Described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “man of the match” of the NDA’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Amit Shah began his second innings as the BJP president on Monday.
However, Modi’s most trusted lieutenant faces several challenges this time, from expanding the party’s voter base and winning future elections to keeping the sheen of ‘Brand Modi’ unblemished among its cadre. Through his tenure of three years, Shah will be allowed little time to rest on past laurels. What’s more, the fag end of his current tenure will roll into 2019 – the year India faces yet another general election for the Lok Sabha.
How Shah conducts himself over the next three years will have a bearing on his image as the ‘most successful BJP president’, a reputation he had almost nailed before the party’s winning spree sputtered to a halt in Delhi and then in Bihar.
Here are some big hurdles that Shah will have to cross without tripping over them.
Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry will go to the polls this summer. Following the back-to-back drubbing his party faced in Bihar and Delhi, Shah hopes to silence his critics by gaining some relief in these states. He would be particularly happy if BJP emerges as the largest party in Assam, increases its footprints in Bengal, and make inroads in the southern states. Though it is a tall order, given the party’s strength in these states, Shah will regain his reputation as an ‘organisational man’ if the targets are achieved.
It’s the big-ticket election in this crucial northern state – slated to be held next year – that would be Shah’s actual test. As general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, he was hailed as the architect of the BJP victory here in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, the party did not fare well in the subsequent by-elections and local body polls – sounding alarm bells in the saffron camp. Shah will have to win Uttar Pradesh again to silence critics who say that the Modi wave would have swept the BJP to victory with or without Shah.
Punjab and others
Shah probably considers the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) his arch-nemesis. After halting his victory march in Delhi last year, the newborn party is now on the verge of altering the historical bipolar polity in Punjab by emerging as a new political force to reckon with. If AAP manages to dethrone the Akali-BJP government in Punjab in 2017, the NDA’s critics would be able to say conclusively that both Shah and Modi have lost their magic touch. Next year, the BJP president will also have to pull out all stops to win Uttarakhand and retain Goa – two states where the Congress remains the party’s main rival. A victory in any of these states will boost the Congress’ morale, further eroding the BJP’s political standing.
After he took over from Rajnath Singh in 2014, Shah had set upon some ambitious tasks – such as making BJP the world’s largest political outfit, training party cadre, setting up offices in every district, and documenting the party’s history. While some of them have been achieved, many others are yet to take off. Though Shah had also set up separate committees to involve party cadre in promoting the Modi government’s flagship schemes, such as the Clean Ganga project and the girl child education scheme, not a lot of progress has been achieved on this front either. Over the next three years, Shah will have to ensure that his big plans see the light of day.
When Shah’s hard-earned electoral invincibility seemed to be fading away, some party leaders crossed the Lakshman Rekha of party discipline to question his style of functioning in public. The party’s initial hesitation to crack the whip on them initially only served to embolden the others. Over the next three years, Shah may have to deal with such cases with an iron fist. One of his first challenges would be to take a call on Kirti Azad, who was suspended for dragging finance minister Arun Jaitley into the DDCA controversy. Any further delay in cracking the whip on him will fuel the conspiracy theories already at work.
Quelling extremist voices
The BJP had to face flak and also pay a heavy electoral price for controversial statements made by the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj. Unfortunately for Shah, even repeated statements from the Prime Minister and senior leaders that the focus should not deflect from matters of governance and development failed to silence them. India’s global image also received a beating over certain instances of BJP leaders pushing an aggressive Hindutva line. As BJP president, Shah will be under immense pressure to deal with such elements who work at cross purposes with the government.
Taking veterans along
Two members of party’s Margdarshak Mandal – LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi – openly revolted against Shah after the BJP’s poor show in Bihar. Clearly disgruntled over being shunted out of the parliamentary board and cast into a body that has little say in party matters, the two drove home their point by skipping Shah’s re-election event at the party office on Sunday. While the two ageing leaders are unlikely to become a part of the BJP’s decision-making system again, the party president may have to reach out to them for preventing any further controversies. What’s more, with the country’s presidential and the vice-presidential elections due next year, many BJP leaders have already begun floating the names of Advani and Joshi for the top constitutional posts.
Under Modi and Shah, the BJP tried to shed its image of a Baniya-Brahmin party and reached out to leaders from marginalised sections of the society by giving them tickets to the Lok Sabha as well as assembly elections. The party also undertook outreach programmes for both OBCs and Dalits – two sections of the society that form a majority of the electorate in the crucial state. While the strategy reaped rich electoral dividends in the Lok Sabha election, it backfired in Bihar – where these sections aligned with the party’s rivals. The controversy surrounding a Dalit student’s suicide in Hyderabad has further dealt a blow to the BJP’s efforts at social expansion. Shah will now have to walk the extra mile to reinforce the party’s commitment to Dalits and OBCs, or lose their votes to other parties that succeed in wooing them better.
The first innings of Amit Shah as BJP president saw lightweight leaders, sans any history in contesting the polls, occupying key organisational positions. The lack of political talent in the organisation became evident when senior ministers had to be sent to the states to assist in the electoral process, exposing Shah to criticism. When he sets up a new team, he will not only have to induct senior leaders with organisational experience in his team but also honour provisions in the party constitution that offer one-third representation to women. Also, not a single Dalit face figures among the party office-bearers. Shah may be required to strike a balance.