This tweet by B.L. Santhosh, BJP national general secretary, organisation, has summed it all up:
“It’s not even six months old Govt…Already 4 sixes…Abolition of triple Talaq, Abrogation of Art 370, Sri Ramajanmabhumi Judgement & now this #CitizenshipAmendmentBill2019… Great going @narendramodi @AmitShah.”
The NDA government, at the beginning of its second innings, has been batting breathlessly, as if it’s the slog overs. The batsman responsible for it is the one PM Narendra Modi had adjudged Man of the Match in 2014 Lok Sabha election— Amit Shah.
He had lived in Modi’s shadow all through his political career, playing a supporting role. Seven months into his new role as the Union home minister, Shah has come into his own — as a leader and administrator. Although Modi as the captain has remained the guiding force, the sixes BL Santhosh mentioned happened to come off Shah’s bat. The home minister has dominated the headlines in newspapers and TV screens, even as Modi seems to have chosen to take a back seat, letting his second-in-command find his place in the sun. It’s not very often that the prime minister intervenes as he did Sunday to assert that there has been no discussion on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Shah’s pet project.
The home minister’s push for the nationwide rollout of the NRC might have backfired, but it is unlikely to have any bearing on his standing in the government. When he is in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, the treasury benches are packed to their capacity, in a clear display of his command over party MPs. When one talks to ministers now, Shah’s name figures as much, if not more, as Modi. This is no surprise though. Much has been written about him as Modi’s putative successor. He is the most powerful man after the Prime Minister in the government and heads as many as seven groups of ministers (GoMs), replacing leaders such as Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari in a couple of them. Shah is seen as the Pranab Mukherjee of the Modi government, but the finance minister in the Manmohan Singh government didn’t enjoy the political clout that Shah wields.
What do the ‘four sixes’ say about Shah’s style of governance?
As the BJP president, Amit Shah, the former president of Gujarat State Chess Association, had given ample evidence of his aggressive style on the political chessboard, taking away every pawn, bishop, rook, knight and queen from the opposition camp before saying checkmate.
As administrators, Shah and Modi, once the president and vice-president of Gujarat Cricket Association, share a penchant for hitting sixes, without caring so much for possible risks. The impact of the 2016 demonetisation move and hasty rollout of goods and services tax (GST) is for all to see. Of the four sixes Santhosh sees on the scoreboard since Shah padded up, only two seem to be clean hits so far — the SC verdict on Ayodhya and the criminalisation of triple talaq. The jury is still out on the impact of the invalidation of Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir. And the fourth one, the Citizenship Amendment Act, could end up as a miscued shot after Modi’s clarification on the NRC.
Having said that, these four do give an indication of why Shah has enjoyed Modi’s trust all these three decades that they have worked together. They think alike. They take no prisoners when it comes to implementing their ideological and political agenda. And, in their zeal to enforce what they believe is right, they sometimes tend to forget the thin line between boldness and recklessness, between decisiveness and impulsiveness.
Shah’s imprint on Modi’s governance agenda
The Prime Minister seems to have misread the massive public mandate in 2019. It was not for Modi, the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’. Balakot airstrikes, months before the Lok Sabha elections, did generate a certain degree of nationalist fervour, but the primary reason for the BJP’s 303 seats in the Lok Sabha was the voters’ faith in Modi’s development agenda and lack of any political alternative. Although people did clap at the mention of Balakot and communally polarising remarks in campaign speeches, the swing factor was Modi government’s welfare schemes and anticipation of more.
But Modi’s first seven months in his second innings has been marked by a complete shift in priorities, with the government devoting itself to the BJP’s and the RSS’ ideological agenda. There are two explanations proffered by the ruling camp. First, Amit Shah needed to stamp his mark as an iron-fisted home minister, the most powerful one since Vallabhbhai Patel. The change in the government’s priorities coincided with Shah’s entry in the government. Second, with an opposition shaken and devastated after the Lok Sabha poll drubbing, it was the right time to push the party’s ideological agenda through Parliament. What was, however, missing in these explanations was whether PM Modi had given up his pursuit of becoming a global statesman and visionary who changed the lives of crores back home. It had taken him years to exorcise the ghosts of 2002 Gujarat riots and build his image as a ‘vikas purush’. The governance model in the last seven months threatened to undo all that. On Sunday, Modi sought to re-set his governance agenda by seeking to put an end to the bitter discourse on the NRC.
Way ahead for Shah
As a political strategist and administrator, Amit Shah’s acumen is proven, even though his detractors might not agree to his ways and means. The home minister is set to step down as the BJP president in January or February, handing over the reins to one of his loyalists. He will, however, continue to have Gandhi family-like grip on the party, with all his potential challengers such as Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Vasundhara Raje, Raman Singh or Shivraj Singh Chouhan either defanged or pushed on the margins.
In the coming weeks and months, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is likely to occupy his mind. The BJP has deleted from its Twitter handle Shah’s quote about the implementation of the NRC across the country. The PM has also suggested a retreat on this issue, saying that there was no discussion on the NRC in the government. One doesn’t expect Shah to allow his political adversaries to tamper with his record as the Union home minister so early in his new innings. He would bide his time.
Meanwhile, as Modi’s putative successor, Amit Shah seems intent on proving himself a mass leader. He has already emerged as the BJP’s chief campaigner even as Modi remains the most popular face. In the last Lok Sabha elections, Modi had addressed 142 rallies and four roadshows, clocking 1.50 lakh km of air travel; Shah had addressed 161 rallies and held 18 roadshows, covering 1.58 lakh km. In the three assembly elections this year—in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand— the BJP president led from the front, addressing more rallies than Modi. Shah may not have the personality cult that Modi has today but few foresaw it when the latter became Gujarat chief minister 18 years ago.
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