June 27, 2020
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The Shah Of Political Chess

The political constellation on the ground and the signs in the sky are all working out for Modi’s general as he strives to close the gaps in India’s saffron map

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The Shah Of Political Chess
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
The Shah Of Political Chess

Midway through the UP assembly elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the kabristan-shamshaan statement, it was seen as an attempt to polarise voters by highlighting min­ority appeasement and “bhedbhav” (discrimination) by the Akhilesh ­Yadav government. Modi, who had been talking of development ­until then, had suddenly changed tack and introduced religion into his campaign pitch. This is wid­ely believed to have been done at the beh­est of his party chief Amit Shah, who is said to have convinced Modi about the possible dividends.

The PM’s statement was made at a rally in Fatehpur on February 19, when votes for the third phase were being polled. It became a talking point for days to come as leaders of other parties kept raking it up. “The more the other parties talked about it, the more the atmosphere got polarised, benefiting the BJP. It was a masterstroke by Amit Shah,” says a senior party leader.

The anecdote not only highlights how closely Shah, 52, had studied the ground situation, but also the trust that Modi reposes in him—trust built over an ass­ociation more than three decades long. Shah was 17 when he met Modi for the first time at a shakha in Ahmedabad’s Naranpura, which he represents now in the Gujarat Assembly. Modi was a pracharak in charge of youth affairs in the state. “It is a bond that has only grown since,” says a party general secretary. “If Modi ji has an idea, he knows Shah can implement it. Today that idea is ­Congress-mukt Bharat.”

Actually, more than the idea of a ­Congress-mukt Bharat, it is the dream of seeing BJP rule across India that is driving Shah. He believes Modi’s vis­ion of India cannot be realised unless all the states are on board, and that can only happen with BJP governments in every state. “They are working in tandem,” says the general secretary. “Modi the PM is at ease, knowing well that the ­party is in safe hands and complementing his efforts.” According to him, the added advantage is that Shah understands not just party management but also governance, having handled 12 crucial portfolios as Modi’s trusted lieutenant in the Gujarat government.

On his part, Shah is certain that Modi and the BJP are here to stay, ruling the country for several years to come. “He dabbles in astrology,” reveals a party leader from Gujarat. “He can prepare an astrological chart and study the planetary positions pretty well. In fact, he is so confident that he doesn’t need to consult professionals anymore.”

Amit Shah is a tough taskmaster.... All his tough talking has earned him an abrasive image.... “It is impossible to fool him,” says a BJP leader.

Shah is believed to have learnt ast­rology from Ahmedabad-based astro­loger Shastri Niranjan Shukla. When Shah was written off politically in 2008 following his imprisonment in the Sohrabuddin encounter case, Shukla, who saw ‘Raj Yog’ in the horoscope, predicted that his rivals would perish and he would be resurrected. “Shah was so impressed that he decided to study astrology from Shukla and is now proficient in it himself,” says the ­Gujarat-based leader.

Shah is surely not resting on his laurels post the emphatic victory in UP. After ensuring the asc­ension of Yogi Adityanath as the CM, Shah is now looking at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and focusing on the 120 constituencies that the BJP has never won. From April 6, BJP’s foundation day, to April 14, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, all senior party leaders and ministers have been told to fan out to these new areas and establish a foothold.

As part of the larger picture, Shah has shifted attention to states like Guj­arat and Himachal Pradesh where elections are due at the end of the year, and to those still eluding the BJP—­Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Orissa and West Bengal. And with the first BJP government in place in Manipur, he now wants the party’s footprints in ­other northeastern states too.

In most states, Shah doesn’t foresee any major problem. Only Mizoram, which has a near 90 per cent Christian population, seems a bit out of reach. “He is determined to breach that barr­ier as well,” a Union minister tells Outlook. “Being a grandmaster of the electoral chessboard, Shah is sure to find a way of seeing the lotus bloom there too. In fact, nothing can satisfy him more than seeing saffron rule in the remote state.” Incidentally, Shah is known to be an accomplished chess player and was instrumental in introducing the game in Gujarat schools. He believed it would help students attain higher IQ levels.

Party leaders say Shah is a tough taskmaster. “He has this habit of taking the party workers by surprise and asking them random questions during meetings, to which he cannot stand general answers,” says the minister. “For example, if he asks about election preparations, he does not want ‘very good’ as an answer. He wants details of what exactly is happening on the ground. That’s why nobody wants to sit in the front row during meetings. It is impossible to fool him.”

No wonder all this tough talking has built an abrasive image of the party president. “It is true he doesn’t believe in durbars and has no time to pander to individual egos,” says the leader. “He is focused on his work. He gives time to at least 25 people in a day and talks to a hundred others on the phone. He is straightforward, doesn’t believe in cushioning his words in niceties, doesn’t care what people think of him and can be pretty ruthless.”

Shah likes to quote freedom fighter, philosopher and spiritual reformer Aurobindo Ghosh on good governance: “A king should always try to take ­decisions that benefit the masses and not individuals.” This is believed to be part of a note Aurobindo had left for Shah’s grandfather, who was an administrator in the princely state of Mansa and had played host to the nationalist leader a century ago.

Flanking Shah’s armchair are portraits of Chanakya and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who are among the historical figures he draws INS­piration from. He recently asked for a compilation of Maratha history to read up on Peshwa Bajirao. “Napoleon is another leader he adores,” says an aide. “He basically likes strong characters, who are decisive, self-made and stand for their beliefs. That’s why he pitched for Adityanath as UP CM.”

While Shah is used to getting his way, many in the BJP are not happy with the change he has brought into the party’s culture. Veteran leaders such L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha, who were relegated to the Margdarshak Mandal, have been hinting at a “breakdown” in the party’s democratic structure. In the wake of electoral debacles in Delhi and Bihar, for example, the veterans complained about the party being “emasculated” and “forced to kowtow to a handful”—a not-so-veiled reference to Shah’s ­autocratic ways.

A senior leader, who thinks the BJP’s nature as a cadre-based party is changing, has a word of caution for Shah. “Shah claims to have made BJP the largest in the world with 11 crore members, but the question to ask is whether they are all voters,” he says. “They are probably not. The challenge is to turn these members into enthused workers. The way things are, even old members are not happy. The victory in UP is seen as a victory of Modi and not the organisation. The winning streak may continue, but the party will get weakened in the long run.”

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