In his latest piece for The Washington Post, Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment talks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s enduring popularity as the chief reason why the BJP is likely to retain power despite weak economic fundamentals, rural distress and slowdown in job growth. Vaishnav surmises that many Indian voters “are looking for an excuse to vote for Modi” because they see the incumbent as an incorruptible, decisive leader who needs another five years to “undo 65 years of corruption and administrative rot.”
The writer has a point, but the prime minister’s popularity, though an undeniable factor, might not be the sole determinant in a devilishly complex general elections where the BJP appears to be on front foot and even the bookies agree. BJP chief Amit Shah, Modi’s trusted lieutenant, plays an equally important role in driving the saffron party's juggernaut. And he does so through the most underrated of human virtues, diligence and hard work.
Shah, as party president, is relentless. He maintains a punishing schedule and puts the entire organisational structure of the world’s largest political party through an equally strenuous exercise. His “reputation” for being a hard (even harsh) task master is well-earned, and he acknowledged the fact during his Monday’s freewheeling conversation with Network18 group editor Rahul Joshi.
The most important bit of the exchange did not generate headlines, but that should not take away from its significance. In reply to the interviewer’s question on whether he takes a break from his arduous campaign schedule and his role as the party’s key strategist, Shah said he doesn’t feel the need to and added that attending programmes such as the media interaction at Agenda India 2019 are diversion enough to keep him going.
What kind of schedule and relentless pursuit of goals are we talking about? Shortly after the BJP suffered defeats in three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — in fact almost as soon as the result was declared in December last year — Shah charted out an arduous roadmap for 2019 Lok Sabha elections and gave stiff targets for BJP office-bearers and cadres to meet. Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan didn’t get even two days of relaxation after being ousted from power: Shah immediately asked him to play a pivotal role in general elections.
As The Hindu detailed in a report, Chouhan was asked to be the “star speaker” at a rally in Patna after the national executive meet of the BJP’s OBC Morcha is completed. Shah called a meeting of central office-bearers as well as organisational general secretaries of state units where he stressed that Congress’ win was not “BJP’s defeat”, asked workers to have single-minded focus on 2019 polls and laid out “an extensive programme” for starting preparations.
It came up during Shah’s conversation with Network18 group editor that the BJP president has completed an exhaustive and complete tour of India — from Kashmir to Kanyamumari and Kamrup to Gujarat — and is attending at least three rallies or road shows every day in the lead up to the elections. For instance, Shah was in Odisha on Monday where he took on the Naveen Patnaik government. The BJP hopes to do well in Odisha, which will witness simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, and Shah appeared confident that BJP will reap handsome rewards from the eastern state and will even install a government, ending Patnaik’s 17-year rule.
On Tuesday, Shah headed to Bengaluru on a flash visit where murmurs of unrest are brewing over BJP’s decision to field 28-year-old Tejasvi Surya from Bangalore South and overlooking Tejaswini, wife of the late Union minister Ananth Kumar, ostensibly against the wishes of local MLAs and the party’s state unit. Economic Times reported that Surya’s election campaign “has not really taken off” because state BJP leaders are apparently “upset by the way the central leadership announced Surya’s name without taking them into confidence.”
For Shah, this is just another day in office, but the way he focuses on both the micro and macro aspects of his role as the minder of a humongous party apparatus and manages to keep his ear to the ground despite being the second most powerful man in Indian politics — after the prime minister — speaks of his administrative abilities. Under him, the BJP has expanded its national footprint in uncharted territories without relinquishing hold over its traditional bastions.
This administrative ability — that saw BJP’s membership explode from 20 million to 110 million and counting (as per 2017 figures) — and his effort of putting in the hard yards, covering thousands of miles in campaigning across the country, help Shah acquire perspectives and recognise trends before his peers or even analysts. He puts this acumen to good use while drawing up party strategy.
For instance, during the interview, Shah emphasised that the BJP will improve its tally in Uttar Pradesh from the 73 seats it won during the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Uttar Pradesh is electorally the most significant state, and sends 80 MPs to Parliament. On the face of it, Shah’s words resembled an empty boast. No one expects the BJP to repeat its 2014 feat in Uttar Pradesh, leave alone improving the figure. It isn’t just about anti-incumbency: The arithmetic too is loaded against the BJP this time with arch-rivals SP and BSP joining hands to offer a combined resistance. Simple math suggests that BJP’s tally will halve, if not lessen even more.
Shah, however, emphasised that the old arithmetic of vote bank politics is over because no political party may now claim exclusive rights over a vote bank. The electorate, according to Shah, has moved ahead to take control of their votes, and mandate is now inextricably tied to issues. Shah posits that parties having lost their “banks”, are in no position to strike “deals” over their strengths. This is where the campaign turns presidential and instead of caste-based politics of yore, voters will consider whether to back a leader strong enough to lead India, or repose faith in an alliance that has no leader to speak of.
There could be debates over Shah’s reasoning and until the results are out this debate won’t be settled. It is worth pondering over, however, whether the explosion of social media and its deep-seated reach over almost every strata of Indian polity have made voters, even in the rural hinterlands, more aware of the issues, and whether that may upset traditional calculations. Shah clearly thinks it will, and though part of his statement can be put down to election rhetoric, one shouldn’t overlook the possibility that his theory may work. If the BJP manages to hold its own in Uttar Pradesh, hard work and diligence may look sexier than sloganeering and strategising.
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Updated Date: Apr 02, 2019 19:47:04 IST