It’s rare that BJP president Amit Shah gets applause from his political adversaries. It’s rarer still that he does so, howsoever indirectly, from Sonia Gandhi, the former Congress president.
Addressing the Congress parliamentary party meeting on Saturday, Sonia Gandhi told her party MPs how each of them had fought “the hardest elections of our career.” “We were up against an election machinery with all odds stacked against us— unlimited resources, ability to manipulate public opinion and the spread of mischievous propaganda,” she said. Underlying in those negative words was a grudging admiration of the BJP’s election machinery that Amit Shah has built; it’s another thing, though, that Sonia Gandhi wouldn’t admit it openly.
But read between the lines: She was virtually admitting that the Congress’ election machinery was a total dud — limited resources due to the desertion of donors, inability to shape public opinion, and failure to convey the party’s message to voters. Having indirectly admitted that, she moved on to praising her son and party president Rahul Gandhi’s “fearless” leadership.
A mother’s appreciation of her son may not necessarily be borne out of facts or truth but her grudging, albeit indirect, praise for Amit Shah’s leadership was a testimony to his tremendous role in turning the BJP into a well-oiled, fighting-fit election machinery. He has left the opposition bruised, battered, demoralised and bitter. That’s why his shift to the government is likely to deliver a big blow to the BJP, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah wouldn’t like to believe it. There are at least three reasons why it’s a setback to the ruling party.
Home ministry to keep Shah busy
First, BJP leaders are mistaken in their belief that the new Union home minister, even after he hands over the charge to his successor before or after the organisational election, would remote-control the party. He is unlike Rajnath Singh. Amit Shah will be a powerful home minister. He also enjoys the trust and confidence of the PM Modi. So, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval won’t run the show on the internal security front any longer. Be it cross-border terrorism in Kashmir or insurgency in the northeast, Amit Shah would call the shots in policy-formulation and its execution.
The new home minister would know if a framework agreement were to be signed with an insurgent group such as the NSCN-IM. He, unlike his predecessor, will be a party to the decisions of the appointments committee of the cabinet headed by the prime minister. There would be a host of other things that would keep Amit Shah busy in coming weeks and months — elections in Kashmir, Supreme Court decision on the contentious Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, implementation of the BJP’ manifesto promise of the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, naxal menace resurfacing again, and so on and so forth.
In a nutshell, the country’s new home minister is going to be terribly busy, not just in running his own ministry but also in helping PM Modi in all important policy decisions. His predecessor Rajnath Singh had to convince people of his No 2 status in the Cabinet. Singh remains so, but only technically. Shah will be de facto No 2 and won’t have much time to supervise party affairs, however much he may wish to.
Shah irreplaceable in the BJP
The second reason why the BJP won’t be the same without Amit Shah is that there is none in the party who comes even close to him when it comes to his dedication, energy and political grasp as the BJP president. Journalists covering Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal were shocked to see Amit Shah holding night-long confabulations with local party leaders at a relatively cheap hotel in Cooch Behar, before heading out to campaign early in the morning. Many reporters had to wait for interviews with Amit Shah till wee hours in the morning when the BJP president would take a break from meetings and then sleep for a couple of hours before hitting the roads.
Senior Congress leader AK Antony, a firm believer in early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise routine, had once shared his anguish with a few journalists: “These Delhi people (his party colleagues) are strange. They call you at 11pm, and then hang up, saying they would discuss further at night.” Many party colleagues of Amit Shah might nod in empathy but they have their own stories. They get calls from Shah late at night and in early mornings, too.
Think of the number of visits Amit Shah has made to the remote corners of the country to interact with booth-level workers, panna pramukhs, and block- and district-level party functionaries. As per his website, in his first 32 months (till March 2017), Amit Shah clocked over five lakh kilometres across the country to keep partymen on toes and motivated. It’s not just about his raw energy. His grasp of politics and society has been evident from the number of alliances the BJP entered into as part of its social engineering efforts to establish its political supremacy.
Now that Amit Shah has shifted to the government, the BJP can’t find his replacement. The only flaw in Amit Shah’s leadership has been his inability to find and hone any talent to succeed him. While no politician is immune to flattery, and so there are powerful courtiers in Shah’s darbar, too, walking with a swagger as if he owed his success to them, but none of them is a patch on Shah. The election machinery he has built would sustain for some time in his absence but would start rusting sooner than one thinks.
In Atal Bihari Vajpayee-LK Advani era also, when both were in the government from 1998 to 2004, the BJP presidents during that period — Kushabhau Thakre, Bangaru Laxman, Jana Krishnamurthi and Venkaiah Naidu — couldn’t sustain the momentum the party had built before it came to power. Advani returned to helm the party in 2004 but he had lost his touch by then.
Government-party coordination to suffer
One of the high points of Modi-Shah’s leadership has been the seamless coordination between the government and the party. A BJP chief minister told me that the PM Modi and Amit Shah speak at least once a day for 15-20 minutes on phone — that is, if they don’t meet in person — to exchange and share their views on the government and party matters. Unlike the UPA government when we saw Congress leaders tearing up Cabinet-approved ordinances and publicly running down even foreign policy initiative — remember Sharm El Sheikh statement! — the BJP and the NDA government have worked in perfect tandem, thanks to the equations between these two leaders. No other BJP president would have such chemistry with Prime Minister Modi.
That’s why, with Amit Shah moving to the government, the BJP won’t be the same any more.