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Relentlessly Amit Shah

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As he prepares for the next round of elections after UP, the BJP president reveals his mind

THREE YEARS IS a short period in politics, but for BJP President Amit Shah, 52, it has been a long journey, literally, covering more than 500,000 km campaigning across the country, winning most elections and losing a few. Emerging from a meeting at his 11 Akbar Road residence with leaders of Himachal Pradesh and his home state Gujarat where elections are due, his face brightens up against his spotless white kurta as he dwells on the party’s prospects in states where it currently wields power and plans for states—accounting for 120-150 Lok Sabha seats—which it hopes to win for the first time. “People have great faith in Narendra Modi’s governance,” says the man who took over the reins of his party in 2014, referring to a change he has noted in the behaviour of Indian voters: they increasingly favour performance over mediocrity. Shah’s idea of the perfectionist in politics is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he says has endeared himself to the electorate by addressing the grievances of a wide section of people from varied backgrounds. “In politics, you are in an era where you either perform or perish,” the BJP boss observes, speaking to Open in an exclusive interview.

Ever since Modi was named the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, the BJP has seen its poll fortunes skyrocket. The 2014 General Election was a watershed in politics, with a single party securing a majority in Parliament for the first time in three decades. And the party is still on a roll. For this, Shah shares credit with the Prime Minister for having complemented the latter’s policy initiatives to attract voters by overhauling the party apparatus under his command accordingly. With Shah as its chief, the BJP’s membership has grown fivefold, soaring from 20 million to 110 million and counting. In earlier years, roughly 4,000 party members would participate annually in BJP ‘training’ camps, but the number has shot upwards of 900,000 now. Since the 2014 triumph at the Centre, the party has won a raft of elections in states such as Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Uttar Pradesh. It has lost only three—Delhi, Bihar and Punjab. In Delhi, though, it has just swept to a third term in municipal polls held on April 23rd, dashing the hopes of the state’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had secured 67 of the Assembly’s 70 seats in early 2015.

For their part, BJP leaders attribute the Punjab loss to the unpopularity of its regional ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which faced much public wrath for corruption scandals over the 10 years that it was in power. Bihar, where the BJP lost to the grand alliance of Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 2015, is showing signs of regime instability with Kumar reportedly uneasy about sharing power with his fastidious ally. States Shah, “With Nitish Kumar, who was in a long alliance with the BJP, it was not us who broke off the ties. He did.” He doesn’t elaborate, but adds that Bihar’s ruling coalition hasn’t met the expectations of the people.

Shah, a leader who makes no secret of how he revels in the dust and grime of fierce electoral campaigns, seems almost impatient for his next battle. “As of now,” he says, “we are ready to enter new turfs like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana, Tripura and so on.” The party is actively pursuing a presence in constituencies within the Red Corridor of Coromandel states where he expects the people—fed up with existing players—to opt for the lotus symbol in the next round of elections, be it to the Lok Sabha, Assembly or to local bodies. It is with the agenda of spreading the party’s influence wider that Shah has re-adopted the old BJP means of going on an outfield yatra covering five states, starting from Naxalbari in north Bengal, which is symbolic of his mission, for this was the area that lent the ultra-leftist Naxalite movement its name. As he told a gathering of BJP workers there, “The Naxals started their violent activities here in Naxalbari. Efforts to bring in development and progress will start from here now. Under Modi’s leadership, Bengal will very soon be on the path of growth.” On April 25th, he launched the Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Vistarak Yojana, which he described as “a grassroots movement to strengthen the party” at the booth level in Naxalbari. In the course of his 15-day tour, he will spend three days each in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Telangana. As of now, the BJP runs 17 states that are collectively home to two-thirds of India’s 1.25 billion people.

In Uttar Pradesh, it is the fault of the pundits that they didn’t see the writing on the wall. Perhaps they didn’t want to see the storm coming

Though some political analysts believe that West Bengal would resist a rapid political transformation, having been a communist bastion for so long in the not-too-distant past, the BJP is upbeat that it can do an Assam in the state, cashing in on perceptions that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government has consistently resorted to Muslim appeasement, a charge she has vehemently denied. Yet, federal agencies have reported that Islamist terror groups have infiltrated the state from across the porous Bangladesh border. In an interview to Open, London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose, who sees a BJP surge in the state as relatively unlikely, concedes that the Banerjee government has erred in allowing space to radical Muslim activity—whether it’s by not cracking down on criminal operations in some border areas, giving men with fundamentalist views its party tickets, or tolerating inflammatory statements by a few attention-seeking imams. “There is disquiet amongst Hindus on these points,” the professor points out.

Shah laughs at the question of who would be the BJP’s principal challenger in the future, with the Congress dwindling as its main opposition. “Not even the opposition parties will have an answer to that question,” he offers, adding that the results of local elections in Odisha confirm the appeal of Modi’s policies in the state where Naveen Patnaik has not faced any strong rival for 17 years. In this year’s district panchayat polls, the BJP won 306 of 853 seats in the state, up from 36 five years earlier. Though the Patnaik-led BJD emerged the winner, its tally slid from 651 in 2012 to 460 this year, and the Congress, which won 66 seats, was reduced to a distant third.

BJP leaders see a trend of sorts that has emerged lately—of it eclipsing regional parties in states, as evident from its gains in Maharashtra, where the BJP swept municipal polls, Uttar Pradesh, most dramatically so, and now Delhi. This should help it win Telangana, the country’s newest state, they reckon. In Maharashtra, which is ruled by the BJP in a strained alliance with the Shiv Sena, the latter was left shaken after the BJP posted an unexpected win in the wake of demonetisation’s woes, which some observers had mistakenly assumed would go against it. Similarly, the BJP central leadership is also enthusiastic about its prospects in Tamil Nadu’s 2019 elections, where it expects to align forces with one of the AIADMK factions in search of poll glory. Referring to Tripura, Shah says the BJP has become the principal opposition to the CPM in the state. In Kerala, the BJP is betting big on its campaign that neither the CPM-led Left nor the Congress, which have shared power since the formation of the state in 1956, have protected the interests of Hindus, who account for over 54 per cent of the state’s population, with 45 per cent being either Muslim or Christian. The BJP, which opened its account in the state Assembly for the first time in last year’s polls, expects its vote share to rise sharply in 2019. In Kerala’s 2016 elections, the BJP came second in seven Assembly seats. It lost one seat in north Kerala by a slender margin of 89 votes. Several local BJP leaders that Open spoke to claim the Left government is facing numerous crises; they expect a ‘rapid slide’ in the CPM’s popularity to work in the BJP’s favour. Typically, the CPM pulls in a large chunk of the state’s Hindu votes that the BJP is now aggressively vying for with RSS backing.

In Gujarat, where polls are due later this year, Shah says he expects the “image of the Prime Minister” to help increase the party’s vote share. He rules out any chance of recent agitations—be it for an OBC quota by Patels or the stir by Dalits—playing spoiler in a state the party has ruled for nearly two decades. Opposition parties had hoped to alter Gujarat’s electoral dynamics following Modi’s move to the Centre after being its Chief Minister for 13 years, but an emphatic BJP victory in civic elections held late last year suggests that the party’s hold has not loosened. “For the past 17 years, we have not lost a single election in Gujarat. The trend will continue. The voter there embraces all the ideas of the PM,” Shah says. In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP sees a change of guard in the wake of serious graft allegations against veteran Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh (see ‘Now Comes a Scandal Called Virbhadra Singh’ , Open, April 7th).

We are making efforts to bring in development to Naxalbari. Under Modi’s leadership, Bengal will soon be on the path of growth

OPPOSITION PARTIES HAVE underestimated the BJP time and again. Following the announcement by the Centre to demonetise currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, for example, the Modi Government was under their attack for disrupting the life of a majority of Indians who used cash to conduct their day-to-day business. Modi and his Government hit back saying the short-term pain—of having to wait for a brief period to obtain cash while the process of note-replacement was underway— would lead to a major gain, the unearthing of black money, which they argued was costing the poor dearly.

Shah says he was fully convinced ahead of the UP polls that demonetisation would not backfire. Several pundits said the currency clampdown had disadvantaged the poor most of all, and that they would ditch the BJP. On the other hand, says Shah, “The BJP has clearly emerged as the party of the poor.” He adds that during the campaign he realised that poorer sections of society were highly supportive of the Government’s actions, from its surgical strikes on Pakistani terror camps to its efforts to rid the country of black money and sub-legal transactions. The pundits only have themselves to blame, he says, if they refused to read the signals all around. “Perhaps they didn’t want to see the storm coming,” he says, referring in particular to the BJP wave that swept UP, unseating the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government. He alleges the SP only represented vested interests, and the people realised this, which is why the state saw such a large-scale shift in party loyalties. While the SP had secured a large chunk of Yadav votes and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) those of Dalits, this time around the BJP demolished both their vote banks. Shah says that pundits who like to ignore trends had seen the BJP’s civic election win in Chandigarh after Modi’s demonetisation decision of November 8th as an aberration instead of an endorsement. The Odisha civic polls should have been another indicator of a groundswell in favour of the party. He reels out numbers from backward areas to back up his argument that the gains secured by his party have largely been from parts where incumbents had failed in governance. It goes unsaid that Modi is being looked upon by people across the country as the leader who will help them better their lot; following the BJP’s win in UP, observers have drawn comparisons between Modi and the late Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who, at the peak of her power, had similar sway over the country.

Expounding on the UP election, which was one of Shah’s most daunting assignments, the BJP chief says it was a mandate against appeasement, dynasty politics and casteism. Voters have shunned all three, he declares. Over the past several decades, the state had been in the grip of caste-oriented preferences, and the SP had become a family concern of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family. Both the SP and BSP, which had allotted 100 tickets to Muslim candidates, had been under criticism for treating the minority community as a vote bank. In contrast, the BJP didn’t field a single Muslim in the recent polls. Shah contends that the thumping 2014 win of the BJP alliance in UP, which won 73 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, was a display of popular anger at a lack of development focus in its governance until then. The BJP reached out to backward caste groups that felt excluded from the post-Mandal process of political empowerment in the state. Shah says he is excited about the leadership of Yogi Adityanath, whose top priority as Chief Minister now will be to fix all that was wrong.

Shah dismisses allegations by critics that his party has been polarising the electorate along communal lines. He denies that the clampdown on illegal slaughterhouses in UP is aimed at any group’s interests and rejects suggestions that the formation of Anti-Romeo squads has any motive other than to keep women safe; nobody need fear the state’s policies. “Illegal slaughterhouses have to be shut down. What is wrong with that? I can’t understand this logic. Also, those who are not familiar with the plight of girls who are forced to drop out from school for fear of harassment can’t comprehend why we should have ‘anti-Romeo’ forces,” he says, adding that contrary to popular belief, these units are not part of a vigilante group but work closely with the state police. “This is a promise we made in our manifesto, and we have a very effective Chief Minister in the state,” he says, adding that policy decisions are now being taken and implemented at a rapid clip. He trashes the charge made in sections of the media that the BJP had adopted an aggressively nationalistic stance. “We can’t call efforts to safeguard the security of the country and to resist attacks from across the border as ‘aggressive nationalism’. Our soldiers did what they did to save our lives,” Shah says.

We want to expand in close to 150 Lok Sabha constituencies where we are weak—in states like West Bengal, Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura

The BJP president says that the Government is committed to rooting out terror of all formations, whether left-wing extremism or violence instigated by hostile neighbours.

He calls unreasonable all blame directed at the BJP for the prolonged unrest in Kashmir, where separatists have been locked in a confrontation with Indian security forces ever since the Hizbul militant leader Burhan Wani was slain last year. In 2015, the BJP had forged a post-poll alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to form a government in Jammu & Kashmir, but this arrangement has been under strain lately; many analysts have alleged that the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar have done too little to keep the Valley stable and calm. “The Kashmir problem is not anything new,” says Shah, “It has been there for decades. It is an outcome of mismanagement from the time of the first Prime Minister of India, and now we are doing our best to solve a problem that has been simmering for long. It is a complex issue and there can’t be an easy solution to it. The government [in Srinagar] is following a common minimum programme, and our efforts are to ensure prosperity and lasting peace in the state.” In the violence that erupted after the killing of Wani, more than 100 people have died and scores of other injured in a series of clashes. Even school children have been seen pelting stones at security forces. Social media has had videos of Indian soldiers being humiliated and beaten up by teenaged protestors in the Valley, triggering outrage elsewhere in the country. Indian intelligence reports confirm widespread Islamisation in a state that had once taken pride in its Sufi ways. Unlike during previous phases of turbulence, well-known separatist leaders are reported to have lost their influence, leaving the youth vulnerable to recruitment by faceless jihadist forces. The protests have taken on dangerous overtones of religious extremism.

Shah laughs away allegations by rival politicians such as AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal that electronic voting machines (EVMs) have been tampered with to favour the BJP. The opposition has lashed out at the Election Commission and the Centre over the issue. “Nobody takes these allegations seriously,” says Shah, “All this is a preoccupation with a handful of elites in the national capital. Nobody talks about it elsewhere. Why is it that this has become an issue now when the BJP has won a series of elections but not when Kejriwal or Mayawati or the Congress had won repeatedly in the past?” He adds that neither Akhilesh Yadav nor Sonia Gandhi had complained when they won. Refuting the charge, the EC has even made an ‘open challenge’ to people to hack its EVMs if they think it can be done.

SHAH, WHO FIRST achieved success as a political organiser by outsmarting the Congress in Gujarat’s cooperative enterprises and later in cricket bodies, says that nobody needs to worry about an influx of leaders into the BJP from other parties. “Not an ounce of BJP’s ideology will be diluted by these developments. We will not treat anyone as an untouchable,” he says, adding that whoever is ready to accept the party ideology is welcome to join. Congress veterans ND Tiwari and SM Krishna have done so. Also, many AAP leaders.

The BJP chief says that the party has not yet taken a call on its presidential candidate. Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends by July- end, and Shah says there is still enough time for it. He is confident that with some support from friendly outsiders, the BJP will easily get its appointee into Rashtrapati Bhavan.

After a pause, Shah begins talking about the success of several Central schemes that had a force-multiplier effect in the UP polls. One such, he says, is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which offers gas connections to poor households. Implemented with money saved on LPG subsidies through the Centre’s ‘Give It Up’ campaign, its biggest beneficiaries are women. UP still remains the biggest gainer of the scheme which has helped reduce pollution and the risks women foraging for firewood face. “Nobody has ever done anything similar. It changed the lives of lakhs of women,” he says, commending various other banking schemes for the poor that have helped expand India’s formal economy.

The BJP president also says that the Prime Minister is committed to carrying out reforms and that the next months would see a deepening of the liberalisation process. Measures that had to be taken through stealth in the past will be done boldly, with their benefits explained to all. He disapproves of the opposition blocking such initiatives and making “everything a political contest”.

That is why, he says, he has a problem with parties such as the Congress, which has recently stalled a bill in the Rajya Sabha— where the BJP is short of a simple majority—that seeks to grant Constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes and had it sent to a parliamentary committee for review. In response, the BJP has called the Congress and other opposition parties ‘anti-backward castes’. “We are not looking at appeasing anyone. We are doing this to bring equality and offer justice to people who were discriminated against for their caste. The Congress ends up opposing every major step we take. We need bipartisanship. But that is elusive now,” says Shah. OBCs, who form more than 52 per cent of India’s population, had mostly been against the BJP—seen in those days as dominated by Brahmins and Banias—until Modi became its top leader. Currently, OBCs are crucial to the party’s poll fortunes and have played a pivotal role in its recent expansion.

The BJP had aligned itself with various other backward groupings in past elections to overthrow the prevailing patterns of caste loyalty. This time, it has enough going for it to win on its own.

Modi’s closest lieutenant winds up the conversation arguing that simultaneous elections need to be held to reduce polling costs and to make governance faster and smarter. “Elections to all bodies, from panchayats to Parliament, have to be held in one go,” says Shah. “This is a proposal by the Prime Minister himself. We should have parleys with all stakeholders to make this happen through consensus.” And with that, the consummate election warrior disappears into a throng of party workers and associates to discuss the next polls.