Itihaas: Rise of the Shah

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has taken a backseat as a new leadership asserts itself in the Indian right

Three and a half decades is a very long time in politics. In 1980

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when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ann­ounced its emergence, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani became its mascots. But for all practical purposes, it was the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the so-called Nagpur bosses who exercised effective control behind the scenes. Circa 2014, their hegemony has been usurped dramatically by Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant, the new saffron Shah.

Way back in the 1980s when the BJP emerged after the virtual demise of the Jan Sangh, it was the RSS that determined not only the contours of its politics, but also the destiny of the dramatiis personae. Vajpayee was a powerful orator and an able parliamentarian, but in every decision he made as the Parivar’s favoured political face, he was merely acting at the behest of his RSS bosses. The initial years of the BJP were marked by role definition hazards. At its first conclave in Palampur, the BJP even tried to don the mantle of Gandhian socialism even as it reiterated the ideological moorings of Deendayal Upadhyaya.

The confused and often muddled visage of the BJP in its early years did not endear it to too many followers outside the saffron fold. Vajpayee and also Advani tried hard to mark their presence in popular perception. But at no time in the early years could they progress on their own individual steam. In the general elections that followed after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the BJP could bag just two seats: only Vajpayee and Advani survived the Rajiv wave that swept the country.

In those early years, the BJP was considered some kind of an untouchable by the rest of the political class. But all this was to be radically altered by just one decision of the Rajiv Gandhi establishment. On the advice of Arun Nehru, Rajiv ordered the reopening of the gates of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The Congress thought at that time that this move will disarm the Indian right. But as it happened, it provided the saffron brigade the passport and the identity to play the Ram mandir card through outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Several other things helped change the political script in the latter half of the ’80s. The Bofors scandal surfaced in 1987, signifying a body blow to the Congress and a realignment of political forces under the leadership of VP Singh. The BJP eagerly lapped up the opportunity to hitch its bandwagon to the VPS phenomenon. The 1989 Lok Sabha polls saw Rajiv Gandhi slipping dramatically from his high perch and even though the Congress emerged as the single largest party after the elections, it had conceded the turf to VP Singh. This was the time when both the Indian right and the left joined hands to facilitate Singh’s assumption of power in the Delhi Durbar. It was during this phase that VP Singh would meet BJP leaders every Tuesday and host HKS Surjeet and Jyoti Basu every Friday!

The terms of the political engagement were to have another seismic shift following the Janata Dal decision to resurrect the Mandal report and order its implementation. The decision would have decimated the BJP politically — for sheer survival, it upped the Ayodhya ante. In 1992, the Babri demolition took place and the BJP under Advani had made a controversial breakthrough in the political firmament.

When all this was happening, two relatively young men were trying to make their political presence felt in Gandhi’s Gujarat. The first Modi-Shah interface happened 33 years ago. Amit Shah was an RSS activist and Modi a pracharak in charge of youth activities in Ahme­dabad’s Mahanagar area. The two became so close that when the late RSS sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras asked Modi to join the BJP, Shah was one of the select few with whom Modi shared his apprehensions about his ability to fit the role. After their often fruitless work in Congress bastion Maha-rashtra in the mid-1990s, the two began working in Gujarat, where also the first task was to challenge the Congress hold over the rural landscape.

In the 35 years that Shah has been in politics and 15 years after he was elected president of the Ahmedabad unit of his party, the big picture has changed dramatically.

The Advani-Vajpayee era in BJP politics is well and truly over, two like-minded men have now captured the two vital posts in the government and the party.

The manner in which Shah made UP happen for the BJP helped his mentor to assert himself in no uncertain ­terms and now Modi has returned the favour by facilitating Shah’s hold over the BJP.

(Pradyot Lal is a political analyst and commentator)

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