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Cover Story: Verdict 2019

Amit Shah: Master of the Machine

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Amit Shah is already planning 2024. A portrait of the ace organiser

DURING A CLOSED-DOOR MEETING WITH AROUND 20 party leaders on an August afternoon in 2016 at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s old headquarters on Ashoka Road, its president Amit Shah unravelled his roadmap for 2019. He identified 113 Lok Sabha seats, all held by political opponents, as part of the party’s expansion plan. Shah had less than three years to execute his mission. The seats—later increased to 120—across West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Northeast had always eluded the BJP. The leaders were asked to give a report within two months on state-specific strategies to make inroads in these seats. “Many were sceptical. But we worked meticulously,” says Shah, looking back with a sense of satisfaction.

The BJP fought in 80 of those 120 constituencies, chosen after an elaborate survey, to offset any losses in the Hindi belt where they had peaked in performance in 2014. The plan paid off, becoming the game changer for 2019. But, 54-year-old Shah is not unwinding yet. He has already rolled out the roadmap for 2024, the next Lok Sabha election, targeting the southern states—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala.

Some call him a Chanakya, others see a Machiavelli in him. For the BJP, he is the Shah of strategy. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was criss-crossing the country, putting his oratorical skills to its best martial use, Shah had his ear to the ground. If Modi was the party’s face in every seat, Shah was the faceless organisation man with his eyes closely set on every seat that the party could win; who knew the devil lies in the detail.

From simple porta cabin-like structures, where election logistics were once worked out, to sprawling state-of-the-art war rooms, surveys, number crunching, mobilising human resource and booth management, Shah has completely altered BJP’s style of campaigning, taking it to a scale that poses a challenge to opponents. The party used every available tool— social media, WhatsApp, Facebook, smart phones, Twitter and web—much on the lines of former US President Barack Obama’s campaign, which was built on the potential of social media. Shah synced technology with traditional campaign methods, starting from the level of polling booths, where panna pramukhs (page in-charge), were given the task of directly interacting with 10-12 families. For him, none of it is nugatory. When, sitting next to Shah during his press conference on the last day of campaigning Modi left it to him to answer questions saying, “Adhyaksh hamaare liye sab kuch hotey hain (The president is everything for us),” he was just making an understatement. In Shah, Modi found a party chief as dedicated as him. And after Modi’s, it’s Shah’s word that is final in the BJP. Fourteen years younger than Modi, Shah has been his confidante since the late 90s in Gujarat. And, over two decades later, he still has Modi’s ear.

Shah had realised that for BJP to become a pan-India party, it had to go beyond its comfort zones in the north. “Modi was popular in West Bengal and Odisha even in 2014, but the party did not have the organisational strength to convert it into seats,” he says. When he drew out the plan to capture new catchment areas in the east and Coromandel states, the party had just seven of the 164 Lok Sabha seats put together in West Bengal (42), Odisha (21), Andhra Pradesh (25), Telangana (17), Kerala (20) and Tamil Nadu (39). But that’s how Shah’s scripts his party’s ascension. He targeted Tripura, despite the BJP’s measly 1.5 per cent vote share in 2014, wresting it from CPM’s three-time Chief Minister Manik Sarkar in 2018, securing a 43.6 per cent vote share. In his strategy to make way into Congress bastions in the Northeast, he had in 2015 roped in a Congress leader from Assam—Himanta Biswa Sarma—into the BJP. Beginning with Assam in 2016, the BJP took one state after another in the region.

THOSE WHO HAVE WORKED WITH him closely say Shah is indefatigable, up and about after just two-three hours of sleep through the day, often pushing himself to the brink. Since January, he visited 312 of the 438 Lok Sabha constituencies the BJP contested. He has held 161 public rallies, travelled 158,000 kms and held 18 roadshows, besides fighting his own election in home state Gujarat’s Gandhinagar, which senior leader LK Advani had held for five consecutive terms. By the end of a long day, Shah would have on his table four-five assessments and database from teams employed to give feedback. Since 2014, he has attended 1,542 political programmes, according to party sources, who also said all his travel was linked to either party’s organisational work or polls.

According to a BJP leader, Shah can sense an opportunity for the party where no one else can. Like he did ahead of the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly election. That was the first major test for him after becoming party chief. He decided that the BJP should go it alone, parting ways with its 25-year-old ally Shiv Sena, to which it had always played second fiddle. Despite some party leaders flagging concern over such a move, Shah was convinced that the party would win, encouraged by the BJP’s strike rate in the state in 2014. He flew down to Mumbai and went to Matoshree, the Thackerays’ residence, where he took a firm stand, refusing to relent to the Shiv Sena’s seat-sharing formula. It was entirely Shah’s gamble, though it had Modi’s backing. Fighting by itself, BJP won 122 seats and the Sena 63, in the 288-strong Assembly. In February this year, Shah again went to Matoshree. The BJP and Shiv Sena got back together to fight this Lok Sabha election. The equations between the allies had changed, but the relations had got more bitter since the breakup of 2014. “There has been an organisational discomfort and unease between the two,” says Surendra Jondhale, Mumbai-based political analyst.

Undeterred by geographical or social boundaries, Shah can sense an opportunity where where no one else can

Another party leader describes Shah as a risk-taker, undeterred by geographical or social boundaries, and recalls how he was confident as long back as three years ago that the BJP could wrest around 20 seats in West Bengal, where it had won just two in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Not many in the party had imagined then that the BJP would be posing a threat to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress by 2019, the leader says. “I had myself set a target of 23 seats in West Bengal and 13-15 in Odisha,” recalls Shah. He held meetings with organisational leaders of the party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) once in three months, systematically working out every detail. In the run-up to elections in a state with 27.1 per cent Muslim population (as per 2011 Census), he tore into Banerjee’s minority appeasement and drove home the point that BJP would resist it. He described illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites”, drawing flak from several quarters. But Shah was unruffled, as he is to controversies that can augment his party’s interests, like his statement that 250 terrorists were killed in the Balakot air strike, at a time when the Government had refrained from spelling out casualty figures. The opposition parties in West Bengal— Left and Congress—had already been decimated into insignificance. A culture of violence and allegations of corruption had started tainting the TMC government. Shah, who made 84 visits to the state over the past three years, saw to it that his party did not miss the opportunity. For Modi, he scheduled 17 rallies, which turned out to be the most bellicose ones in his entire campaign. The BJP-TMC hostility reached a crescendo towards the last days of campaigning, climaxing into a no-holds-barred strife during Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata.

His approach is to take the bull by its horns attacking the opponent on all fronts— roping in its leaders, identifying its fault lines and exploiting its vulnerabilities. Over the past year, several leaders from other parties, including veterans like TMC’s Mukul Roy and BJD’s Jay Panda, joined BJP. Shah made his first visit to Odisha, where the BJP’s alliance with Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had ended in 2009, towards the end of 2015. In Odisha, where the BJP had won just one out of 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, he selected five booths for the ‘Mera Booth Sabse Mazbooth’ programme and got the party to put up posters. The Prime Minister’s rallies were lined up in the state and the party set out to take advantage of wariness and anti-incumbency against the two decade-old Patnaik regime. Since 2015, Shah has made around 15-16 trips to Odisha and stayed overnight each time, keeping the state’s party workers on their toes. BJP General Secretary in-charge of Odisha Arun Singh says that in the state the party had to instil confidence that it was in a position to perform better than the BJD. The last BJP National Executive outside Delhi was organised in Bhubaneswar. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, an organisation man belonging to Odisha, who worked to build the party in the state, became the BJP’s undeclared face.

Shah’s strategy has been methodical and a continuous process, irrespective of elections. In states where political dominance had eluded BJP, the party first tried to pluck the Opposition space—that of the Congress in states like Odisha and in the Northeast, or the Left, like in West Bengal—gradually squeezing in and then presenting itself as an alternative. In West Bengal and Odisha, the BJP managed to diminish the opposition parties from political discourse, emerging as the only alternative to the ruling regional outfits like Trinamool Congress and BJD. “I would go by numbers. If you take elections as a measuring tool, his strategy has been successful. He definitely stands out compared to any other BJP president,” says Sanjay Kumar, Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The BJP now rules in 16 states, from seven in 2014. In the 2018 Assembly polls, the party lost Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to Congress. In the 2017 Assembly elections in Gujarat, a prestige battle for Modi and Shah, the BJP lost 16 seats to Congress, though it retained the state, finishing with 99 in the 186-strong Assembly. Shah was determined to regain lost ground in these states in the Lok Sabha elections. In Gujarat, out of 26, he dropped 11 MPs. In Chhattisgarh, which the Congress swept, he changed all 10 BJP MPs and leaders, infusing the party with new faces. Across the country, he dropped 40 per cent of the party’s MPs. Shah’s steely message to party leaders is unambiguous—deliver or face the consequences.

In Kerala, where BJP has never before won a Lok Sabha seat, it was Shah’s idea that the party should stand with the devotees on the Sabarimala issue. Some of the state party leaders were reluctant, fearing it would look like an anti-women stand. But Shah stood his ground asking the party to wholeheartedly take on the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front government which had decided to back the Supreme Court’s decision allowing women of all ages to enter the temple. Sabarimala stirred Hindu sentiments, giving BJP a traction it had never before witnessed in this southern state. The party is hopeful that it will emerge number one in at least 20 Assembly segments of Kerala. “Shah goes for the jugular. He does not do anything half-hearted. He has a killer instinct,” says R Balashankar, BJP leader and author of Narendra Modi: Creative Disruptor—The Maker of New India.

Where arithmetic poses a challenge, Shah relies on chemistry. At the end of the day, one of his most potent weapons is Modi. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats in 2014, the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal aligned to take on the BJP in 2019. In the last General Election, the anti-BJP vote had split multi-fold, giving it an added advantage, besides that of a Modi wave. The party’s vote share went up by 24.8 percentage points to 42.5 per cent. This time, with Congress edged out of the contest in most seats, it was a direct face-off between the BJP and Mahagathbandhan—a Yadav, Jatav and Jat amalgam. Shah brushed aside all caste calculations, confident that the support for Modi, who is now Prime Minister and not just Gujarat chief minister as in 2014, can cut cross caste affiliations. With the nationalism card, amplified after the Balakot air strikes, Hindutva, the BJP’s unwritten plank, and the Modi Government’s 133 schemes, for which 161 call centres were set up across the country to connect with 220 million beneficiaries, or ‘labharthis’, the party hoped to conquer caste dynamics. “With 11 crore members and 22 crore beneficiaries, I have a support of 33 crores. We fought the election in our turf,” says Shah. The BJP had won 282 seats, with around 172 million votes (31 per cent), in 2014.

AK Verma, Director of Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur, says Shah has handled strategy in a way that local candidates became irrelevant and the election revolved around Modi. “This happened in the early 1970s, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister.” He also points out that five years of handling various state elections helped Shah build up the organisational structure for 2019.

When he was given charge of Uttar Pradesh in 2013, Shah, a Gujarati, had to first acquaint himself with its caste dynamics, intrinsic to the state’s politics. He broke bread with members of various groups. At a Dalit’s home, he tried to understand the reasons for the community’s dyed-in-the-wool affinity for BSP supremo Mayawati. He spent days in districts, quietly, away from media glare, trying to familiarise himself with the state. By the time the elections approached, he had even started speaking like a UPwallah, often addressing people as “bhaiyya”. Outside Gujarat, UP was his litmus test. He resurrected the BJP, which since 1999 had lost its clout in UP, the state which had steamrolled the party into national politics in the early 1990s.

Every state, and at times each seat, required a different approach. Shah took the party’s Andhra Pradesh leaders by surprise when he proposed fighting in all 25 seats. He suggested that the party’s youth workers can be given tickets. The party workers in the state, where the BJP won just two seats in 2014, before bifurcation, were sceptical till the end, but Shah was firm. The BJP was pitted against an old ally—Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress. During his visit to Vijayawada in mid-2017 for a massive party programme, Naidu over a lunch with Shah is understood to have asked why he was getting so active in the state. Shah, known for his brazenness, minced no words in telling Naidu that while they could work together, he needed to expand the BJP, according to sources familiar with the developments at the meeting. Naidu, however, was worried. Less than a year later, TDP split from the BJP, and joined opposition leaders in an exercise to forge an anti-NDA front.

IN BIHAR, WHERE NITISH KUMAR’S Janata Dal (United) returned to the NDA fold, Shah agreed on a seat-sharing arrangement of 17 each, leaving six for Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, though the BJP already has 22 MPs in the state. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu still eluded the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP tied up with the AIADMK. These southern states are next on Shah’s agenda.

After taking over as party president, he initiated the enrolment drive, which made BJP the largest political party in the world claiming a membership of over 110 million. He did not stop at that. He took it further to Maha Sampark Abhiyan to connect with the new members and a Maha Prashikshan Abhiyan, under which it trained 1.5 million party workers. Balashankar, who was in charge of the training programme, recalls that at least on three occasions, Shah sat in the party office making calls to state party chiefs in the states asking them to take the exercise seriously and organise mandal-level training. The party conducted the programme in 11,000 mandals. Shah later wanted it documented as an historic event. A motivator and a taskmaster, he followed up on every instruction given to the party leaders. He wanted publications of the organisation to be revived and travelled along with Ram Lal, General Secretary (organisation), to all the states over six months in 2017 to ensure party units were doing their job.

At the Bhubaneswar party National Executive, Shah had said the BJP’s ‘golden era’ would arrive only when it rules across the country, from panchayats to Parliament. He has already planned his next move.

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