Shahnama: The right hand of saffron power

The BJP president’s eye for detail and gargantuan efforts have taken his party to the pinnacle of power for the second time running, and earned him the number 2 slot in the Cabinet

Firstpost print Edition

It was a little less than a year ago that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah, who has been awarded the Home portfolio in Modi 2.0 Cabinet, delivered the first Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial Oration, instituted by the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, on the 180th birth anniversary year of the Bengali litterateur. In his speech, Shah cut loose at the politics of appeasement as effected by Trinamool leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, going back in time to pin the start of it all on the Congress.

Politics over Chattopadhyay has always been divisive; the intellectuals of Kolkata were outraged by Shah’s full frontal attack from the GD Birla Sabhaghar. Sensing the ruling Trinamool’s jitters, Shah told his rapt audience, mostly young academics and thinkers from across the state, on how the Congress had in 1937 acquiesced to Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s strong-arm tactics when the party’s working committee recognised the “validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song”, and restricted its singing to the first “two stanzas”.

This appeasement, Shah said, was among the first acts that ultimately led to Partition which indelibly scarred the Bengali psyche. From this sweep of history, Shah swooped on to the present day, linking the past to the contemporary plight of bhadralok (Bengali gentleman) grappling with Banerjee’s brand of appeasement politics that targets the votes of the state’s Muslim minority.

Shah went on to demolish the popular construct that Chattopadhyay’s writings had a communal tinge. He argued how the Bengali civil servant, who served under the colonial British, spoke of India as a geo-cultural and spiritual entity rather than a geo-political identity that was vividly captured in his description of India as mother.

Shah’s rigour for research into historical events and re-purposing them to set the political agenda, his admirers say, is a signature move that often catches his opponents off-guard. West Bengal is a classic case, where Shah carefully built a narrative around Mamata’s deliberate alienation of the bhadralok.

Contrary to the popular perception of Shah as an all-brawn politician who is in electioneering mode 24x7 and lacks a cerebral understanding of India’s syncretic culture, a soon-to-be-launched book titled Amit Shah And The March of BJP, by Anirban Ganguly and Shiwanand Dwivedi, reveals several unknown facets of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 'Man of the Match' in two successive parliamentary elections.

Few know that Shah, 54, is extremely reticent when it comes to opening up about his personal life and political journey. Vignettes of his personality flicker through the firewall, however, showing the man and what he is made up of. Shah dotes on baby granddaughter Rudri, and can often be seen humming the tune of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, “Vaishnava janato, tene kahiye ye, peed paraye jane re…” to her. He regularly maintains a personal diary for his own self-assessment and to keep a record of his experiences.

His punishing travelling schedule—he has travelled to most of the 726 districts in the country—has taken a toll on his personal life. “Often, when I forget my wedding anniversary, my wife reminds me,” he once remarked with disarming candour to one of his close aides. In this election alone, he travelled over 150,000 km and addressed 161 public rallies, including 17 in battleground West Bengal. Shah loves to spend time with his family, but he hasn’t stayed with them for more seven days in a row for the last 25 years.

Shah, a restrained foodie, is open to trying all kinds of vegetarian dishes. But pakodas tickle his palate the most. In the run-up to the 2017 Gujarat elections, he would often goad BJP workers to help themselves to generous helpings of pakodas. He would jokingly tell them: “Arre keep eating, the leaders of the party which consumes more besan will ultimately win Gujarat!”

Shah, often referred to as the Chanakya of contemporary Indian politics, looks at food as a social connect with voters. He would frequently drive down to the dhabas near Sonepat during his exile in Delhi—between 2010 and 2012—to taste Haryanvi fare and mingle with locals.

In retrospect, his years in exile helped him to come to terms with the aspirations of the Indian voter. It’s evident now how his frequent trips to Uttar Pradesh helped him to pull off a stunning 71-seat win for the party in 2014 parliamentary elections.

Shah’s mother Kusum ben had a profound influence on his life. She was the one who influenced Shah to wear only khadi, a unifier, according to him, for these traits – swadeshi, self-sufficiency, self-respect and self-employment. He continues to encourage party workers to wear and adopt khadi as a way of life.

Shah is passionate about cricket and chess since his childhood. He believes both these sports help in building concentration and decisiveness. He seldom takes time to make a move on the chessboard akin to his deft moves on the political battlefield that leave adversaries bewildered.

Shah’s personality unfolded along with his political training from a tender age of 13. His active association with politics started in 1977, when he had set out to campaign for Sardar Vallabh bhai Patel’s daughter, Maniben, who successfully contested against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency excesses from Mehsana.

At 16, he joined the ranks of swayamsevaks of the RSS in 1980—the year the BJP was born. In 1985, he joined the BJP after the party was smarting under the humiliating defeat in the 1984 general elections, when it was reduced to just two seats in Lok Sabha. His first assignment was rather nondescript: a poll agent at Ahmedabad’s Naranpura ward’s booth No. 263. But it was a resounding start to the Shah juggernaut, now in its fourth decade of non-stop progression.

His election management expertise in his formative years caught the imagination of Gujarat BJP leaders, and he was entrusted with the onerous task of managing the campaign of party stalwart Lal Krishna Advani’s election from Gandhinagar constituency in 1991.

Around this time, he came in contact with Modi, who was then the organising secretary—and rising star—of the party in Gujarat. The duo helped the BJP mobilise its workers, and laid the party’s foundation in the western state that was gradually embracing Hindutva politics amid growing disenchantment with the faction-ridden Congress regime.

When Shah became a legislator from the Sarkhej constituency in 2002, he would barely speak in the Assembly at first. Gradually, he learnt the constitutional ropes under the able guidance of the then chief minister, Modi, who replaced Keshubhai Patel in 2001. Soon, Shah began showing his articulate streak in the House.

When Modi appointed Shah as the minister of state for home and parliamentary affairs, he started speaking even more regularly in the Assembly. Many recall that Shah would often speak of departments that were not under him, and Modi would be seen actively encouraging him to debate burning issues of the day. Modi’s gentle nudge to Shah transformed from an introverted backroom politician to a confident election-winning machine. The collaboration cemented the duo’s personal chemistry, where Shah emerged as a consummate charioteer to Modi’s lofty national ambitions.

Modi tapped into Shah’s grassroots activism, organisational acumen, a keen eye for detail, political management and indefatigable energy to realise his ambition for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.

Shah’s ideological grounding started as the treasurer of Gujarat unit of Deendayal Research Institute (DRI), which was started by Nanaji Deshmukh, one of the brains behind Jana Sangh. At DRI, Shah was exposed to the fascinating world of research,and policy studies along with ideological orientation. The DRI’s flagship journal Manthan shaped his ideological and political worldview, which helped him to steer the BJP, when he got the top job as the party chief on July 9, 2014.

Shah was a year shy of 50 when he became the BJP president. The challenging assignment didn’t deter him as he had already been immersed in BJP’s organisational work for 32 years and was armed with rich experience at grassroots level coupled with boundless energy and a penchant for formulating unbeatable election strategies.

On assuming charge as the BJP president, Shah’s primary task was to make the party’s tradition of pravaas relevant across the length and breadth of the country. At that time, the saffron outfit had a negligible presence in east and the north-east. Shah came up with concept of Mahamantri Pravaas, in which general secretaries of the party were assigned states and regions in which they would have to travel throughout the year, stay there for about three days in each state and hold extensive interactions and meetings with the state unit’s office-bearers and veteran workers who had contributed to the BJP’s growth in that region.

It worked wonders for the BJP as the recent parliamentary poll results show.

Consider the case of Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP national general secretary and the party’s Bengal minder, who turned down an offer to contest from the prestigious Bhopal seat in his native Madhya Pradesh, in order to spend more time in Mamata’s turf and realise the party’s target of wresting at least 23 seats from the ruling Trinamool. Belying expectations, the BJP won 18 seats amid widespread allegations of rigging and intimidation by the Trinamool in the last phase of voting in south Bengal on May 19. Vijayvargiya’s sacrifice is steeped in Shah’s ‘party above individual’ motto.

Shah, who says he remembers each and every incident of his life since he was only four years old, is a firm believer in examining the causes of electoral defeat and in preparing for the future.

No wonder then, that Shah was unfazed by the BJP’s poll reverses in last year’s state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and remained confident, along with PM Modi, that the BJP would cross the 300-seat mark on its own on May 23.

The result is for all his die-hard critics to see, now that the BJP romped home with 303 seats – the party’s best-ever performance that has shattered several records on the way to a historical electoral triumph.

Shah, who has emerged as the best bridge between the government and the people, is ready to chart a new course in Modi government 2:0 as he casts his eyes on the last frontiers south of Vindhyas: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

The peak of 2019 won’t lead the BJP into a plateau of complacency because Shah doesn’t believe in sitting on his electoral laurels. He’s back in the election war-room to strategise. State elections are due this year in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, and Shah is at work already.

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