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Amit Shah’s performance as minister will now determine the success of Modi-Shah power pair

Modi-Shah share a unique power equation unlike Nehru-Patel and Vajpayee-Advani. After Delhi defeat, Shah enters a new, unfamiliar phase of his political career.

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What do we make of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP government now that the latter has finally moved away from his control of the party? He had done so a few weeks earlier, formally handing charge to his successor J.P. Nadda, but the Delhi election was still the pending item on his agenda. How does the road ahead look?

This, the Modi-Shah government, is the third such in our 73-year independent history yet. Governments led by the power of two. A pair of leaders with comparable stature working closely together. Of course, there are others that had just one leader, or short-lived ones that had none at all.

For those of us watching politics from the sidelines, all three types are fun. The leaderless arrangements, from Charan Singh to I.K. Gujral, through V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Deve Gowda, are the most entertaining because they fight, leak, and die quickly. Those with one leader, like Indira and Rajiv, compensate you with stories of intrigue, mostly set around who is in and who is out. But those where power is shared between two near-equals aren’t boring either.

Our first such arrangement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was so fascinating, it is still making headlines almost 75 years later. As it did earlier this week.

You could argue that it was a sharing of power in mutual trust between Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh. But the difference is, there the prime minister wasn’t even the first among equals. In fact, towards the second half of that arrangement, he wasn’t even the second. He was the third, after Rahul Gandhi.

That leaves us with the two BJP/NDA governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, respectively. Both have been run by that power of two, the first, Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, and the second, now, with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. There are differences, however. Vajpayee and Advani were close personal friends and kindred souls, also fellow long-marchers and about the same age.

They were always seen as equals, one more popular, acceptable and soft, the other harder, more political, ideological. They disagreed often but deferred to each other. I had sometimes compared them with an old couple, deeply loyal, dependent and affectionate mutually, but squabbling often and lapsing into periods of long, sullen sulks. Modi and Shah are in a different category altogether.

Also read: Modi-Shah’s hyper-nationalism is making India insecure when it is actually most secure

Nehru and Patel were near-equals with many disagreements that were known publicly. But there was never a doubt who the boss in that arrangement was. How their tensions would have played out in the long run we will never know because Patel died too soon. Vajpayee and Advani had a different equation. There is zero doubt that Advani founded and built the new BJP, created a new Hindutva space and positioned it firmly there. He built and controlled the party.

Within the BJP, he was also a mass leader and deal-maker, building and breaking alliances. Vajpayee was more a public performer and romantic. For most of his politics, he followed Advani even if he sometimes fretted about his methods, or withdrew into hurt and embarrassment, as after the Babri Masjid demolition. But he would never defy or overrule Advani. At the same time, when the party came close to power, Advani faced his moment of truth with pragmatism.

He knew it would be impossible to knit a coalition of diverse ideologies with the thin thread of anti-Congressism under his leadership. He needed someone more inclusive and acceptable, namely Vajpayee. It follows that Vajpayee did become prime minister, but the real power in the party remained with Advani, as it did in many ways within the government.

We saw early evidence of this as Vajpayee wasn’t allowed to induct his trusted and much-valued friend and aide Jaswant Singh into his Cabinet and the continuing squabbles within, as circles close to the RSS (and surely not far from Advani) kept harassing him over his alter ego Brajesh Mishra or foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. Then, most importantly, Advani prevailed when Vajpayee wanted to sack Modi in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Even on strategic issues, whether India was going to make war or peace, Advani had the final word. It’s a documented fact that even the Agra Summit with Gen. Pervez Musharraf was an idea moved forward by Advani, as was the decision to scuttle it. In the usual sycophantic and gossipy circle around them, the buzz was, arrey bhai, they are always together, like Ram and Lakshman.

Until Advani got impatient waiting. He had quite a durbar of his own. And, as I had written in a 2009 National Interest, ‘The making of the Flaw Purush’, it was people around him who egged him on. A few dramatic things happened then. Rumours from ‘informed’ circles spread in Vajpayee’s last year that he was tired, and might be retiring — and handing over to the successor-apparent. This made Vajpayee break his silence. He asserted famously, with a touch of irony more than humour, that he was “neither tired, nor retired”.

This became more complicated as Advani, again encouraged by his party’s heartland sweep (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) in the winter of 2003, forced a reluctant Vajpayee to advance general elections in 2004. Midway through the campaign, stories about Vajpayee being tired and old surfaced again, suggesting he would abdicate midway through his next term and hand over to Advani. Vajpayee was furious, and made no secret of it. After the NDA lost that election against the run of play, he let people know whose ‘greed and sin’ had brought them to their deserved fate.

Also read: A lesson from the Vajpayee school of large-hearted leadership

The Modi-Shah arrangement is strikingly different in many ways. Let’s count three most important ones. First, while they have been fellow travellers for about two decades, one is an all-conquering mass leader and the other a brilliant party commissar. There is a clear role and skill-set distinction.

One brings the votes and the other gets the party and its electoral machine in place to collect these. To that extent, it is truly a number one and two relationship. A bit like a corporate CEO and COO, a chief minister and his most trusted chief secretary, commandant and sergeant-major or, if you prefer it that way, although Shah said at this week’s Times Now event that he didn’t want that comparison, Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya.

Second, the two have a radically different outlook on public life. One, an extroverted public performer, enjoying global adulation and attention, the other a back-room power player unwilling to give an audience to even ambassadors of key countries. One, a crowd-puller, the other a rouser of only the party faithful. One, careful to play the good cop often, the other equally content to go with his beliefs, even if it means being the bad cop always. And third, in this case unlike the other two, the number two is considerably (14 years) younger than the other. Therefore, he looks at a political future way beyond the number one.

This Delhi election completes Shah’s innings as the party boss. He might have preferred for it to end differently. But, from Haryana to Delhi through Jharkhand, and to some extent Maharashtra, voters have underlined a tough fact to him: That the vote for Modi is not the same as a vote for BJP and definitely not for the most polarising aspects of its ideology.

It is with this sobering realisation that Shah now enters an unfamiliar and interesting phase of his political career. His success or failure will henceforth be assessed based on his performance as a key minister. With Modi, he now forms the most powerful and fascinating pair in our political history yet. And much political writing in years to come will be defined by their equation, and as time passes, more by the Shah story.

Also read: A Sachin Tendulkar lesson for Amit Shah that can sharpen his election strategy


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  1. This nobody becoming some body is a pipe dream. Judiciary is “waiting” for him probably at end of his tunnel.

  2. What worries BJP haters the most is that unlike any other party, except the nearly defunct Left, is that BJP is the only party that is based on ideology and meritocracy. Every other party either revolves around a dynast (Congress/ NCP/ DMK/ SP etc) or a Supremo (AAP/ BSP/ TMC etc). So while Congress sleep walks into irrelevance, BJP will keep up pushing new leaders to the fore. If Amit Shah fails, there will be another person. And the BJP haters can do nothing about it except rant in social media, the friendly media and “made for media” events like JNU protests and Shaheen Bagh.

  3. Dear Shekharji,
    You conveniently forget Master / Servant relationship of earlier UPA Govt. That was the worst in terms of economy by economist PM who vested at least 6 years of global economy surge which started in early 2000 and ended around 2010.

  4. The biggest mistake Modi made in 2014 was bringing Shah along with him. Shah should have been made the Gujarat CM. Modi could have used his wide mandate to begin a new innings, leaving his past behind.

    He could have been the great leader of India. Instead, he limited himself to becoming the leader of Hindus. He could have become the Prime Minister loved in every state of India. Instead, he’s just the PM of the BJP.

    Of course, bringing Shah along was a conscious decision. He wanted to use the same route that brought him this far, to climb further. But unfortunately now, every
    desperate move of the duo only points to their past.

    That’s why, though Modi is fiercely trying to create history, his old story will always be where the buck stops. His full stop, so to speak!

    Now that he’s committed to his old ways, Vikas giving way to Vishwas, they are joined at the hip. They have no choice but to plough along, for better or for worse. As far as Modi is concerned, the arrangement will last as long as Shah continues to play the bad cop.

    As far as Shah is concerned.. that, time will tell! But, it could well be as long as the steering wheel remains in his hands, with Modi in the chauffeured back seat.

    The passing of the baton will be smooth if Modi feels history will judge him as the ‘greatest’. (Which is why Shah is working his skin off. That’s also why Modi continues to unabashedly diss Nehru.) Else, their succession battle could put those of the Mughals to shame.

  5. Nehru-Patel were statesmen who may have disagreed but always on matters of national importance. Vajpayee was always led by Advani on matters of party importance. Modi and Shah can not see beyond creating a delusional image of Modi. They are a couple of street-smart hoodlums who are not averse to eliminating those who are impediments on their myopic objectives..

  6. Very interesting article by Shekhar, something which he should keep doing all the time ( and get sickular time and again)! Amit Shah has already creditably delivered as a minister in Modi Cabinet when he finished with Ram Mandir, Art 370, Triple Talaq and CAA. He is on course to deliver the other projects like NRC and UCC as well. Hence, major ideological issues of BJP will soon be done away with by him. As Home Minister, he should now deliver on many pending issues like deep police reforms including technical upgradation of policing and forensic work, Maoist violence, para military forces modernization and reforms. While he would still be busy with Kashmir in the remaining term of this government, he should not sideline these long pending issues which no Home Minister bothered for so many years. If Shah can deliver on this, that would be his real legacy for the country. Once can expect Modi to get another term in 2024 and hence, Shah should be ready to take over the reins in 2029. He should move to Finance (whcih requires many bold and political decisions) in the next term and steer the country to a number 3 spot in the world. With these achievements under his belt, he would be a natural and well deserving successor to Modi!

  7. It’s a bit disappointing to see BJP being reduced to a two-men band, and that band forcing the country meander down unwanted routes. The Hindu card has had its run, and did get votes for BJP. But as we enter the third decade of the century, Amit Shah appears exhausted. Millennials, with a digital mindset, would find cow sutra a boring concept. Modi nama may still sell, but the background music has to undergo digital transformation. Except that there is nothing hugely wrong with BJP as a party.

  8. Besides hating Muslims, Narendra Modi is good at pretending to be great. Amit Shah can match Modi in the first part, but has zero ability in the second. So, if Modi is seen walking with Shah for too long, his second credential will suffer immensely. He will no longer be able to feign greatness. THAT will not be acceptable to Modi. Therefore my conclusion is, it is only a matter of time before Shah is dropped! Amit Shah should start packing his bags, or BOTH should start packing their bags!!

  9. Amit Shah’s usefulness seems to have disappeared and his crude negativity is an embarrassment and a dragdown. Just as Nehru found it necessary to get rid of his chum, Menon, after the China debacle, Modi must now shed Shah in order to survive and succeed in his mission

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