When BJP president Amit Shah held one of his rare interactions with a small group of journalists at the party headquarters recently, he was asked what impact a loss in Bihar will have on the party.
It was a loaded question. His response was swift and straight.
“You are asking this because BJP’s organisational elections are approaching. Correct? If victory and defeat decided the BJP presidency, it would be difficult for the BJP to ever elect a president,” he replied.
The riposte was greeted with laughter. But make no mistake: the BJP’s Bihar humiliation is set to resonate at various forums within the party and Shah faces re-election as BJP chief in December or early January. After Bihar, he may have to answer difficult questions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trusted lieutenant has had a relatively smooth run as party boss. Electoral victories in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir helped him consolidate his grip over the organisation. Few complaints were aired in public, although there have been dissenting voices from those uncomfortable with his meteoric rise and take-no-prisoners style.
The defeat to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi stung, but Shah’s loyalists pass it off as an aberration. The blame was swiftly placed at the door of Kiran Bedi, the last-minute chief minister candidate.
Bihar may turn out to be different. Shah’s one-size-fits-all campaign strategy, developed and perfected elsewhere, lost its novelty in a complex state where political discourse ranged from caste to development to religion.
He tried micro-managing the Bihar campaign. The result was bruised egos and dissidence among the state’s leaders and misplaced zeal among thousands of party workers brought in from other states with little knowledge of local equations.
Even his most ardent follower will find it difficult to call the Bihar debacle a fluke. Shah’s style is set to be dissected, say a section of party leaders. Many veterans are pacing on the sidelines for an opportunity to vent their frustration. He is not without his critics in the RSS either.
Still, Shah’s biggest shield is his formidable record in managing elections, notwithstanding the consecutive setbacks in Delhi and Bihar. Five states are set to go to the polls in 2016 and he has been spearheading the party’s preparations there. Among them, the BJP is looking to make ideological penetration and increase its footprint in Assam and Bengal.
Besides, Shah has been hard at work to mould the party out of its exclusive Brahmin-Baniya image to broaden the BJP’s base, an objective that goes down well with the RSS as well.
Full coverage: Battle for Bihar