Cover Story

Battle for Gujarat: Amit Shah in the Vanguard

Rohit Chawla
PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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The BJP president cannot afford to leave anything to chance in the most prestigious Assembly election

MEET PINTU PANCHAL, A student of Nirma University in Ahmedabad, passionate and street smart enough to catch the attention of Amit Shah, who is in the vanguard of the war for Gujarat, where he and his boss can least afford even a slight dip in popularity. The BJP president is in the midst of processing ground inputs from dozens of party workers in a jam-packed room in the city.

In the run-up to the two-phased polls on December 9th and 14th, the mastermind of the party’s war strategy is on an 11-day tour of his home state, one of many before what is billed as the country’s most crucial Assembly elections before the big battle of 2019 for the Lok Sabha. Shah has been up some 18 hours each day, methodically ironing out every little wrinkle in the BJP’s banner, in a manner of speaking. Issues have been identified and roles assigned.

Consider how Panchal found himself part of a plan to counter the opposition’s narrative on youth. “Who’s the leader?” Shah had asked, looking up from an avalanche of petitions and messages. The question was addressed to a party worker who had spoken of some members of a 68-strong WhatsApp group of students having met Hardik Patel, the 20-something at the forefront of an agitation for reservations for his community of Patidars. “Pintu Panchal,” Bhupinder Yadav, BJP general secretary in charge of Gujarat, had replied. “Arre, I know him. He was a regular at my Bhagawat Gita discourses at Nirma University. Get him on the phone.” Within seconds, the student was at the other end of the line. “Are you against the BJP?” Shah asked him. “I have nothing against the BJP ideologically,” he answered, “I will support any worthy cause.” The BJP president enquired about the students meeting with Patel. “He told us that Bhagat Singh was his hero and he wanted to trigger a revolution,” Panchal told him, adding that Patel had little to offer the students. After that, it took only a few words of persuasion for Shah to enroll Panchal for a youth movement in favour of a development revolution in the state.

“The issue of unemployment and joblessness that the Congress is raising has not resonated with the Gujarati youth, who have entrepreneurial genes,” says a senior BJP leader of the state, “What the youth here primarily want is an enabling environment to make it on their own.” In saying so, the leader implies that the Patel quota chant may not have struck much of a chord among the community’s young. “Shah has been unrelenting in his efforts to cultivate the youth and link up with emerging student leaders and activists through his years in Modi’s government in Gandhinagar,” adds the leader, “That helped keep tabs on the pulse of Generation X and came in handy at times of need.” The counter narrative to youth disenchantment that Shah has armed Panchal with is expected to spread across student hangouts and WhatsApp groups in the state.

Gujarat has an entire generation of youth who don’t have any memory of the last Congress government in Gandhinagar—it was over 27 years ago—and Shah plans to keep it that way. These youngsters have virtually skinned their knees and entered the job market during the era of Narendra Modi as Chief Minister. Shah and his deputies have succeeded in creating an image of the Congress as an organisation that has ravaged the state and country over the decades that it was in power. The indoctrination is certain to pay political dividends.

I have been to 12,000 of the 19,000 villages of the state. We have our ear to the ground and the Prime Minister has unmatched credibility

According to the 2011 census, Gujarat’s population grew 19.7 per cent in the previous ten years and a substantial chunk was below the age of 35, making the youth an important slice of the electorate even now. In a state that is among the most industrialised in the country with close to 80 per cent literacy, that also means that the battle for votes is fought increasingly in the social media space. Tapping the energy of students like Panchal allows the BJP to fight off online hashtags such as ‘Vikas Gando Thaye Che’— development gone crazy—and draw the attention of this demographic group back to the actual facts of development and its deliverer, Modi.

That has already proved to be bad news for a Congress desperate to gain the psychological advantage of a victory in the Prime Minister’s home state by exploiting his absence in Gandhinagar for the first time in over two decades. The opposition party has not named any chief ministerial candidate yet, preferring to focus its campaign and attacks on BJP Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. It may have seemed like a good ploy to keep Modi out of the picture in Modiland, but it seems Shah has managed to undo it. This has unsettled the Congress, which was banking on traction among young voters on the back of Rahul Gandhi’s portrayal of his party as one that is more sensitive to people’s concerns.

Gujarat, Shah is aware, is no Uttar Pradesh. When he returned to Ahmedabad for the first time after the BJP triumph in UP earlier this year, he got a hero’s welcome. But while his poll strategy of carpet bombing had worked in that state—he decoded a complex caste matrix and micro- managed the campaign from the booth level upwards for months before election day—in Gujarat he has opted for precision targeting to defeat the Congress. It is a state he knows intimately, and he has kept the state BJP in perpetual battle-readiness for over two decades now with a mix of feedback-based commitments, self assurance and the mantra of development. It has delivered results in poll after poll as Modi made his political ascent. So well oiled is the saffron juggernaut in Gujarat that it allows Shah the luxury of moving in just before an election to wrap the show up for the BJP with a few quick commands and decisions.

During his 11-day trip, Shah has stayed up two hours past midnight, meeting groups of students and workers, businessmen and traders, young and old, from different parts of the state. Among his first tasks was to reassure as many trade representatives as possible that the Government had no intention of collecting taxes retrospectively under the GST or imposing additional penalties for unpaid dues of the past. “This had to be done on priority by Amit Shah personally in order to be truly convincing. With every third or fourth man a trader of one sort or another in the state, the wanton misinformation spread by the Congress would have taken a toll otherwise,” says an aide of Shah. “The trading class in our state is indolent, slow to adapt to new taxation methods and new trade processes. So, they had to be reassured that the new practices would actually strengthen their trade, and release them from the clutches of middlemen and loan sharks, besides guaranteeing better profits.”

According to him, Shah also pulled out all stops to see off attempts by the Congress to get employers to stall Diwali bonuses for their employees. He asked them to make the payments, assuring them he would resolve any problems encountered, and then gave worker groups the good news. “In Gujarat, Diwali is synonymous with New Year and not getting a bonus in the start of the year is considered inauspicious for the entire year,” says the aide, “We could not let that bonus be held up under any circumstance.” Shah also made it a point to meet youth representatives and groups, cutting across sectors, to address their grievances and spot potential Generation X leaders for the party—such as Panchal.

All of this was done before Modi hit the campaign trail. One of the easier preparatory tasks for Shah has been highlighting contradictions in the interests of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur and Jignesh Mevani, leaders of three different groups the Congress is trying to consolidate as a social alliance against the BJP. “It’s virtually a Mexican standoff among the three, politically,” says the aide, referring to a lock-in confrontation among people in which nobody can proceed or retreat without exposing himself to danger. “They offer no guarantee of stability in the best of times, even a dullard can figure that out,” he adds, speaking of unease in the anti-BJP camp over Congress efforts to craft a rainbow coalition with a Patidar, an OBC and a Dalit leader working together against the ruling BJP.

One of the easier preparatory tasks for Amit Shah has been highlighting contradictions in the interests of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur and Jignesh Mevani, Patidar, OBC and Dalit leaders that the Congress is trying to consolidate for a social alliance against the BJP

The last time the Congress achieved a winning caste combination was in 1985, with its so-called KHAM formula of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim voters. This was under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki and saw the Grand Old Party hit its peak electoral performance in the state, with 149 seats in a 182-strong Assembly. There was a big socio-political price the party had to pay for this victory, though, with Patidars—both Leuva and Kadva Patels—moving decisively away towards the BJP. The Patel-BJP relationship that began in the mid-1980s has held firm in the decades since, and it is for this reason that the current Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel is seen by some as signalling an opportunity for the party’s overthrow.

For all their expressions of discontent, weaning Patels away from the BJP would be an uphill task for the Congress, which knows only too well that it never regained the state after it lost the community’s support. Hardik Patel, therefore, is a leader whose backing the Congress sorely needs. In recognition of this, party chief Sonia Gandhi deputed the general secretary in charge of the state, Ashok Gehlot, to speak with the head of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). For the last two years, this organisation and other groups have been demanding reservations in government jobs and education for Patels alongside OBCs. Last September, the PAAS boycotted a rally held by Shah in Surat after the BJP failed to spell out its position on a Patidar quota. But the Congress has not acceded in clear terms to its demand either and other Patel leaders have asked Hardik Patel for proof that the party would put its money where its mouth is on the issue. Pushed by members of his own community, the PAAS chief has publicly set Rahul Gandhi a deadline to clarify the party’s stance.

In a bid not to upset OBC leader Alpesh Thakur, the only one of the three young leaders who has shared a stage with Rahul Gandhi and publicly pledged support to his party, Congress leaders have reportedly offered to accommodate Patels in a separate ‘EBC’ quota that would not breach the Supreme Court’s cap of 50 per cent reservations overall (for OBCs, SCs, STs or anything other group) and thus not risk being struck down by the judiciary. The Congress has officially made no statement on this so far.

In the last election, 18 per cent of the Patel community is estimated to have thrown in their lot with Keshubhai Patel, a former Chief Minister who left the BJP to form his own party. If he could not swing the long-standing Patel support away from it, believe BJP insiders, Hardik Patel has hardly any chance worth talking about.

THE ONLY UNITING factor between Hardik Patel, Thakur and young Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani is their opposition to the BJP. All three appeared on the political horizon only two years ago and maintain their determination to fight the BJP is top priority. Despite this public stand, Thakur’s iffiness towards the Congress has grown noticeably over the last few weeks even as the two polling dates near, an unease that he confided in the Assamese BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma recently. It has not escaped Thakur that the Congress is already choc-a-bloc with OBC leaders and his own stature in the party may eventually be downgraded, despite his pre-poll clout. Shah’s BJP, in the meantime, has tom-tommed it around town that despite all the fanfare in the Congress over Thakur, both he and his father have been associated with the party in the past.

Recent events have also rattled Mevani enough to stop him from coming out publicly in favour of the Congress. “We are against the BJP,” Mevani declared recently, stopping short of confirming that his supporters would vote for the Congress. Over and over, Mevani has lately spoken of the top BJP leadership’s reluctance to engage in ‘meaningful talks’ on the rights of the state’s Dalits. The BJP has interpreted this to suit itself, highlighting the ‘talks’ part, leaving Mevani in a fix.

Other Shah tactics may have further exposed the hollowness of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘rainbow coalition’.

The BJP chief’s manoeuvres have ensured that the once Grand Old Party now finds itself in the humiliating position of waiting for a nod of support from the Patel-Thakur-Mevani troika. In muddying the Congress’ waters overnight and moving the popular buzz back to Modi and Gujarat’s development, the Prime Minister’s most trusted wingman has once again swung the election narrative back to BJP’s version. “Amit Shah’s mind works with the precision of a machine gun,” says a BJP worker, “Any problem with the organisation or government, small or big, he always focuses on with mathematical precision to achieve a resolution. Results are guaranteed 100 per cent.” It’s a machine gun that Modi, whose association with Shah goes back to 1982 when the latter was only 17 years old, has frequently used to decimate the political opposition. He did this during his tenure at the helm of government in Gandhinagar from 2001 to 2014, and has been doing it now at the Centre after that. “The credit for honing his abilities should accrue solely to Narendra Modi,” asserts a senior party man from Gujarat.

With Nitish Kumar jumping fence and apparent allies unwilling to lead the battle, a desperate Congress was forced to read the writing on the wall: a reluctant Rahul Gandhi had no option but to bear the cross

Shah had held 12 key portfolios including Home, Parliamentary Affairs, Home Guard, Excise, Law and Justice and Transport in Gujarat’s government before he moved with his mentor to New Delhi. He used those years to get to know his state like the back of his hand and to connect with people from all walks of life. He’s cashing in these chips now for an election that is a point of prestige for his party.

Even the loss of a single BJP seat could be ammunition for Modi’s detractors to claim a diminishing of the leader’s aura. But not only does Shah intend to retain every BJP seat, he has set the stage to steal some Congress constituencies. His tactics to thwart the Rajya Sabha re-election of Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel may not have worked, but Shah is readying to move in for the kill in 11 Assembly constituencies that have voted Congress poll after poll even through surge periods for the BJP, such as the Godhra carnage, Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the 2014 Modi tsunami at the hustings. He has reason for his confidence. During the recent elections for Gujarat’s Rajya Sabha seats, 14 Congress MLAs had defected to the BJP, all of whom are expected to get party tickets.

Shah breathes politics and his killer instinct is legendary. His sartorial sense, the humble kurta-pajama, belies the power he wields. But he prefers spotless white through the rough and tumble of political life. As Modi’s right hand man, he is no stranger to turning around adverse pre-poll narratives and anti-BJP atmospherics.

When Shah set foot in UP, the country’s most populous and politically significant state, earlier this year, the script being aired by most of the intelligentsia and Left-liberal brigade in academia and across the media did not reckon with a BJP sweep. The odds seemed stacked against the party, but Shah, undeterred and unafraid to get his hands dirty, devised a two-pronged strategy to change the story of a triumph forecast for the two princes, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav. Shah not only put together together new caste and subgroup combinations, but also wooed away diehard support groups of rival parties. It paid off handsomely.

The post-UP turning point for the opposition’s 2019 Lok Sabha election narrative, though, was the story of Bihar 2.0. Under Shah’s baton, the BJP showcased Lalu Yadav’s scams and deployed an anti- graft argument that pressured Nitish Kumar to snap his alliance with Yadav and return to the NDA camp. This was a rude shock for the Congress, which was relying on a broad anti-BJP alliance across the country to dislodge it from power at the Centre.

With its potential commander jumping fence and apparent allies unwilling to lead the battle, a desperate Congress leadership was forced to read the writing on the wall: a reluctant Rahul Gandhi had no option but to bear the cross. This set the tone for the party’s anti-BJP campaign in the Prime Minister’s home state. Drawing on the party’s apparent triumph in Gujarat’s Rajya Sabha polls, the Congress had to make a do-or-die attempt in Modi’s backyard. A win here, it calculated, would be a morale booster for the next General Election. It was in this backdrop that a positive makeover story was spun for the Congress vice-president as a mass leader in a section of the media.

If UP is any indication, when the dust settles down in Gujarat, Rahul’s campaign may end up as yet another one full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And Amit Shah’s kurta is likely to remain spotless.