Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah is sitting at the head of an organisation that has no resemblance to the one he took charge of three years ago. He has transformed a mostly-cadre-based party — almost all of it loaned from RSS and affiliates — into the world's largest political party by membership. He has ensured that the party struck roots, polling booth by polling booth, bringing unprecedented electoral dividends from across the country.
Reversals in Delhi, Bihar — and more recently, the botched up Operation Ahmed Patel — notwithstanding, Amit Shah has cemented his place as the second-most powerful man in India. Known for his ruthless decision-making and the relentless pressure he places on the party structure to keep it battle-ready, Shah evokes awe for his seemingly unmatched organisational skills and electoral strategies.
Now, three years into his stint as BJP president, Shah has overseen some stunning successes, and some reversals. Today, it is easy to bestow titles like "election winning machine" on Shah. But what did Narendra Modi see in Shah 30 years ago, which made him zero down on a man 14 years his junior as his most trusted political aide?
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Modi — first as RSS pracharak and then as Gujarat BJP's organisational secretary — was already getting a first-hand experience of Shah's political and organisational skills. But it was when they worked closely together in the formative years of BJP's emergence in Gujarat that Modi realised a quality Shah is not otherwise associated with: Simplicity. People in the know within the BJP relate an anecdote to underscore this little-known aspect of Shah's personality: The story goes that Shah insisted on wearing a pair of simple khadi clothes for his wedding. Opulence, even beyond affordability, is a given in Indian weddings. And here was a well-heeled Gujarati business family groom wearing khadi for his wedding attire. This was certainly not normal. Shah's commitment to the cause, to the point of being stubborn, caught Modi's attention, and he took him under his wings.
Simplicity in personal habits was a mantra Modi himself swore by, following his years of grounding as wandering RSS pracharak. But simplicity alone wouldn't have taken Shah very far with Modi. Another trait that Modi liked in Shah was his ability to take risks. Shah was a congenital risk-taker. A few months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he volunteered as the party's general secretary to oversee polls in the country’s largest state — Uttar Pradesh. His friends cautioned him about the risk of treading a land mine where leaders with larger-than-life egos would cross swords with him at every instance. Even Modi was averse to the idea of Shah going to Uttar Pradesh, as the state was far too complex to comprehend, on account of caste cleavages, religious acrimony and vestiges of feudal past. But Shah insisted and eventually delivered 73 out of 80 parliamentary seats for the NDA. This prompted Modi to declare him as the "man of the match", immediately after the elections.
As Rajnath Singh moved to the government as Union home minister, Shah was given the assignment of leading the party. The decision met with a certain amount of scepticism. And it was not without reason, given Shah's limited experience at the national level. Though BJP won major states like Haryana and Maharashtra, its debacle in Delhi was seen as a singular failure on Shah's part. A section of the party's top leadership was dismayed by Shah's campaigning, which relied heavily on muscle and money.
His perceived "abrasiveness" was attributed as the prime cause of the party's debacle in Delhi. But Delhi was too small a defeat to warrant a significant change in style of functioning of Shah. This was followed by a comprehensive defeat in Bihar where a combination of JD(U), RJD and Congress clearly outfoxed Shah and the BJP. In spite of these setbacks, however, Shah was credited with achieving an unattainable feat of establishing the BJP as a prime political force in the North East. The party got Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur in its kitty. Only a year ago, it was unthinkable that the BJP would make any impact in the North East.
Then came the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. This was a real test for Shah on two counts: First, it was coming on the back of the Delhi and Bihar reversals, and second, the NDA's Lok Sabha success of 73 seats became a challenge for him: How could he better that? Anything less than a spectacular win would be seen as a loss of BJP's sheen and the Lok Sabha showing to be a mere electoral fluke. And there was little doubt that Uttar Pradesh was the toughest ground for Shah, as he had to grapple with unpredictable variables of party stalwarts' egos, their coteries, and complex caste calculus. But by this time, Shah had learnt lessons from his mistakes in Bihar and Delhi and prepared a roadmap well in advance.
Much before the Assembly polls were scheduled, Shah travelled across the state and co-opted various caste groups from the OBCs and scheduled castes, and offered them a share in power. He co-opted leaders like SP Baghel, Dara Singh Chauhan and certain BSP leaders to build a formidable social block of non-Yadav OBCs. At the same time, he also disabused senior leaders in the state of any notion that their patronage would ensure tickets for chosen candidates. He was very clear in his mind that winnability was the only criterion.
In spite of pressure from within to project a face for the chief minister, he decided not to do so, over fears of losing the accretion of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav SCs. What he was trying to build was a social mosaic which had never been attempted before. And this entailed a serious risk. But Shah enjoyed the total trust of Modi throughout this time. This is the precise reason why Modi put his own prestige fully at stake, by turning the state Assembly election as his personal battle.
Those working with him recall how he would not let party units, right from the block level to the national level, while away time. His 115-day programme of travelling across the country by hopping on commercial flights, trains and road stands in sharp contrast to similar programmes organised by previous BJP presidents. In similar programmes by LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi or Rajnath Singh, the BJP president used to be the focus of the campaign. But Shah launched the most intense campaigns without keeping himself at the centre. He consciously checked the culture of hiring chartered flights for travel of party leaders so as to establish greater connect of the leadership and the organisation with the people.
It's not without reason that Shah is seen as a veritable number two in the BJP's scheme of things. For the first time, he has introduced many innovative methods to strengthen the party's organisation, largely borrowed from Modi's book in Gujarat. That he is not a traditional, mild-mannered leader who believes in circumlocution has ruffled many feathers in the BJP's top echelons. At times even senior state leaders have described him as "arrogant and inaccessible", which is in quite in contrast to his generally amiable and accessible predecessors. But Shah is different, if for nothing else but the fact that he is a genuine extension, a mirror image, of Narendra Modi himself.
Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 16:29 PM