Amit Shah’s election as BJP president for a fresh term of three years is a strong endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authority by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi, overseeing the BJP’s affairs through his long-term loyalist Shah, is clearly the Sangh’s safest bet to run its political wing. They also happen to be their most successful leadership combo for winning elections, notwithstanding the debacles in Delhi and Bihar.
A transformation is visible in the ruling party. From the chaos and constant infighting between 2004 and 2014, a decade during which Atal Bihari Vajpayee faded from public life leaving a vacuum which LK Advani could never quite fill, Modi/Shah have sought to restore an almost militaristic discipline in the BJP.
A significant aspect of this transformation is the total centralisation of decision-making in the party. The fairly democratic institutional subculture of the BJP has been drastically changed to a more authoritarian form. It is no longer possible to imagine someone like Uma Bharti questioning Advani in a party meeting. Leaders feel disempowered because in critical decisions such as ticket distribution during elections, they no longer have a voice.
Shah getting a fresh term means that continuity is sought to be maintained in the face of criticism that his inability to take everyone along led to massive defeats in the Delhi and Bihar elections. Modi prevailed despite detractors questioning whether UP, where the BJP won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats under his watch in 2014, and victories in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and J&K were more a result of the PM’s continuing charisma than Shah’s strategic acumen. But Shah still has to prove that by demolishing the existing patronage networks and removing broad stakes in decision-making, he has created a more durable system. The absence of any backer other than Modi means that he will be judged by each electoral victory or defeat. It may be difficult for the Margdarshak Mandal to damage Modi just yet. But with Shah, every election is a test of his suitability for the job.