If the first term of the Narendra Modi government was all about the Prime Minister and his powerful persona, the first 100 days of Modi 2.0 have unambiguously been about Home Minister Amit Shah. And if this trend were to continue, Shah will smoothly overshadow Modi by the end of this government’s tenure.
This is not to say Amit Shah will become a threat to the ever-popular Modi, or try and displace him in any way. Modi will continue to remain the party’s most loved face and in-control personality, who can rally voters behind him like no other. But Shah is very likely to emerge as the main voice of the government and the BJP, as well as the primary messenger. And may, in that sense, end up eclipsing Modi.
Shah the messiah
Amit Shah’s statement Saturday about Hindi and how it can unite India, which predictably stirred up a storm, was just one among the many statements the new home minister has made that have dominated headlines and ensured he conveys the primary message of this government. In this case, it was about pushing out the message of this government’s majoritarian emphasis, and as a side-effect, also deflect attention from the sorry state of affairs of the economy to an extent.
Then again, Shah kicked off ‘Seva Saptah (week of service)’ to mark Narendra Modi’s birthday week, where he also swept the floor of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. Remember the very carefully crafted optics of Modi wielding a broom on several occasions in his first term?
Look at the chain of events ever since this government won the Lok Sabha polls with a massive mandate and took charge in June this year. The first session of Parliament was like a movie directed to suit the BJP government to perfection, and its hero, Amit Shah.
What stood out (and how) was, of course, the move to scrap Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories. Shah brought in the bill in Parliament, single-handedly spearheaded it, made the necessary speeches and saw it through with an unexpected degree of smoothness. This came across as an out-and-out Shah operation, accomplishing the BJP’s decades-old agenda. He even made it a point to visit Jammu and Kashmir within a month of taking charge, ensuring the focus remained in the right direction.
The BJP government also managed to push contentious and so-far resisted bills like criminalising triple talaq, Right To Information (Amendment) Bill and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (Amendment), despite the challenge of inadequate numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Perhaps, this was Shah showing his ability to strategise, considering he is now part of government, which he never was in the first Modi term and when the government always failed the Rajya Sabha hurdle. It ended up giving the Home Minister a halo of being this government’s messiah, at least in terms of the ease of managing difficult operations and steering pet bills.
A new Shah
The Amit Shah of 2019 is very different from the Amit Shah of 2014, or even 2018. That Shah was a powerful entity in the BJP, but had little overt role in the government. Today’s Shah is a deadly mix of a pivotal party man and an equally pivotal government driver. Consider the last 15 years — there hasn’t been such a person.
In the Congress-led UPA, no minister was as powerful — exercising absolute influence in both party and government. The all-powerful person in the Congress party was Sonia Gandhi, who held no position in government (except as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, which had a dicey mandate). But Gandhi could not brazenly and overtly speak or act on behalf of the government. She wielded the invisible hand in most activist-decisions of the government. But Shah now has the legitimacy and unique opportunity.
In the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani times, the latter may have been important in both the party and government, but there is little denying that Shah has surpassed him in ways more than one. He has established himself as the man who can make the BJP win even the toughest of elections and the Home Minister who has managed to pull off a move as gigantic as Jammu and Kashmir.
A decisive Shah
Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has limitations. The PM is the PM, bound by at least some protocol and standards to follow. If you don’t believe this, look at Modi’s Twitter handles — squeaky clean, reasonably measured and statesman-like. Shah, on the other hand, seems to have no such qualms. His statements can continue to be as egregious, terming ‘infiltrators’ as ‘termites’, promising to weed them out, and asking for updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country.
Also, Modi is a more cautious, restrained politician than Shah. He is less brazen and more concerned about building an image of being a statesman and world leader than much else. This gives Shah an open field to push his way through as the rabble-rouser with power and the necessary office, who can talk for the party and execute through the government.
Modi will remain the BJP’s face, and Shah will give him full support to be that — but not without the latter soon emerging as this government’s most powerful, headline-dominating and decisive voice.