessons learned from your predecessors?
Crores of BJP workers are behind the success of the BJP. It’s not right to give credit to any particular party president. However, the fact is that today the BJP has become the world’s largest political movement. It has 1,378 MLAs, 13 state governments, four governments with alliance partners and a majority at the Centre. I believe Modiji’s leadership has taken the party much ahead of where it was in 2014. But the journey is not over yet. Kaafi journey hamaari baaki hai. I’m sure in 2019, under Modiji’s leadership, the BJP will strengthen its position all over the country.

Would you care to elaborate?
A total of 104 satellites were launched simultaneously. This is unprecedented. The philosophy of the Narendra Modi government is responsible for this achievement. No government had cleared One Rank One Pension for 50 years. We did it at one go. We’ve decided that before May 2018, there will not be a single village in the country without electricity. Of 18,000, this has been achieved in 13,000 villages. Our target was to give five crore poor families gas cylinders by 2019; 2.25 crore have already got them.

NITI Aayog says the government’s claim in rural electrification is not correct; only one electrical connection has been given per village.  
It doesn’t work like that. First, the village has to get electricity. If the village itself doesn’t have electricity, how will any house there get it? Once electrification happens, there is a different scheme to take power to the homes. The first bulb installed in a village is a symbol that electricity is available there. Afterwards, comes the Gram Jyoti Yojna. Work is on now. Every home will have power soon.

And what is the government doing for the poor?
We have decided that by 2019, thousands of toilets will be built in the homes of the poor. Work is on at full tilt. When we came to power, around 60 per cent of families did not have bank accounts. By opening 29 crore accounts, we have connected each and every citizen of India to the economy.  

What are you doing for the youth?
Some 7.5 crore youth have been granted loans of `10,000-`10 lakh for self-employment. The lives of numerous youth have been transformed under Skill India. Stand Up India, Startup India has enabled Dalits and technocrats to live with self-respect.

What about farmers?
So much has been done which was pending since Independence. Under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna, lakhs of farmers are protected from crop loss due to natural calamities. Pradhan Mantri Irrigation Yojna has irrigated large tracts of land. Once a rare commodity, urea is now available for everyone due to neem coating. E-mandis are being established to get good price for farm produce and laboratory research is percolating down through Soil Health cards.This is a government, which believes in Complete Development, with much work being done in this direction over three years until now.

Did demonetisation and GST really help?
Demonetisation was a war against black money, terrorism and corruption. GST has unified India and will boost growth. Lakhs of people have been brought under the tax net in both cases.

What is the achievement that you’re most proud of?
After being in power for over three years, it’s significant that not a single allegation of corruption has been levelled against anybody in the BJP. I believe this is a big achievement. Under the Congress government, scams exceeding Rs12 lakh crore took place. But now, governance is proceeding in a non-corrupt fashion.  Prime Minister Narendra Modiji is the most popular leader of post-Independent India. He is a leader who is loved all over the world.

Both you and the prime minister never seem to rest. Where does this energy come from?
(Laughs) When we see crores of party men working so hard, we get inspired by them. For instance, I just met a 72-year-old man in a village who was actively engaged in crowd control before I arrived. I asked him, “Dada, how old are you?” And he replied with a smile, “I’m only 72”, with the emphasis on “only”. We get inspiration from people like him.

How do you relax?
Right now I am relaxed (laughs).

Don’t you miss your family with all this travelling?
When I go to Gujarat, I stay with my family. When I am in Delhi, they visit me often.

Do you call yourself a political optimist or realist?
It is not proper to pose such questions. We have been working long before the BJP and the Jan Sangh became strong. So, the question of personal ambition does not arise. Our ideology has satya (truth) and sattva (virtue), and is deeply rooted in Indian culture. That is why we are optimistic as a party.

You are often referred to as the Chanakya of Indian politics. The great Chanakya’s stratagems contributed to the creation of the great Maurya empire. How relevant is the Arthasastra to you?
Not just the Maurya empire, he united India (laughs). I have been compared to Chanakya very often in the past. But Chanakya’s Arthasastra is relevant even today.

Who are the great strategists in India’s history?
There are so many of them. It’s not proper to mention just a few names. Many figures have done much to take the country to the highest levels.

What are you reading now? 

Maratha history.

India Matters


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