“Who is Amit Shah?”
That’s what Mamata Banerjee had said in a dismissive rhetorical flourish when asked about the BJP president holding a giant rally in her own backyard.
Shah delivered his answer in Kolkata on Sunday afternoon. As he mopped his bald pate in the afternoon sun, he was determined to ensure it was Mamata who was doing the sweating.
“Main Amit Shah hoon,” he declared. “I am a chhota sa karyakarta (a small official) of the BJP. And I have come to uproot Trinamool from Bengal.”
Shades of his master’s voice there. When Priyanka Gandhi had snootily dismissed Smriti Irani with just such a remark during the election in Amethi, Narendra Modi had risen gallantly to his “chhoti bahen’s” defence. “I will tell you who Smriti Irani is” he had told that crowd. But in Kolkata, Shah did not have Modi to do the honours. But that was no problem. After all, he was not just another BJP president. Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh would not have pulled these crowds during their stints at the top of the party. But Shah was, as Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra reminded the crowd, in Modi’s own words “the man of the match” of the 2014 elections. He could bat solo.
As Shah shaded his eyes to look out at the crowd, what was happening in Kolkata was not just a party rally but a coronation of Amit Shah as a mass political leader rather than a shadowy backroom figure whose career was deemed to have been doomed after he was named in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. Shah has been Modi’s home minister in Gujarat, has never lost an election, has campaigned nationally before and even got into hot water with the Election Commission for fiery comments. But now as BJP president, he gets more heft, a bona fide starring role which is not just about his proximity to The Man. And you could tell that from the way the local leaders fluttered and flattered around him. Amitbhai had just had a tooth operation, West Bengal BJP chief Rahul Sinha told the crowd. But he told me that whatever happens he will come here, even if he has to come on a stretcher, Sinha said admiringly.
Leader after leader congratulated the crowd on creating a “historic jansamudra” for Amit-bhai. That kind of hyperbole is usually reserved for Modi himself. And Modi is not known to look too kindly on ambitious mass leaders within his party. He kept Shivraj Singh Chouhan at arm’s length, he sidelined L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj, snipped Varun Gandhi’s wings in UP. A popular Manohar Parrikar in Goa was absorbed into his cabinet in Delhi which could be seen as a double-edged honour. There are rumours that Vasundhara Raje Scindia might feel the pressure to do the same. Modi prefers the likes of Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar as CM, men known better for their organizational skills (and loyalty) rather than charismatic mass appeal.
“There is usually a difference between the men of the masses and the organizational men,” V Muraleedharan, Kerala BJP chief tells India Today in a cover story about the rise of the RSS pracharak. “In the Communist regime in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu used to be a mass leader while Pramode Dasgupta used to man the organization.”
The quintessential RSS pracharak who would become sanghatan mantri (general secretary, organization) when deputed to the BJP was known, writes India Today as someone low-profile, a “committed ideologue with excellent organizational and people-management skills” who shunned politics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a “sangathan mantri who expressed a desire to stay in politics and was given a rare exception.”
What’s unusual about Shah’s trajectory is he is gets to be in the limelight and built up as a national mass leader even as other powerful BJP leaders are cut down to size. Shah is no longer just the BJP’s behind-the-scenes electoral wizard, a sort of Karl Rove-Chanakya figure more comfortable with spread-sheets and number-crunching than pumping up a sea of supporters.
Shah’s rally in Kolkata was about nothing less than kick-starting the 2016 West Bengal election campaign and throwing the gauntlet down to Mamata. “Your government’s ulti geenti (reverse count) starts now,” said Shah more than once. November 30 was being marked as BJP’s “utthaan diwas” (rise day). The next November 30 will be marked as Trinamool’s “patan diwas” (downfall day) vowed Shah.
This was a far cry from Narendra Modi’s big Kolkata rally where he pulled his punches, flattering Mamata by telling the crowd Didi in Kolkata and Modi in Delhi would mean sweet laddoos in both hands for the people of Bengal. Now the crowd was warned that as long as Mamata was in Kolkata, she would not allow Modi to develop Bengal. The only FDI she would allow, a BJP leader quipped darkly, were bomb-making factories from militant groups in Bangladesh.
Oddly Amit Shah’s big political moment on Sunday was not in what he said, but in his silence. Not that long ago Shah had found his name paired with the Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan in headlines for inflaming communal tensions during election rallies with alleged remarks about “revenge for the insult” inflicted during the Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh. On Sunday as the call to prayer rang out from the nearby mosque in the middle of his speech, Shah fell silent. “Let us pause” he told the crowd “For we do not want to give Didi any excuse.” Groups in the pumped-up crowd ignored him and started chanting Bharat mata ki jai slogans to compete with the azaan but Shah and BJP volunteers quickly shushed them. The symbolism of three-minute silence of Amit Shah and the compensation packages he handed out to the families of slain BJP supporters (all of them Muslim) was not lost on his audience.
Nisar Ahmed, sweeping the front of his shop near the rally site, said it’s a "new" party in Bengal and Shah had “attractive” things to say about development and corruption. “Karega toh achha” he said cautiously.
As a speaker Shah is no Modi. He is not a reticent speaker and has plenty of fire in his belly but showed little of Modi’s sarcastic humour. Modi can play the crowd, tease it, rouse it with his one-liners. It was left to the second rung to deliver those. “Ma, Maati Manush is now Mamata, Madan and Mukul,” snorted Siddharth Nath Singh before going on to add, to wild cheers, that the only M needed in Bengal was "Modi, Modi, Modi". Shah didn’t have too many zingers. He didn’t need them. The crowd was already sold on him.
Mangal Roy from Nadia shows off his lotus tattoo, now faded, dating back to the Vajpayee days. He calls himself a “deshpagal” (mad about his country). He says he came to hear Modi’s vision for Bengal. It didn’t matter to him that Modi was not speaking. He knew that Shah has Modi-ji’s full blessing. “I will listen to Amit Shah to know how we will win next time,” he says. After Haryana and UP and Maharashtra, Shah was the man with the magic touch for the party faithful. The BJP says 1,32,000 people became members of the party through missed calls or going online during the Shah rally. “This is a record,” says Rahul Sinha.
As Amit Shah said dil mein santosh hain.
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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2014 07:27:18 IST