Newsmaker: The Helmsman
Mar 17 2017
But, Shah, despite pulling off the spectacular win in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, had come across as a reluctant speaker. It appears now that he was perhaps testing the waters. An outsider to the Delhi Durbar and Lutyens Zone politics, there was much that needed to be absorbed.
March 11, 2017 changed all that. There was a sweep in Uttar Pradesh and another one in Uttarakhand. But, what caught everyone off-guard was the manner in which Goa and Manipur were won. The two states were taken in a political ambush, retaining the speed and the element of surprise of a military operation. They also involved psy-ops — floating Manohar Parrikar’s name for the Goa chief ministership got the dithering independents behind the BJP. This was trademark Amit Shah, a game plan where losing was never factored in.
Shah’s gruff, stand-offish press conference on March 11 evening gave evidence of the Modi-Shah takeover of the Delhi Durbar. It was a sign that the power equations had changed forever in the Indian capital. It was a durbar in the image of the two leaders: no-nonsense, unconventional, unpredictable, often disruptive. No one’s position could be taken for granted in this setting. Patronage politics was being demolished. There was only one voice that mattered — Modi's. And it found an echo in Shah. The transformation of Delhi’s power elite was now complete.
There was another message in the coming of the new Delhi Durbar. Unlike what the Lutyens culture connotes, and the lazy air that one associates with the Mughal era and days of the Raj, this durbar never retires for a well-earned rest. At the celebratory rally on March 11, just before Modi came on stage, Shah was talking to party cadres of the next big elections in Gujarat and Karnataka, which could be held any time after December. The message, surely, would not have been missed by his partymen: You have worked hard and we have won. Thank you very much. Now get to work.
In short, when other leaders in his position would have just gone home and basked in the afterglow of a massive win, he was plotting the next move. Yes, he actually was. With the prestigious Delhi municipal elections round the corner — the BJP is in power in all three corporate bodies in Delhi — it was announced that the whole lot of current BJP corporates would be changed. Even their family members would not be allowed to contest. He was aware that the current set of corporators was discredited and wanted a clean break from the past. It was done, brutally, without apologies.
For Shah, every election needs to be won — panchayat, municipal, assembly, parliament, presidential. And they have to be won by a stretch. A typical organisation man — as a young man, he had been asked to handle the elections of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani when the two leaders had contested from Gujarat — he is known to make changes in strategy while on the move.
The Uttar Pradesh elections are a good case study on this strategy. It is everyday wisdom that any party with a grip on the Uttar Pradesh electorate has pretty much the run of national politics. Shah changed tack with every turn in the state. He wooed the Jat voters, who he knew were miffed with the BJP over the handling of the Muzaffarnagar riots. As part of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)’s Dalit outreach, he made overtures to them. He reached out to non-Yadav OBCs, in the end ensuring the Samajwadi Party was left with mainly the Yadav vote. The party’s aggressive stance on triple talaq proved to be an electoral windfall in that it got the acknowledgement of a large section of women Muslim voters.
The Hindu vote, in any case, had aggregated behind Modi’s BJP. Demonetisation was sold as a measure to bridge the gap between the unscrupulous rich and the toiling poor — an idea that was lapped up by the latter. The farmers were promised waivers and higher MSPs. Meanwhile, Modi’s ‘shamshaan and kabristaan’ speech, served as a timely polarising device. If ever there was a rainbow coalition that could deliver a high-impact election result, this was surely it.
Several adjectives come to mind to describe Amit Shah. And they are not just about his organisational skills. He is sometimes described as a disruptor, at other times a risk taker. What makes him tick? Perhaps, it is the power he exudes. Party insiders say his suggestions carry the finality of a command. Even senior leaders choose not to meddle with him. Speculation that a powerful Union minister is in the running to be Uttar Pradesh chief minister, while the state party chief has reportedly counted himself out of the race, is perhaps proof of this. However, for the moment he has delivered the biggest bag of votes to the BJP: a sweep in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha polls, and a sweep in Uttar Pradesh in the assembly polls. In doing so, he also delivered the BJP from the vice-like grip of coalition politics. It will take some doing to better that.