Amit Shah’s role in turning around the fortunes of the BJP in the recent past is substantial. In the past five years, he has been working on a war footing treating every election as a won to win.
If speculations over the next role for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah in the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been tempered by his near indispensability for the BJP, it is only because of his organisational skills, which are a matter of envy for any political strategist.
As known to his close aides and leaders, Modi won’t like to neglect his party as he moves into the second term — just as he had not done so at the beginning of his term in 2014.
After the 2014 win, Modi chose Shah to replace Rajnath Singh in the hot seat of BJP President. This was a reward for Shah, who as general secretary of Uttar Pradesh won the party the highest Lok Sabha tally of 73 MPs (inclusive of allies) in UP. Opposition leaders and critics thought that Shah was merely re-emphasising a large-than-life image of Modi to mesmerise voters. However, Shah was doing more than that.
Shah did not waste time. He set his eyes for the 2019 polls and got into building the party in places where it was very weak, and getting the right kind of managers in different wings of the BJP set-up. There were no favourites among the people Shah chose for the task. Even as BJP units were made tech-savvy, he ensured that they were networked with the party headquarters for regular feedbacks from the ground.
In 2014, Shah re-launched a huge membership drive through phone calls, which his critics panned as a joke. However, on the ground, the number of verified BJP members rose from 35 million to 110 million. They were involved in a massive contact drive to ‘appreciate’ the BJP’s ideology with the tag line ‘let us build the nation together’. This meant they were BJP’s ideological warriors spread over a number of towns and villages who understood what Modi stood for.
Next, he ensured that the BJP treated every election — whether it was for an assembly, a municipal or a panchayat — as an important challenge for the party. This was undertaken through a campaign called ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazboot’ (My booth is strongest booth).
The media read these campaigns as non-newsy but Shah knew what he was working on — BJP’s old formula of focusing attention on booth-level workers and nourishing the grassroots support.
Shah did not tolerate any attempt by cynics within the party to run down what was essentially a nut-and-bolt approach of the party.
Enjoying synergy with Modi gave Shah what he needed most: the authority as a relentless man of action whose orders won’t be questioned or sabotaged. His efforts bore fruit when by the end of 2014 the BJP won elections in difficult states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand.
Next on his radar were the 120 Lok Sabha seats where the BJP came second or third despite the ‘Modi wave’. Shah put ambitious BJP second-rung leaders in charge of these constituencies, which were narrowed down to 80 winnable ones for 2019.
Shah eyed the BJP’s potential strength in Opposition-dominated West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana, listing out factors that could be tapped in its favour. He pushed reluctant functionaries who were deputed in these states to take their tasks seriously and conducted frequent audit. The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was roped in to bring life into a network of men and women who could organise small groups of people who were victims of the state governments, such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Shah came up with the idea of opening BJP offices in 600 districts across India, buying up and creating property to house them. A physical presence was the first step to create presence in the mind of voters.
In 2017, ahead of the UP polls, Shah saw the Congress and the Samajwadi Party coming together as a big challenge because it was powered by friendship of Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav and Priyanka Gandhi-Dimple Yadav. That was the time when Shah began to look for support for the BJP beyond its core voter base and found allies among the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Mahadalits. A Hindutva-laced campaign — designed by Shah by involving a maverick like Yogi Adityanath — ensured the BJP’s win UP polls handsomely. Yogi was rewarded with chief minister’s job, much to the chagrin of the Hindutva-detesting sections among the middle-class.
By end of 2018, recovering from the assembly poll loss, Akhilesh Yadav showed he was disenchanted with Rahul-led Congress and was stitching up a new alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati.
Shah rose to the occasion again, putting behind the Lok Sabha by-election setbacks in UP. Even as BJP cadre felt the task of challenging the BSP-SP ‘Mahagatbandhan’ daunting, Shah got his surveyors to identify the BJP’s electoral fault-lines, directed his men on the ground to win back the core voters, and pick candidates who could appeal to them.
In all this work, Shah did not forget to look out for actual beneficiaries of Modi’s flagship welfare schemes, which was most the difficult task. Hundreds of BJP men fanned out in search of them in village-after-village, booth-after-booth, and constituency-after-constituency. Once spotted, they were convinced to remember Modi as the harbinger of the changes in their lives and made first-time voters of the BJP.
Shah convinced Modi about the efficacy of his strategy at the macro-level too: one, complete consolidation in BJP strongholds, flexibility with National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners, including the recalcitrant Shiv Sena; two, exploiting anti-incumbency in states such as Bengal, Odisha, and Telangana where the BJP was not the main player, and; third, not let the electoral gains made by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat assembly polls go unchallenged.
Cut to 2019, when the Lok Sabha polls were announced. Shah’s machinery was more than ready for the battle in every constituency — even in the ones where the BJP could not win but its efforts ensured good accretion in votes polled for the party.
Well, these may be the reasons why Modi could still appear to be unwilling to shift Shah from the responsibilities of the party to government. There are more elections by the end of the year and in early 2020.
But then, Shah’s turn for rewards is also long overdue. A Cabinet berth with an important ministry should be his without asking. The big question, however, remains who will run the BJP if Shah moves out? A proxy, for a change?
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.
India Union Budget 2019: What does Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have up her sleeve? Click here for top and latest Budget news, views and analyses.