An era without the aura

“It is time for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo to prove again to the party cadresthat what happened in 2014 was not just a lucky accident.”   | Photo Credit: PTI

In July 2014, when >Amit Shah became Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president , replacing Rajnath Singh, who was made Union Home Minister, he was seen as the man who had worked behind the scenes to forge a spectacular win for the party in the general election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have been the charismatic face of that historic campaign but there was a sense that without Mr. Shah’s genius for electoral planning and management — earlier seen only in Gujarat — a triumph on this scale would not have been possible.

Twenty months after the general election, if there is disappointment with Mr. Modi’s inability to act on the poll promises he had made, Mr. Shah’s reputation for masterminding electoral victories has taken a sharp knock after two >crushing defeats in Delhi and Bihar. His micromanagement of the party’s strategy for the Bihar elections — that used a hand-picked team drawn from Delhi and Gujarat, and left local BJP members out in the cold — was criticised both within the party and in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

But Mr. Modi, overriding objections in the party, has ensured that his alter ego will continue to head the BJP. The Prime Minister’s aura may have dimmed considerably, but there is still no serious challenge to the almost absolute authority that he wields in both party and government.

Taking everyone along

It is against this backdrop not just of electoral defeats, but also of a poor economic outlook, the continuing >intolerance debate , the resurfacing of the Ram temple issue and a growing discomfort among minorities and now Dalits about how an overt Hindutva agenda will affect them, that Mr. Shah appears set to be re-elected as BJP president — this time for a full three-year term — later this month. Once re-elected, unless Mr. Shah’s tenure is cut short, he is likely to preside over the BJP campaign for the next general election, due in a little more than three years.

Clearly then, since the plan to reinvigorate the party does not envisage a change at the top, it is Mr. Shah who must refashion his approach to tackle the emerging situation. He must address the grievances of party cadres, whose unhappiness was on full display, for instance, during both the Delhi and Bihar polls, and use tact to keep margdarshaks L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Shanta Kumar and Yashwant Sinha in good humour while anticipating and checking dissension in public as was exhibited by a trio of Bihar MPs: R.K. Singh complained about candidate selection, Shatrughan Sinha about being left out of the Bihar campaign and >Kirti Azad raised the Delhi & District Cricket Association controversy only to be suspended, thus denting the BJP’s image of being a disciplined party.

In short, both Mr. Shah and Mr. Modi will have to gradually move to a more consensual form of decision-making.

If the generational shift that the BJP witnessed ahead of the 2014 general election, along with its projection of a new leader in Mr. Modi — in all of which Mr. Shah played a critical role — saw the party reducing the Congress to double-digit ignominy, it also saw a weakening of democracy within the party’s ranks. As long as this unilateralism was producing victories, no one was complaining. But once electoral defeats started taking centre stage, the murmurs of dissent surfaced. This is a party, after all, in which a substantial section of the membership comes from the RSS, an organisation where traditionally, collective rather than individual wisdom has been favoured.

Continuity and change

Mr. Shah may have Mr. Modi’s unstinted support but he needs the backing of other leaders too if he is to succeed in the long run. In November last year, when party seniors wrote a letter criticising the leadership’s ineptitude in losing the Bihar elections, Mr. Rajnath Singh and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had to be brought in to defuse the situation.

More recently, Mr. Shah adopted a more consultative and consensual style when he allowed three party Chief Ministers to choose their State unit presidents, of whom at least one was not to his liking. Chief Ministers Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan were allowed to continue with serving party chiefs Ashok Parnami and Nand Kumar Singh Chauhan who were “re-elected by consensus” in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Despite the corruption charges against them, both Ms. Raje and Mr. Chouhan found Mr. Shah unexpectedly conciliatory, as it came just after the >Bihar debacle . Indeed, though both Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah were opposed to Mr. Parnami’s re-election, they gave in, having witnessed Ms. Raje’s capacity to rally her MLAs behind her as she did when reports emerged of her having allegedly helped former Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi. Similarly, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, hand-picked by Mr. Modi, was allowed to keep Subhash Brala on as State party president. In the past, State party presidents were usually not repeated, but this time, Mr. Shah, who needs at least half of the country’s State BJP units to back his candidature, is not taking chances.

By 2017 year end, there will be about a dozen State elections. Of these, four stand out in importance: Assam, this year, where the >BJP has tied up with the Bodoland People’s Front and hopes to displace the Congress; and next year in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat. Of these, undoubtedly, Uttar Pradesh is the most crucial for the party, but in the last year-and-half, the BJP has been faring poorly in both by-elections and local elections here.

In the BJP, there is speculation that once Mr. Shah is repeated as president, the party leadership will turn its attention to a number of key decisions that may even include a Cabinet reshuffle to give it a new look. If it appears unlikely that the top four Ministers will be changed, Ministers from Bihar may either lose their posts or be moved to less significant portfolios so that Uttar Pradesh can get better representation ahead of next year’s elections, say party sources. It is time for the Modi-Shah duo to prove again to the party cadres that what happened in 2014 was not just a lucky accident.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:09:14 AM |

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