How Narendra Modi, the poll strategist, provided the blueprint for Amit Shah

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It’s a common practice nowadays to hyphenate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah while writing or talking about the Bharatiya Janata Party. So, it’s Modi-Shah’s BJP, Modi-Shah’s election victory and Modi-Shah government at the Centre. It’s meant to convey the jointness or complementariness of Modi’s mass appeal and Shah’s genius as a strategist.

This hyphenation probably had its genesis in Modi’s speech at the BJP national council meeting in August 2014 in which he had called Shah ‘Man of the Match’ following the Lok Sabha election victory. As general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Shah had secured 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats for the BJP in the state. He replaced Rajnath Singh as party president in July 2014. There was no looking back after that as the party kept scaling new heights. Every election victory kept accentuating the hyphenation. In their 2019 book Amit Shah and the March of BJP, Anirban Ganguly and Shiwanand Dwivedi of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, a party think tank, wrote: “One can very well term this process of transforming Modi’s unparalleled popularity into BJP’s strength as ‘Shah Policy’. Modi is also aware and accepts the fact that if there is any one person who can shape and implement his policies and political vision, it’s his most reliable strategist, Amit Shah. Shah has shown how to successfully turn a leader’s popularity into the party’s strength.”

There is no denying the enormous contributions Amit Shah has made to the BJP’s growth. A 24×7 politician, he has kept the party machinery well-oiled and ensured the party’s and the government’s connect with cadres and the people in general. The way he has devised the fall of opposition parties nationally and in several states is a testimony to his political genius. He must owe a lot of it to Modi, too.

Much has been written about the Prime Minister’s mass appeal but his role in bringing the BJP to power in Gujarat and many other states long before he became a household name hasn’t been highlighted enough. A new book, The Architect of the New BJP: How Narendra Modi Transformed the Party, authored by Ajay Singh, does exactly that, highlighting Modi’s contributions as a brilliant party strategist. Amit Shah has carried forward and built on what Modi had started four decades back when he was donning a strategist’s hat.

Shah owes his ‘pragmatic’ politics to Modi

That Modi was a good organiser since his days as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been spoken and written about, but not extensively. Singh’s well-researched book brings out how the template that Shah used to take the BJP to an unprecedented height was in fact drawn by Modi. Let’s take the example of the BJP’s use of civic polls as a way of expanding the party’s footprints.

When top leaders of the BJP descended in Hyderabad in October-November 2020 to campaign for the party in Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections, it was hailed as a stroke of political genius. There were similar reactions when the BJP campaigned extensively in West Bengal municipal polls in 2017 and Odisha panchayat polls in 2019 to emerge as the principal opposition party in these states.

Way back in 1987, Modi as Gujarat BJP general secretary (organisation) had used the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) polls to expand the BJP’s footprints. The BJP or the Jana Sangh had never come to power in the AMC till then— or, for that matter, in Gujarat, except as part of the Janata Party in 1977-80. As Ajay Singh recounts in the book, in the 1980s, there were many communal riots in Ahmedabad where a gangster, Abdul Latif, had emerged very powerful. He contested as an Independent candidate (with lion symbol) from five wards in AMC polls. He was in jail then. His henchmen paraded a caged lion to campaign for him. The Modi-led BJP made the best use of it, building on the atmosphere of fear and a sense of insecurity among Hindus to secure a majority in the corporation. Incidentally, Latif won from all five wards but had to vacate four of them where the runners-up were declared winners. Two of them were from the BJP while another, an Independent, declared support to the party. A section of the RSS is said to be uneasy about ‘importing’ leaders from other parties and installing them on important positions. But it’s coming straight from Modi’s old playbook. In 1987, he got Jayendra Pandit, a leader from the Praja Socialist Party, elected as the AMC Mayor.

In 1996, Modi was brought out of Gujarat and given charge of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. He decided to ally with Bansi Lal of the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP). A Sanjay Gandhi confidant, Lal was the defence minister during the Emergency but that didn’t prevent Modi from joining hands with him to try to expand the BJP’s base in Haryana.

He was equally pragmatic in Himachal Pradesh where the 1998 assembly election threw up a hung assembly. There were three things that Modi did after the election. First, he got Prem Kumar Dhumal, then 54, appointed as the chief minister, sidelining Shanta Kumar who was 10 years older to Dhumal. Modi was going for a generational change in leadership. The second thing he did was align with Sukh Ram, the former communications minister who had been expelled by the Congress over corruption charges. The BJP high command at the time didn’t want to go with Sukh Ram because they thought it would hurt the party’s image but Modi prevailed over them. And third, Modi persuaded a Congress MLA, Gulab Singh Thakur, to contest for the assembly speaker’s post. The BJP supported him and he won. That was meant to bring down the Congress’ tally to 31 as against the BJP’s 32 and ally Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Congress’ 5.

Developing booth-level party workers, maintaining a register with their contact numbers, categorising them as affluents who could help in organising party programmes, two-wheeler owners, etc, expanding the party’s base beyond Brahmins and Banias, engineering defections, aligning with smaller parties—these were all part of Modi’s playbook that the BJP is using today. He introduced the concept of chintan baithaks when he got 25 party leaders in the Gir forest to spend three days—without any access to telephones or newspapers. It was under Modi’s guidance that the BJP started deploying party workers at tea and paan stalls and in trains and buses to talk about the BJP’s invincibility and thus create a buzz about the party.

Amit Shah was barely 18 when he first met Modi in 1982. Four years later, Shah joined the BJP. He must have observed Modi’s exploits as a BJP strategist from close quarters, because his strategies have a clear Modi imprint on them. It would be a fallacy to compartmentalise their roles—Modi as the popular face and Shah as the strategic brain.

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