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Many in race to be Modi’s successor but here’s one who can step into Amit Shah’s shoes

Being ‘Mr Indispensable’ isn't always a good thing. Remember when Modi didn’t let Amit Shah become Gujarat CM after Anandiben Patel resigned?

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UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath is the flavour of the season. There have been endless debates over No. 2/3 slot in the ruling dispensation. So are the talks about his induction into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Parliamentary Board.

Remember how Rajnath Singh as BJP president had dropped then-Gujrat CM Narendra Modi from the PB in 2007? He brought him back in 2013 under mounting pressure from the rank and file. Modi’s re-induction into the BJP’s apex decision-making body turned out to be momentous.

That explains the speculation about the Uttar Pradesh CM joining the BJP’s high table, the PB, where all important decisions are made — right from finalising candidates in elections to picking CMs. It would be Yogi’s ascent to the national political centre stage. However, that elevation in itself may not settle the debate over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successor.

Debate over Modi’s successor premature

As it is, there won’t be a vacancy any time soon. Modi is 71 and looks good for the next two Lok Sabha elections. Yogi Adityanath has a lot to prove between now and then. He has caught the imagination of the Sangh Parivar’s core base, but the fact is that he owes his second term in office to Modi to a great degree. The so-called UP model, despite other BJP CMs fancying it, is still in the making. A chief minister of a state that sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha is important, of course. But so is the person whose contribution to the BJP’s phenomenal rise today is second only to Modi’s — that is, Home Minister Amit Shah.

So, let’s hold our horses. The debate over Modi’s successor is premature. The only thing that can be said about it today is that it won’t be a one-horse race whenever it starts.

The competition seems to be missing for Amit Shah’s spot today as the BJP’s chief poll strategist who keeps everyone on their toes. The last phase of polling in UP got over on 7 March. The following day, Shah was in Tripura, addressing a rally to mark the fourth anniversary of the BJP-led government and seeking “a chance for one more term”. Look at his calendar. He just doesn’t tire. Every election is a new mission for him — from panchayat to municipal to assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Even the idea of voting on Bills in Parliament seems to excite him. Is there a potential successor to Amit Shah in this role? For all we know, none.

The BJP may not be bothered about this question today, for Shah is just 57. But the party should. First, India’s Home Minister can’t be micro-managing elections — from panchayat to Parliament levels. It’s a full-time job. Second, however brilliant a strategist can be, doing the same thing day after day and year after year takes a toll on one’s creativity. It’ll eventually render the BJP’s election strategy predictable.

Yet, if the BJP isn’t worried about it, Amit Shah should be. Being ‘Mr Indispensable’ isn’t always a good thing. He should know better. In 2016, when Anandiben Patel resigned as Gujarat CM, Shah was keen on taking over. Modi was, however, not inclined to let him go. Shah was indispensable in his scheme of things at the Centre. At the PB meeting convened to pick Patel’s successor, Modi made his views clear. “Amit ko chhod kar baaki naam par vichaar kar lein (Discuss any name other than Amit Shah’s),” he said, as reported by The Hindustan Times.

Amit Shah remains Mr Indispensable even today. He may not want it to become a disadvantage the next time an opportunity for a change of role comes.

Also read: Bolder, sharper, more assertive — What Uttar Pradesh can expect from Yogi 2.0

BJP’s dilemma: who after Shah?

The problem for the BJP and Shah is that no one in the existing team of office bearers comes close to matching his ability to understand the social structure and its faultlines and create space for political and electoral manoeuvres. Some old warhorses who could aren’t in the stable any longer.

There is a large pool of wannabe poll strategists in the BJP for sure. But when they are made election in-charges and co-in-charges, Shah must spoon-feed them every step of the way. There are no original ideas coming from them.

Look at the crop of CMs promoted by Modi and Shah since 2014. Yogi Adityanath has turned out to be a success. But he is no election strategist. He can draw crowds but has never worked closely with the party to understand how they are converted into votes.

Former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis was also quite a find — an efficient administrator who has shone as a formidable Opposition Leader too. He has kept the Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition government running for cover. But the party high command seems to be somewhat wary of him. His unsuccessful bid in 2019 to install a government with Ajit Pawar’s support had left them red-faced. Fadnavis’ much-speculated shift to Delhi never happened.

Also read: NRIs in the US asked me these 5 questions about Yogi Adityanath: Biographer

One who can be Amit Shah 2.0

Some other CMs and leaders may also fancy themselves as Chanakyas, but it is Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma who seems to fit the bill. Modi, the crowd puller, and Shah, the strategist, can see a glimpse of themselves in him. He was the BJP’s principal poll strategist and undeclared CM face in the Assam polls last year. The mandate was for him, entirely.

It has been 11 months since he became CM. Sarma is a cult figure in Assam today, more popular than any other BJP CMs in their respective states. Look at how men and women scramble to touch him. People thrust their children onto his lap to take a selfie. He obliges, indulgently. His performance as an administrator — be it in finance, health, education, or other ministries — was always outstanding. He was the face of development in the Sarbanand Sonowal government before he took office as CM.

His ability as a political strategist was on display last week too. In the Rajya Sabha polls, the BJP and its ally, the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), fielded candidates for two seats, though they were short of the requisite numbers for the second one. Both candidates won, with eight MLAs from the opposition camp voting for them. What was equally interesting was the way the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) voted. The BJP had earlier dumped the BPF to ally with the UPPL, prompting Hagrama Mohilary to join hands with the Congress in the assembly election. BPF MLAs voted for the BJP-UPPL candidates last Thursday.

One picture that appeared on the front pages of newspapers last week was Himanta Biswa Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart, Conrad Sangma, shaking hands with a smiling Amit Shah standing in the middle. The two CMs were seen holding a pact resolving their dispute at six of the 12 points in border areas. What those smiling faces didn’t reflect was the fact that the BJP recently delivered a snub to Sangma’s Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) in Manipur. The NPP was kept out of the re-elected BJP-led government in Manipur despite the NPP extending support to it.

Incidentally, the BJP has two MLAs in Meghalaya, and one of them is a minister in the Sangma-led coalition government. If the NPP chief didn’t react to the Manipur snub in Meghalaya, there was a reason. Sarma holds the key to his government, having forged a multi-party alliance after the Congress emerged as the single-largest party in the 2018 election. He is credited with many other politically fascinating exploits in the Northeast — installing the first BJP CM of Arunachal Pradesh in 2017 by getting CM Pema Khandu and 33 legislators (all from the People’s Party of Arunachal) to switch their loyalty and making Nagaland ‘opposition-mukt’.

Also read: How Nagaland has become India’s first state to be Opposition-mukt

Amit Shah must be proud of Himanta Biswa Sarma, his confidante and point person in the Northeast. As it is, he doesn’t need to look for a successor any time soon. Nor would the Assam CM be interested in a Delhi assignment in the near future. But the latter is certainly showing a lot of potential to step into Shah’s shoes. For now, the BJP chief poll strategist may consider bringing him to the high table.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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