Delhi’s power circles are swirling with a rumour these days. It is spreading faster on WhatsApp groups than the coronavirus is in India. The rumour is about Home Minister Amit Shah. To be precise, it is about some alleged differences that have cropped up between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In fact, liberal journalists, bureaucrats, scholars and activists insist on getting on Signal or WhatsApp calls to talk about this in whispers. All speculative gossip and conjecture, of course, because no one really knows what’s going on in this most secretive government. Not even BJP leaders.
But that hasn’t stopped Indian liberals from fantasising about a scenario where the intimidating duo will split. They say important files are not going to Amit Shah. He hasn’t spoken publicly since the coronavirus lockdown began, even though he is seen in ANI photographs and tweets regularly, whether it’s about Maharashtra rail accident, death of BSF soldiers, gas leak in Vizag, Handwara or Modi’s popularity ratings.
Such speculations about power duos are not new. It dogged the Congress-led UPA’s decade-long rule with rumours about Sonia Gandhi being miffed with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Of course, it didn’t help that Rahul Gandhi said an ordinance that Singh had brought should be “torn up and thrown away”. During the NDA rule, all they talked about was the rivalry and differences between former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. This rivalry, real, imagined or fed, birthed an entire crop of journalists in Delhi.
But Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were supposed to be different — above petty power rivalries, in perfect sync and complementing each other. They are what Hindi speakers call ‘do jism, ek jaan’ or Tamil speakers say ‘iru udal oru uyir’ — two bodies one soul.
Liberals have a dream
In the past five months, especially since the deadly Hindu-Muslim violence in Delhi earlier this year when National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was sent to the riot areas, there has been much salacious speculation among the liberals and progressives about a possible rift between Modi and Shah. These began after Amit Shah implemented several hot-button issues, prompting Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel to even say that the home minister was running the show in Delhi and there were differences between him and Modi.
Here are five reasons why liberals and progressive people find the talk of Modi-Shah differences tantalising, even without proof.
First, Narendra Modi will be considerably weakened without Amit Shah. The two embolden each other and play good cop-bad cop very well – one projects himself as a statesman-like, visionary leader; the other is the shrill Hindutva amplifier. In many ways, Shah is the facilitator of Modi’s Hindutva consolidation. Modi dials it down when he is not in an election campaign, but Shah is 24×7 Hindutva mobilisation.
Second, differences between them will mean the end of the formidable election machinery that Amit Shah directs and controls. He perfected and now presides over booth management and information dissemination very well. Many see Modi as a charismatic orator. If Modi has the message, Amit Shah controls the distribution pipelines for that message. If content is king, and distribution is god, as columnist Shivam Vij wrote, then Shah is that god. “The exclusive monopoly of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over all these means of distribution explains a lot about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success.”
Third, Modi has become too self-conscious about his international image and headlines. Amit Shah doesn’t care enough about his international image. He got both the domestic credit and global criticism for the Kashmir Article 370 move and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Someone who doesn’t care about their international image is more likely to pursue a strident Hindutva agenda. If Amit Shah goes, liberals hope it will tame the Hindutva project.
Fourth, with Modi and Shah at the helm in the BJP for the past six years, the second-rung leaders, such as Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari and late Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, had to retreat and not indulge their ambitions. Because everybody assumes that Amit Shah is billed to follow Modi (after 2 or 2.5 terms). If that planned succession is in doubt, then a full-blown leadership drama will be mounted. Leaders wouldn’t have to stifle their ambitions in silence any longer, if Amit Shah isn’t the chosen man after Modi. That weakens the BJP, a prospect that the liberals can smile upon. Also, the tight ship that the two leaders run in the government will come undone. Ministers will form camps, leak information and go the UPA way.
Finally, liberals know they can’t defeat Modi with just their ‘idea of India’ anymore. No matter what they do, they are trapped in ivory towers that don’t count for much electorally. So, the only way they see Modi’s image getting tainted is if he is in a fight with his show-runner Shah. That would be enough catharsis.
Echo chamber of the rumour mill
Conspiracy theories are always the default setting when there is no access to inside information. So, the liberal ecosystem is forced to talk among themselves, share and also validate each other’s conspiracy theories.
But this isn’t true just for the liberals. Such rumours are fed by a handful of the old establishment power privilegentsia. These are the same people who stoked speculation about Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s health and whispered to Time magazine’s Alex Perry, and about Manmohan Singh’s health.
So, until the next election campaign or the next joint appearance on the balcony of the BJP headquarters, liberals can form new governments in their minds.
Views are personal.