How Amit Shah transformed BJP as its chief
To a party colleague’s question on why he prefers quick decision making over long-drawn-out deliberations, Amit Shah is learnt to have said, “If I don’t take quick decisions then I won’t get things done... My style is to work on my instinct, take quick decisions then work hard to prove the decision was right.”
As he steps down as the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shah’s tenure is marked by many such decisions that saw him being hailed as a master strategist, even earning him the sobriquet ‘Chanakya’. There were also times when his stance, particularly during the time his role as party chief coincided with that of the Union Home Minister, set the party up for criticism. The most recent being his comments on the proposed National Register of Citizens (NCR) that has sparked concern that it could victimise minorities. An unfazed Shah is adamant that the exercise to identify “illegal infiltrators” will be undertaken, the protests notwithstanding.
While labels such as zealous, unwavering, authoritarian are variously applied by his party colleagues, there is consensus that it was on his watch that the party expanded, both in terms of numbers as well as in its footprint across the country. It was also the time that saw Shah holding the reigns of the BJP that saw a spectacular run at the hustings, winning elections in a record number of states, including in the Northeast, where it was a non-entity.
Shah was first appointed as the party president in 2014, when the then party chief Rajnath Singh was elevated as Union Home Minister following the BJP’s stunning success in the Lok Sabha elections and the comeback in Uttar Pradesh which he oversaw and catapulted him into the limelight.
He was given charge as the president a second time, for a full term on January 24, 2016.
The second stint came soon after the party lost elections in Bihar and Delhi and amid murmurs that the golden phase could be on the wane.
“That is when he decided to go back to the grassroots... he emphasised that the party will have to revive the cadre, go back to its strength of presence at the booth level and borrow from the Sangh’s (RSS) outreach of door-to-door connect,” said a party colleague, requesting anonymity.
The colleague said what followed was a blitzkrieg of assignments for the party workers and functionaries, taking off from an ambitious membership drive to pushing the party to contest and win every election from Panchayat to Parliament.
“He was relentless and leading from the front,” the person quoted above said.
The efforts began to pay off, when the party declared that its membership drive was a success, taking the head count of members from a little over two crore in 2014 to nearly 10 crore by 2019. In between, the party scripted stories of electoral success in states such as Assam, where it won for the first time; which also paved its entry into the Northeastern region. While it was criticised for engineering defections in Arunachal Pradesh, where the toppling of the Congress government led to a BJP chief minister in office, yet another state Manipur was added to its kitty. The party also registered a big win in Tripura, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government was ousted after 25 years. Nagaland and Meghalaya were added to the fold, with help from allies and the ruling parties in Sikkim and Mizoram were persuaded to join the NEDA or the North East Democratic alliance to focus on the wider issues concerning the region.
“There was apprehension among the minorities (tribal communities as well as Christians) that the BJP will appropriate their culture, their lifestyle and impose hardline Hindutva. While in states such as Tripura and Manipur it could bond with the Hindus through the work done by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s development agenda, the party was able to reach out to the minorities as well,” said a leader from the Northeast, also wishing anonymity.
Bhupinder Yadav, a party general secretary and a Rajya Sabha MP, also a confidant of Shah, said during his tenure the party saw growth in membership as well as strengthening of the organisation. “It was during his presidency that the party undertook the biggest ever membership drive, owing to which the party now has over 10 crore members, the highest worldwide. The party also saw a geographical expansion under his charge from the Northeast of India to the Southern states, which were considered to be out of reach for the BJP.”
The focus on expansion and membership has paid dividends, according to Yadav.
“He followed a very scientific process of organisational strengthening and growth; 19 departments and six projects were set up all this paid dividends because during the 2019 elections the party bagged four crore votes of the 10 crore members,” he said.
Presence of party offices at every district level made it impossible to oversee the BJP’s ambitions of a pan-India presence. It also sent out a message that the party was serious about local elections as it was about winning the seat of power in Delhi.
“...In terms of organisational strength he took major steps. BJP’s presence percolated to the district levels, so consequently, now you see the presence of BJP offices and libraries at most district level,” said Yadav.
A party colleague from the Southern region, where the BJP has not been as successful in gaining ground, recalled how Shah insisted on daily reportage from the states. “He led the campaign in Kerala against the Left, highlighting the political violence. And has been pushing the cadre to carve their space in the political scene dominated by regional parties,” he said.
While a breakthrough in West Bengal came in the form of 18 Lok sabha seats in the last election under his watch, there is no let-up in preparations for the 2021 assembly polls.
Shah, who has never shied away from referring to his RSS roots, was also credited for striking a balance between the ideological demand of the Sangh and political compulsions. A senior RSS functionary said Shah remains committed to the ideology and was instrumental in fulfilling a long-pending dream of abrogating Article 370. “Why India needs a population policy or the need for a uniform civil code are not lost on him,” the Sangh functionary said.
In their book on Shah, Anirban Ganguly and Shiwanand Dwivedi give details of the process of mass-contact programmes, the extensive touring across regions with the purpose of making contact with people as also giving the party apparatus an impetus.
“...In his quest for expanding BJP’s footprint, Shah covered more than 7,90,000 km between August 2014 and September 2018 undertaking major outreach programmes in the duration of 49 months. The average distance covered by him during this period was about 519 km a day and this is just a figure.”
The book goes on to say that in the first part of his tenure between August 2014 and January 2016, Shah undertook a marathon round of tours that would primarily be divided into two categories - organisational visit and election campaigning.
“Shah insisted on drawing up a pravaas plan with the objective of expanding the party from booths to the national level. The main focus of his organisational visit was to initiate and push forward the membership and training campaigns,” the book says.
Vijay Chauthaiwale, who was roped in to head the BJP’s Overseas Cell by Shah, said that the focus on pushing party members to keep reaching out to the electorate is not driven by electoral compulsions alone. “He is very ideologically committed. He’s committed to doing something for the poor and this is not only for electoral gains but out of conviction,” he said.
Chauthaiwale also pointed out that there is more to Shah than just an electoral strategist. “He has very deep political instincts, but he also has a good understanding of history, of culture, of India’s heritage and his interests are diverse. For instance, he can speak on the Shankaracharya with as much ease as he can about the treaties of Chanakya.”
Away from the adulation and the credit for drafting the victories in various assembly elections, there were whispers of centralisation of power, which led to the weakening of the state units and electoral loss in Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisargh, Rajasthan and recently Jharkhand. The loss in Maharashtra, where the party made abortive attempts at grabbing power with a break-away faction of the NCP came undone and again questioned the infallibility of the central leadership.
Reliance on national issues and the Modi-Shah team to win assembly polls was also criticised.
Has the centralisation of power and the tendency to micromanage imposed costs?
Chauthaiwale disagreed, “He’s a karyakarta’s leader. If you show potential he will walk an extra mile to help you.”
Political analyst Neelanjan Sircar, however, sees the centralisation as a bid to retain complete control and prevent factionalism.
“What both Modi and Shah have done is centralised the party between them and a few others who they trust. There has been sidelining of many senior leaders. Broadly what they did in Gujarat, where they tried to run the state unit like a regional party with limited factionalism has been scaled up at the central level. What they have also done at the state levels is prop relatively unknown or unpopular faced as chief ministers because they don’t want any factionalism to hurt their own position. This is something that Indira Gandhi would have done in the 70s. So in order to prevent factionalism at the central level they have chosen to make sacrifices at the state level,” he said.
So, has the strategy of remaining a dominant national player also worked?
“...So far they have been able to array powers to themselves and the results showed in 2019,” Neelanjan Sircar said.
Another allegation that marked Shah’s tenure is the sidelining of senior party leaders - patriarchs LK Advani, MM Joshi being limited to a Margdarshak Mandal - and the fissures that appeared in the NDA camp.
When the Shiv Sena, which has been the oldest ally of the BJP, broke away after a bitter fallout over power sharing in Maharashtra, other allies including the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Lok Jana Shakti Party did not demure from expressing concern over the treatment to allies.
“Shah is an enigma wrapped in a mystery,” said a senior leader and an ally.
Drawing comparisons between the NDA led by Vajpayee-Advani with the Modi-Shah leadership, he said, “Ten years ago, meetings with the allies, taking them on board and involving them in decision making was a norm. Today, they have an absolute majority so they don’t follow a consultative process, but what if things change at the end of the four and half years?”
Commenting on the turn in relations between the allies, he said, “Relations were then cordial and now there is a trust deficit.”