This has been a decade of power duos in India’s national politics. Continuing with a trend that began at the turn of the millennium, in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the country has again opted for the power of two.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t like to share the spotlight with anyone, whether it is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or an SPG officer who gets in the way of a good photograph. But 23 May 2019 was historic. Not merely because the BJP won an enormous mandate from the people of India but because Prime Minister Modi allowed Amit Shah to walk in step with him when they visited the new BJP headquarters in Delhi to a shower of flowers.
It underlined a trend that has continued since 1999 in India – rule by a political dyarchy. First, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister and Lal Krishna Advani as home minister, then it was Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh since 2014, now India has Modi and Shah.
But unlike their predecessors, Modi and Shah don’t have the baggage of the Constitution.
Division of labour
Both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have their task cut out, thanks to each other.
Between 2014 and 2019, it was Prime Minister Modi running the government and Shah transforming the BJP into a well-oiled election machine. Since victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, however, the Prime Minister has increasingly turned his attention to world affairs, notes political analyst Minhaz Merchant. As he told ThePrint, “Modi-Shah have a ruthless agenda of making the BJP electorally unbeatable with Shah the executioner and Modi the global statesman trying, though not always succeeding, to stay above the domestic fray.”
Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, echoes this, noting how clear the division of labour is in Modi 2.0.
“Commentators speak of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine Vajpayee-Advani had perfected and Modi-Shah is duplicating. While that analogy may hold true, what is interesting now is how Modi has given the reins to Shah to fully manage Parliament. On this government’s most consequential legislative actions – 370 and Citizenship Amendment Act – it is Amit Shah, not Modi, in the driver’s seat,” notes Vaishnav.
Good cop, bad cop
Modi and Shah are only emulating, if not perfecting, the good cop, bad cop routine passed onto them by Vajpayee and Advani.
Recalling the early days of Jawaharlal Nehru-Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the dyarchy was perhaps first operationalised by the NDA government that came to power in 1999. As Merchant adds: “Vajpayee-Advani were party builders with a good cop-bad cop strategy in the 1990s. Advani led the way to mainstreaming Hindutva and eventually to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, while Vajpayee kept his hands and conscience clean.” Vajpayee was the leader accepted by the 13-party coalition, Advani was the hero of Hindutva, who could project the strong man image, channelling Sardar Patel, that allowed the party to strengthen its cadres.
Advani’s cardinal mistake was to enable Modi to continue as chief minister of Gujarat after the 2002 riots, overriding objections from Vajpayee who kept raising, quite ineffectively, the issue of ‘raj dharma’. That one error was good enough for the party ideology of uncompromising Hindutva, but it also paved the way for Advani’s eventual decline, by creating a younger, more marketing savvy alternative, who was unburdened by the history of Partition. Advani, who was born in Karachi, became a prisoner of his past when he stood before M.A. Jinnah’s tomb during his 2005 Pakistan visit, and described the founder of Pakistan as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. It made him toxic to the very idea he helped popularise.
Peas in a pod
Modi and Shah’s relationship is built on the fact that they think alike – they are the extensions of the same machine and want to correct India’s ‘historical wrongs’ rather than let history be a constraint in their vision.
Both Vajpayee and Advani owed their loyalty to the RSS, whose pracharaks they had been. In the case of Modi-Shah, Modi owes his fealty to the Sangh, but Amit Shah owes it to Modi.
They have been together at least since the 1980s when Shah, son of a PVC manufacturer, joined the RSS as a swayamsevak. Modi was already a pracharak. Modi was sent to the BJP by the RSS in 1985, Shah joined the party in 1986. They have been political partners for 30 years, and the relationship intensified during the period (1995-2001) Modi was exiled by the Sangh to the BJP headquarters in Delhi and Shah remained in Ahmedabad, acting for all intents and purposes as his permanent Trojan horse. When Modi finally became chief minister in 2001, Shah joined his government, continuing till 2010, when he was exiled from the state in connection with the Sohrabuddin encounter.
Vinay Sitapati, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s brilliant biographer, has studied both Vajpayee-Advani and the initial years of Modi-Shah. He told ThePrint: “Vajpayee-Advani worked under two big constraints which Modi-Shah do not. First, the obvious: Vajpayee-Advani never had a majority in Parliament and always had to cater to their coalition allies. More generally, they spent most of their careers under a Nehruvian consensus (which has since disappeared) in which ideas like CAA were considered outside the ‘mainstream’. In contrast, Modi and Shah have a majority of their own, and the Indian ‘mainstream’ consensus has shifted since they came to power. Ideas like the CAA are not considered unthinkable the way they were in the 1950s-1990s.”
Second, says Sitapati – he is writing a book on the partnership and its impact on the BJP before Modi –, “Vajpayee-Advani were different in personality and ideology. The truth is more complex than a simple moderate-hardliner image that they deliberately cultivated. But the fact remains that Vajpayee and Advani genuinely disagreed on key issues – the Ayodhya movement for example, or sacking Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. In contrast, Modi and Shah are peas of the same pod. I find it hard to imagine them having any substantive disagreement on major issues. Modi-Shah do not even have the constraint of diverging personalities.”
All three duos are a yin-yang combination, who complement each other. But if Sonia Gandhi was Manmohan Singh’s undoing, Advani was Vajpayee’s.
The dyarchy that controlled a decade of UPA rule was less like Lord Ram a.k.a. Maryada Purshotttam-Lord Hanuman, to borrow a Hindutva metaphor, and more like a chairman-CEO relationship. Manmohan Singh did Sonia Gandhi’s dynastic bidding. And Gandhi was discreet but brooked no dissent from him or the cabinet.
But Advani was the downfall of Vajpayee, with constant attempts at destabilisation through K. Govindacharya and other RSS radicals, alienation of regional party allies and the failure of the Agra talks with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf.
Sonia’s constant undermining of Manmohan Singh through National Advisory Council diktats and attempts to project Rahul Gandhi ensured that Manmohan was always perceived as a weak prime minister, or as Advani once called him “the weakest prime minister ever”. History, as Manmohan had said, may well judge him kindly, but clearly in his stint at 7 Race Course Road, now suitably amended to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, it was 10 Janpath that called the shots in what was an arrangement of convenience.
There is considerable speculation on whether Amit Shah will be the undoing of Modi. That comes perhaps from an inadequate understanding of the relationship between the two men. There is much that binds them, primarily the sentiment that the more they are pilloried for their strong Hindutva stand by critics, the more they polarise, and the stronger they get. This is also known as the principle of ‘jitna keechad uchhaloge, utna hi kamal khilega’ (the more mud you fling, the more the lotus blossoms), as espoused by the Prime Minister.
Loh Purush and Hriday Samrat
Modi and Shah also have greater ideological cohesion and clearer hierarchy, compared to Vajpayee-Advani. Modi’s knowledgeable biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay says Modi-Shah have an advantage over Vajpayee-Advani as the “political constituency has been harnessed now, while previously it was in the process of being created”. He also pointed out to ThePrint that Modi-Shah are the first generation of post-Independence BJP leaders and carry no baggage of the initial idea of India and a commitment to making the Constitution work. Vajpayee-Advani had the former’s moderation whenever Advani wanted to walk away with the kudos.
If Advani was the Loh Purush, Vajpayee was the Vikas Purush, the Hriday Samrat. It is an ideal Modi-Shah would like to emulate but then the question arises: is Modi the real Loh Purush or is it Amit Shah? And what of the original Loh Purush, Sardar Patel, whom the Sangh Parivar would dearly love to appropriate but who remains firmly entrenched in history as one-half of the original power couple Mahatma Gandhi had imagined for India? And much as rewriters of history would like to imagine enduring fault lines between Nehru and Patel, the truth is they were “lifelong friends and colleagues, adjusting ourselves to each other’s point of view as the occasion demanded and valuing each other’s advice as only those who have confidence in each other can”. These words are Patel’s own, part of a tribute for Nehru on the latter’s 60th birthday in 1949.
Will we ever see something similar and heartfelt from the new power duo of Lutyens’ Delhi?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.