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Second Battle

The Shah Commission

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The warrior president of the BJP is all set for his second battle. Inside the new saffron high command
On the ground floor of Gujarat Bhawan, located in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, BJP president Amit Shah sits relaxed in a conference room, giving off a confident and in-control demeanour. He doesn’t harangue party colleagues and ministers, most of who have to compulsorily meet him once a week to brief him about their work. But everybody knows that the hardnosed politician doesn’t condone anyone dawdling through work or engaging in empty talk. Which is why they say Shah, the youngest-ever BJP president at 50, has gone for a shock therapy of sorts within the party: he brooks no delays or lame excuses, and loathes the typical trappings of ‘Delhi durbar’, known for its ravenous desire for power, prestige and pelf.

The younger, new team that Shah has put in place as he forges ahead with expanding the party’s presence to states considered fallow for the BJP is a testimony to his deep dislike for what pundits call extraneous considerations. “He has chosen people he is comfortable working with. He has no political linkage or high- level recommendations to influence him, it seems,” says a person close to the matter, emphasising that many of the new office bearers—eight general secretaries, 11 vice presidents, 14 secretaries and 10 national spokespersons— are below 50.

Notably, the talk within the BJP is that those who have ‘toiled in the trenches’, and not those who have ‘lounged in the splendour of Delhi’s power circles’ have been named to the top echelons of the party. Another section suggests that the new team marks the decimation of the anti-Modi camp in the party. . The only exception is LK Advani loyalist Ananth Kumar who has been pardoned: he is expected to continue in the crucial parliamentary board of the BJP, says a BJP leader Among dropped names are SS Ahluwalia, Balbir Punj and a few others considered ‘quintessential Delhi types’, according to a senior BJP leader. JP Nadda, who has emerged as the second-most important person, or Shah’s chief of staff, will soon make it to the top panel.

Another casualty was 34-year-old Varun Gandhi, son of Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, who was earlier general secretary. Gandhi, whose mother publicly peddled the idea that he could be pitched as the Chief Ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh, enjoyed former party president and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s patronage. That Maneka made such a suggestion didn’t go down well with party cadres and leaders in Uttar Pradesh, where Shah now enjoys tremendous clout thanks to his role in pulling in votes and ensuring the biggest- ever victory in the country’s most populous state.

“Such writs don’t seem to run any longer,” notes a political analyst who has watched the BJP for long—a party where veterans have called the shots since its inception in 1980. A joke doing the rounds within the party about Varun is a comment by a senior leader who said, “The Congress is under compulsion to accommodate the Gandhis, but not the BJP.”

SHIFTING GEAR

Without doubt, there is a major change in the behavioural pattern of the party, notes an RSS leader based out of Mumbai. “And I feel it is for [the] good. I think money, proximity with leaders and other factors did not contribute to naming a person an office bearer this time around. What is bad about that? [But], of course, we have to always make room for accommodating people from certain backgrounds who need to be empowered,” he adds.

The inclusion in Shah’s team of Ram Shanker Katheria, a member of Parliament from the Agra Lok Sabha constituency, reflects that logic. After all, the recent Lok Sabha elections in which the BJP won a resounding victory, catapulting Narendra Modi to power at the Centre, saw the Dalits voting en masse for the BJP. Says Laxmikant Bajpai, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh state president: “The 2014 elections were a watershed in state politics and elsewhere. It saw people who were for long affiliated to caste parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party veering towards the BJP and voting for the cause of ensuring that Modiji became PM.”

RSS leaders contend that like the OBCs, who have increasingly been accommodated in the ranks of the BJP over the past decade thanks to overwhelming support for the party from the caste base, Dalits, too, who have over the past few years joined the league of ‘mainstream Hindus’, will get far higher representation in party forums.

With the BJP under Shah tapping more into the RSS for cadres, the mother of all Hindutva organisations in the country continues to enjoy tremendous clout within the party. Shah’s affinity for RSS leaders like Dattatreya Hosabale and Suresh Soni is well-known and his naming Ram Madhav as a general secretary shows that he is keen to borrow well-networked leaders from the parent organisation. “Ram Madhav is a modern-day RSS leader who is suave and well-connected. His services will be of great use for the BJP at a time it is looking to spread wings in states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu besides strengthening itself in other states,” avers a Delhi-based BJP leader who views the ‘so-called cultural shift’ within the organisation as ‘a much-needed one’.

He points out that in the early days of the BJP, party leaders blindly followed the Congress’s organisational model, hiring people who were close to them and remaining largely Delhi-centric. “I don’t know how it happened. The Congress was such a large entity then, and so our leaders aped them with the aim of fighting them,” he suggests. That trend continued under the presidency of LK Advani, and later Nitin Gadkari, N Venkiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh.

“That trend is changing and I am glad,” the BJP leader declares. Modi and Shah don’t want social climbers and elitists in the higher echelons of the party, he adds.

THE ABVP CLUB

Several senior BJP leaders, including several Union ministers, are members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and pundits suggest that this offers a lot of advantages. First of all, most of them have worked together for long and understand each person’s strengths and weaknesses. This mean deputing jobs on the basis of a person’s strength is easy for Shah. Most of the leaders are from across the country and have worked at the grassroots level, unlike some previous nominees who had mostly been Delhi-based leaders. Shah’s new team includes Nadda, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Muralidhar Rao, Madhav, Saroj Pandey, Bhupendra Yadav, Kateria, Ram Lal, all of whom are general secretaries. The new vice-presidents are B Dattatray, BS Yeddyurappa, Satpal Malik, MA Naqvi, P Ruppala, Prabhat Jha, Raghuvar Das, Kiran Maheswari, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Renu Devi and Dinesh Sharma. Besides these, Shahanawaz Hussain, Sudhanshu Trivedi, Meenakshi Lekhi, Sambit Patra, MJ Akbar, Nalin Kohli, BS Shastri, GVLN Rao, Anil Baluni and L Kumarmangalam will be the party’s national spokespersons. While Abdul Rashid Ansari will continue as the BJP Minority Morcha chief, Anurag Thakur will remain Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha chief.

Interestingly, in a neat ruse, Shah retained certain leaders in top posts of feeder organisations so that he would not be forced to dishonour requests of close friends within the party to offer them senior party posts.

For his part, Nadda says the new team is far more representative than ever. “We have included the representatives of all the states and communities,” he says. Another senior BJP leader says that the choice of the new leadership puts on full display “the ruthless clarity of the president of the party who doesn’t tolerate shirkers or people who want to be in the party for glamour quotient”. He didn’t elaborate.

CRACKING THE WHIP

Indeed, Shah’s actions speak loudly.

Recently, he insisted on an austerity move, asking senior leaders to use regular flights and save on costs for chartered airplanes. It meant that a leader as senior as Advani himself had to toe the line because Shah was in no mood to dole out concessions to anyone. Repeated requests were rejected, including efforts to impress upon him through intermediaries. He is reported to have put his foot down, saying this was no time for embellishments and ostentatious displays of power and opulence. “He means business. There is certainly fear of breaking new guidelines that are in place,” says the second BJP leader, adding that ‘pull and pressures within the party’ are things of the past.

As the second-most powerful person in the NDA, Shah can afford to crack the whip. After all, Modi, the National Democratic Alliance’s CEO, trusts him wholeheartedly. Shah, despite being a rank outsider until a few years ago, is also very clued in when it comes to the goings- on in the national capital, both within the government and among power brokers who until recently held tremendous sway over the ruling dispensation. A well-networked senior leader has often been heard saying that “while I know some 490 of the 500 people who hold the reins of power in Delhi, Shah seems to know all of them”.

According to a senior government official, the BJP president also seems to be hands-on in tracking information and leakage of information within the government, effectively transforming the government into “a no-nonsense administration where work, and not media interaction and claims of doing work are what matter”. He adds that unlike in the time of the Congress, no bureaucrat gets to “settle scores with a rival or another ministry official through selective leakage of news”. Recently, trouble-shooters of the BJP tracked the source of leakage of a conversation between a minister and an official. “All this prevents unnecessary rumours and half-truths being circulated in the media. They might want to call it opacity, but we in the government are more interested in work and not in talking too much at a time when we should be busy with our work. We will talk, but later. Amitji’s actions are in line with this spirit,” argues a BJP leader.

PREPARING FOR POLLS

A hard task master, Shah, who has catapulted himself from a state-level leader to a national figure within two years, instils fear in the minds of party workers who come unprepared for meetings. “You can’t go and make perfunctory statements about the state of affairs of the party in your state. He is someone who has direct contact with grassroots-level workers and therefore any such general statements are snubbed,” says a Bhopal-based BJP leader.

These days, at meetings presided over by Shah at 11 Kautilya Marg—where Gujarat Bhawan is located—attendees churn out data and specific information about each unit under discussion, especially those from poll-bound states of Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand. Shah, who has engineered crucial realignments in the run-up to the polls in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, had brought the opposition to a naught with his political dexterity and acumen, winning accolades within and without. Leaders from these four states have been asked by Shah to classify regions based on penetration of media of all kinds—print and digital—besides making preparations for Modi rallies. “A lot of data analysis is involved, both inside and outside of meetings. He wants data and analysis, not philosophy about chances of the BJP’s win in these places. One has to be very, very prepared when you make a presentation,” says a leader from Jammu & Kashmir. “I am floored by his quickness at giving solutions to problems and his election-management skills. He is an out- and-out political animal, [who] breathes, sleep and eats politics. He has changed the grammar of political discussions within the party,” he laughs. Shah is cool, but very firm when he has to be, says another state-level leader.

A Mumbai-based BJP leader is of the view that Shah has also clipped the wings of wannabes in the party who had ‘come out of the woodwork’ just ahead of the polls, hoping to secure benefits once Modi is elected to power. Certain self- confessed Modi-acolytes such as Bihar leader Rameshwar Chaurasia also suffered a similar fate. “He was hoping to manage a position within the party. But then Shah had other ideas,” says this leader. “Many such ‘microphones’ have been sidelined by Shah,” he adds, but doesn’t offer names. He merely says, “Look around, you’ll see.”

For Shah, the top priority now is to put governance on the fast track and to speed up projects in sectors such as railways, water and power. He may appear nonchalant serving you upma and tea at his office, but Shah closely monitors the progress of key government initiatives, including the ambitious project to link the Char Dhams (the four holy Hindu pilgrimage centres in the Himalayas) through a railway network and also in enlisting support from various arms of the government not known to be involved in major civilian projects so far.

He has been accused of being dictatorial, but Shah appears completely tuned into a task-specific mode. With two secretaries who take shifts to accompany him 24x7, be it at his Jangpura home or at Gujarat Bhawan, and armed with close to a dozen mobile phones, Shah looks ready for consolidating gains.

Nothing animates Shah as the pleasures and possibilities of impending wars.

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