The party president is already making himself the voice of the government through the Rajya Sabha.
“Through the means of this great and historic house, I am going to become part of ongoing process of nation building.” That’s how Amit Anil Chandra Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), began his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha in February this year.
When Shah was elected to the upper house from Gujarat in August 2017, it was a turning point for him. Shah was no longer just the backroom ‘master strategist’, he was getting a front-facing role. He was no longer just the ‘Chanakya’ who won elections for his Chandragupta Maurya, aka Narendra Modi. He was going to become a part of the ‘nation building’ process.
From his few speeches in the Rajya Sabha, Shah has since then emerged as a voice of the Modi government, not just of the party. His first speech itself touched on a host of issues relating to policy and governance, including GST, unemployment, Swachh Bharat, electrification of villages and so on.
Until now, Shah used to speak like a party man, talking about the BJP’s membership drive and expansion plans, its election strategies and political narrative. Suddenly, he was defending the Modi government’s performance as if he was the Prime Minister, next to whom he sits in the house.
Shah has virtually replaced Arun Jaitley as the voice of the government in the upper house. Last week, home minister Rajnath Singh sought to allay the opposition’s fears over the NRC in Assam by emphasising that due legal process was being followed. But Shah made it all political in the Rajya Sabha, attempting an all-out attack on the Congress for not having the courage to identify ‘foreigners’ in Assam.
Such a statement by the party president would have been normal and expected, except that when made in Parliament, it comes across as the voice of the government. The changing profile of Shah has made him more than just the party president. He is, after all, the second most powerful man in the country.
Shah wants to outgrow the Chanakya image. He wants to be seen as a mass leader, an ideologue and, last but not the least, as someone interested in governance. Perhaps, the Prime Minister wants the same from him?
Shah’s elevation to the Rajya Sabha came along with his increasing influence over the government. When party MPs were absent from the Rajya Sabha, it was Shah who pulled them up. When there was a cabinet reshuffle last year, it wasn’t the Prime Minister but the party president who summoned four ministers, asking them to resign. Such actions suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself come to depend heavily on his lieutenant. It may not be long before the Modi government is called the Modi-Shah government. The man Friday is now the man for all seasons.
Soon after he won the Rajya Sabha election, a flurry of articles by BJP leaders and associates suggested there was an attempt to create a personality cult around him, similar to the one around the Prime Minister.
His confidante Devendra Kumar, a psephologist, wrote an article in The Economic Times calling Shah as “more than just an election machine”. The hagiographical article reads virtually as a charter of the new image Shah is trying to build for himself, and the entry in the Rajya Sabha fits into that plan.
Kumar writes, “One of the most underrated attributes of Shah as BJP president is his ability to seamlessly move in tandem with the government’s overall agenda. Millions of voters across India do not distinguish between BJP the party and its government at the Centre.” In other words, he wants credit not just for the successes of the party but also those of the government.
Kumar goes on to build a case for Shah as a politician capable of holding public office: “Shah has remarkable administrative and governance expertise – a quality that people outside Gujarat do not know much about. As a minister in Gujarat for close to a decade he handled important portfolios… As party president, he reportedly gives critical inputs to union ministers in his routine interactions with them. Now, as Rajya Sabha member, it is only natural that he makes important contributions in policy-making”.
It is widely believed in political circles that Shah wanted to be made the Gujarat CM and relieved of the party president’s post, but the PM did not agree. While Shah managed to have his bête noire Anandiben Patel out of the way and his proxy Vijay Rupani installed, he still wanted to build a policy and governance profile for himself.
Again, Kumar’s article gives us a clue: “The story of the 53-year-old modern-day Chanakya is still unfolding. The country will see many more of his unseen aspects than just an election machine in the coming months and years”.
The conclusion is inescapable. Amit Shah, 14 years younger than his mentor Modi, sees himself as Modi’s successor in the Prime Minister’s office. That’s why he needs to be the voice of the government in the Rajya Sabha.
Poor Yogi Adityanath needs to wait.