The not-so-hidden message of the new saffron shah

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Troika at the helm Amit Shah has truly arrived, following the remarkable upswing in the heartland
Troika at the helm Amit Shah has truly arrived, following the remarkable upswing in the heartland. Photo: AP

The ‘Modification’ of saffron is complete. Thirty-three years after he first met Narendra Modi, and 15 years after he was elected as the president of the Ahmedabad unit of his party, the man whose very name evokes shock and awe, and who is undoubtedly the most controversial politician in the country today, is now slated to become the youngest boss of the Bharatiya Janata Party — and thereby hangs a story of how one hugely positive entry into an otherwise muddled CV can change the game plan for an individual.

Given his strong angularities, there are just two ways to comprehend the man in question, Amitbhai Anilchandra Shah — you either dislike him thoroughly or accept him as some kind of an organisational wizard, who made an unlikely Uttar Pradesh happen for the BJP in a manner that not even its most faithful could have imagined. And, if the battle for the Delhi Durbar signified a resounding assertion of the Namo mojo, the meaning of the latest transition means that politics in the Indian Right has had a generational, paradigm shift that will impact the shape of the political discourse in terms that could not have been visualised even six weeks ago — it is that kind of a shift!

Consider this. He is not 50 yet. His home state Gujarat continues to be out of bounds for him following his alleged role in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case now being investigated by the CBI. Shah was the home minister of Gujarat when Sheikh, an underworld criminal, was kidnapped by the state police and killed in a fake encounter. This happened in 2010. When Rajnath Singh picked him up at the behest of Modi and appointed him general secretary of the party in charge of its affairs in the most populous state, few gave Shah even an outside chance of the kind of success that he ultimately managed to carve for his party. Not for a minute have Shah’s bosses apparently debated about the likely fallout of choosing a man whose long history is littered with the kind of remarks that he made in UP during the electoral campaign, in which he counselled the electorate to extract revenge in the wake of the mayhem that happened in Muzaffarnagar late last year. Forgotten also is the Snoopgate in which Shah is accused of having acted on instructions from his political boss.

In appointing Shah (who belongs to the Jain community), the RSS argument is simple: a year ago, even when there were some misgivings within the Nagpur bosses themselves about Modi, they ultimately went along with the overwhelming demand within the rank and file to project Namo on terms that were decided by him. At that time, Shah was the backroom boy who negotiated with the RSS bosses on Modi’s behalf; now the bosses have no hesitation in giving in to Shah, who in the wake of UP has effectively silenced his critics within the party. With the crucial state of Maharashtra in election mode and other key states also wanting him now, the Nagpur bosses have obliged the party faithfuls even more decisively.

However, Shah’s is of course not the kind of routine choice that political parties are apt to make in such transitions. While seniority and stature are usually the criterion involved, the saffron party is now on a turf where it has few opponents and can afford to experiment with the most radical of agendas. The Congress has been decisively humbled and looks ready to get some more shocks; the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati in UP have been completely pigeonholed in the areas of their influence; and the Left is now becoming used to its acute existential dilemma.

Arguably, the saffron party has achieved the kind of domination that perhaps even the mighty Congress managed only in brief spells in the past, either immediately after Independence or during the first three years of Rajiv Gandhi’s reign three decades ago, after it won 400-plus Lok Sabha seats in 1984. Now, the BJP has been afforded the chance of going ahead full steam on its agenda that only months ago was viewed with downright suspicion. In UP, Shah insisted on making a fervent pitch on the Ram Mandir issue, and was the key to the decision not to give even a single seat to Muslims in the state. The question now is whether the same kind of a brazen my-way-or-the-highway kind of attitude will prevail.

Those who have followed the track record of this one-time youngest minister in Gujarat are sure that this shah will brook no opposition to his hardline ways even when it causes heartburn in what is still a rather large swathe of liberal opinion outside the saffron camp.

Take Maharashtra. The BJP has to ensure not only a sound drubbing for the Congress but also seek to assume the driver’s seat in its longstanding arrangement with the Shiv Sena, and in this, the smartest spin doctor in politics will play a crucial role.

The first Modi-Shah interface happened 33 years ago. 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 (chief ) 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 Maharashtra in the mid-1990s, the two began working in Gujarat, where also the first task was to challenge the Congress hold over rural Gujarat. When their effort at conventional mobilisation failed, they thought of a new strategy: creating a phalanx of defeated village pradhans working exclusively for the BJP. The strategy paid off in course of time. The duo next turned its attention to demolish the Congress hold over sports bodies, especially in cricket and chess. Shah was in charge of an operation that resembled something like a raid-raj on corporates, and, after using pressure and persuasion of a sustained sort, the BJP managed to dislodge the Congress from all sports bodies. This denied the rival party an important source of patronage. The duo, then, moved on to gaining a foothold in Gujarat’s cooperative sector, which until then had been dominated by the Congress.

bjpOne oft-repeated claim to fame of Shah is that he has lost not a single one of the 20-odd elections he has fought — to the state Assembly and various local bodies. But it was not hunky dory all through. He was in real trouble after his role in various aspects of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom became clear. Also, his selection as the man in charge of UP surprised many, including Shah himself.

Over the last two decades, UP was a mixed story for the BJP: while the saffron party had successful power runs in 1996, 1998 and 1999, it faced serious reverses in subsequent General Elections. This convinced Shah and his mentors that the party could do well at the Centre only if it found a way to maximise its returns from the most populous state. It was a challenge. For more than a decade, UP had been the graveyard of reputations of stalwarts like the late Pramod Mahajan, who were unable to revive the party’s fortunes there. The state party unit was regarded as some kind of a minefield, where factionalism was rampant and state leaders had outsized egos. The task of sprucing up the party was difficult, and typically, Shah simply ignored the squabbling state leaders.

The terrain was difficult even though the Akhilesh Yadav government’s abysmal performance had created an opening. It was crucial for Modi as well that Shah succeeded, because failure would have cost Modi dear and would also have meant a big setback to Shah’s political career.

Confronted by all this, Shah went about the task in the only way he knows: he took advantage of the polarisation that had gripped the state in the wake of the ghastly Muzaffarnagar riots. Though apparently reaching out to all the ambitious state leaders, he quickly made a list of the ‘have-beens’ and ignored them altogether. Compared to securing UP, it is in many ways much easier now to run the show at the central level as the Tsunamo has already brushed aside the have-beens and senile elements.

Shah shifted to New Delhi from Ahmedabad only because of a Supreme Court order that made Gujarat out of bounds for him. His initial days were uncertain, and before the UP ‘miracle’, there was a huge question mark about his ability to make things happen outside Gujarat. But the Lok Sabha polls and his crucial role as a ‘delivery boy’ has changed things dramatically.

During Shah’s stint as Gujarat home minister, what impressed the RSS bosses most was the manner in which he masterminded the legislation that would turn religious conversion — an issue that agitates the RSS and its offshoots — illegal. Now, he has to convert those sections of the intelligentsia that are deeply suspicious of the kind of politics Shah represents. He may be an effective apparatchik, but his profile as an undisguised zealot will cause much heartburn outside the saffron camp.

Shah has shown that he can be ruthless both in attitude and in pursuit of what Modi wants from him. His fabled single-mindedness may have won him the approval of party bosses and the RSS, but it is precisely that which is going to trouble him also. Furthering the cause of the party at a time when most of its opponents are in disarray could seem easy, and a lot will depend on how the Modi government copes with the task on its hands. Modi’s performance will impact Shah’s success or otherwise in what is the top organisational job in what has today become the principal political party of the country.

On the surface, the saffron camp may be cruising along and the upcoming election in Maharashtra too seems to be going its way. It has to build on its massive northern conquest, but it is still on a weak wicket in much of the south and in the east. In Shah, it has the man who made the most telling impact in the heartland. The BJP may have become the fulcrum around which the polity will revolve in the coming phase, but it will be up to Shah to show that he can outsmart regional parties in the areas of their influence. The BJP has indicated that it needs Shah’s often controversial but hard-hitting and direct approach at this stage when the opponents are weak and virtually clueless. Clearly, the saffron party is in no mood to soften its profile and ingratiate with the minorities — Shah is an unmistakable reflection of that fact.

In Shah, a party that thrives on emotive issues has got a highly emotional man at its helm. Whether the party will rock the boat and thrust its favourite, trademark ideas down people’s throats will be watched eagerly.

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