Jodi number one

Rajdeep Sardesai | Updated on November 07, 2014

Same, same, but different Narendra Modi and his faithful shadow Amit Shah.   -  PTI

2014: The Election that Changed India<br>Rajdeep Sardesai<br>Penguin (India)<br>Non-fiction<br>₹599<br>

Never before have two politicians from a state outside the Hindi heartland come to occupy the apex of Delhi’s power pyramid in such a comprehensive manner

Jai and Viru in Sholay; Dravid and Tendulkar in cricket; Laxmikant-Pyarelal and many others in music: Indians like their jodis. For almost 40 years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were the twin faces of the BJP, the Vikas Purush and the Lauh Purush. Now, in 2014, the BJP has found its new jodi number one: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Never before have two politicians from a state outside the Hindi heartland come to occupy the apex of Delhi’s power pyramid in such a comprehensive manner.

See the BJP posters anywhere in the country: two faces dominate the landscape. One, the man with the safed dadhi (white beard), the other, with the kali dadhi (black beard). The duo now call the shots in BJP. The similarities go beyond the facial hair: both from Gujarat, both with roots in the RSS, both credited with a ruthless streak that is perhaps needed to succeed in the rough and tumble of politics.

I first met Modi in 1990, when he was the BJP secretary in Gujarat overseeing the Ram Janmabhoomi rath yatra as it moved through the state. I met Shah for the first time during the 2002 Gujarat elections, when he was fighting an election from the Ahmedabad suburb of Sarkhej. There is a deep connect between the two events: if 1990 was the first time the BJP tested itself in the Hindutva laboratory of Gujarat, the 2002 elections held in the shadow of the riots marked the completion of the process of imposing majoritarian politics on the state. Modi and Shah were central to this period of the BJP’s rise to dominance in Gujarat; one, as the premier political organiser, the other, as his faithful shadow.

When Modi won the 2002 elections, he appointed Shah as his minister of state for Home. It was a critical portfolio, given the slew of cases piling against the Gujarat chief minister. Shah became Modi’s ears and eyes and, more controversially perhaps, was also accused of doing the ‘dirty work’ of targeting the chief minister’s political rivals. Shah was accused of sanctioning ‘fake encounter’ cases, a charge that eventually sent him to jail in 2010. When he was granted bail, it was on the pre-condition that he couldn’t return to his home in Gujarat.

Now, forget Gujarat, there is no part of the country that Shah doesn’t have his eye on. When he was elected BJP president in July, Shah claimed that he wanted the BJP to capture power from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Like his ‘boss’, or ‘Saheb’, Shah too spoke strongly of a Congress-mukt Bharat. Even if the slogan might have appeared hyperbolic at the time, clearly Shah was relishing the challenge.

While researching my book 2014: The Election that Changed India, I was struck by how Shah was more than just a supporting actor to the main hero. It was he who was instrumental in driving the BJP’s success story in the critical battleground of UP. Let’s be honest: without UP, the BJP could not have remotely hoped to achieve its ‘Mission 272’. It was Shah, with the help of committed RSS workers, who helped shape the strategy. When he was out on bail and barred from visiting Gujarat, he criss-crossed the state, stayed overnight with party workers, worked on local alliances and drove the Modi juggernaut in the state.

We know what drove Modi: he was within touching distance of being the prime minister. Shah claimed he had no such obsessive ambition. “I want the BJP to grow, that’s my mission,” he told me later in an interview. He didn’t want a major portfolio, he didn’t fight the elections, but he was keen to play the role of the nuts-and-bolts, organisational man, who would micro-message the ‘Vote for BJP’ call to lakhs of voters.

On the campaign trail with Uddhav Thackeray in October, I asked the Sena chief who he held responsible for the alliance break-up in Maharashtra. “Dilli mein baithe Shahenshah ke samne hum jhukenge nahin (We won’t bow to the ruler in Delhi),” Thackeray had claimed at a public rally. The reference wasn’t to Modi, but to the BJP’s president, who had been pushing for an end to the 25-year-old alliance.

Shah is different from the prime minister in some key respects. Unlike Modi who is highly individualistic, Shah sees himself as a team player, completely committed to the Sangh ideology. Where Modi carries no family baggage, Shah is a devout family man. Where Modi comes from a humble background, Shah was born into a rich and influential business family and possessed a formidable portfolio of blue-chip shares even in the ’80s.

While Modi is the charismatic campaigner, Shah is the strategist, constantly plotting and preparing for the next battle. Shah’s strategy has been remarkably focused: pitch Modi as a governance icon to attract the incremental vote, even while using the RSS machine to appeal to the traditional Hindu vote. The Hindutva-plus strategy can be controversial: for example, it was Shah who was seen as pushing for the Muzaffarnagar riot-accused to be given election tickets. It was he who insisted that Modi contest from Varanasi in the belief that this would be a magnet to voters in eastern UP. And it was he who first predicted that there wasn’t just a BJP wave but a tsunami that would sweep all else aside.

Typically, Shah’s success has meant that the serious criminal charges against him appear to have almost melted away. The charges may yet haunt him, especially if his ambitions soar beyond just being the BJP president. One senses though that Shah isn’t a man in a hurry: at the age of 50, he has time on his side. Given that Modi’s prime ministership is less than six months old, it would be highly premature to even ask, “After Modi, who?” But as party president, Shah has reason to believe that he is now the second-most powerful person in the country.

(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author)

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Published on November 07, 2014
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