THE SAFFRON SHAH
By Biswadip Mitra
During the Bihar Assembly election in 2015, all posters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carried photographs of Amit Shah, the outfit’s national president. Local leaders were hardly visible. Nothing wrong, one may say. But there was a time in the BJP when several leaders steered the party. It was not like the Congress party where there’s overt dependency on a single family. But with Shah’s ascendancy, it seems to have changed in the BJP. The power duo of Narendra Modi and Shah is calling the shots, whether the RSS likes it or not.
So what have been Shah’s plus points? He’s a super strategist who can mobilise local leaders and cadres in the party, and understands caste equations quite well. He has a perfect acumen in selecting the winnable candidates. An excellent election manager, Shah is often called “modern-day Chanakya”. Proving that point, Shah guided the party to massive electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh: BJP won over 70 seats in the state out of a total 80 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014. The party also won in the assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, besides partly succeeding in Jammu and Kashmir.
Not surprisingly then, Shah, as BJP’s national president, became increasingly powerful in the saffron party. And he was sufficiently backed by Prime Minister Modi, who felt that Shah could engineer the party’s victory in Delhi Assembly election.
But that was not to be. The BJP lost the Delhi election badly---just three of its contestants managed to win, while the Aam Aadmi Party wrested power. It led to murmurs within the BJP about Shah’s style of leadership. Observers pointed out that the veterans in the party have been sidelined and there seemed to be no space for dissenting opinions in the party.
Despite such adverse views, Shah continued as one of the three pillars in Modi dispensation---the other two being Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
Shah possibly took Delhi debacle as an aberration. And he was certain that things would be different in the Bihar Assembly election in 2015. With Modi as the principal campaigner for the BJP, Shah was confident that the party would win handsomely in the state. However, in Bihar the Grand Alliance or the Mahagathbandhan of the Janata Dal-United, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress forced him to deviate from the standard RSS line on caste and Dalits. So Shah tried to win the caste formula by reaching out to the lower castes. He banked on a mix of Mahadalit Jitan Ram Manjhi and Ramvilas Paswan, hoping that they would do wonders. But in the end, despite playing all the cards---caste, personal barbs and Pakistan---in the high-octane election campaign, Shah failed to win Bihar for the party. It was the Nitish-Lalu combine, along with the Congress, which won.
Observers point out that what are the strengths of Shah can also be his weakness. In case of Bihar he failed to understand that the typical caste formula he relies on, may not work in Bihar. Shah needed to mobilise the local resources in the party, rather than making the prime minister the star campaigner. Shah’s approach of one-size-fits-all is unlikely to work in every state election. He has to be flexible while strategising and listen to different voices within the party. He has to accommodate diverse opinions.
Shah has become the BJP president again for three years. So, all eyes are now on him. With elections slated in several states in 2016, one has to wait and see what approach he takes---alliances with regional outfits, caste strategies, activating local leaders in the party and the RSS, and above all not sidelining party leaders who differ with him.
Be in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala or any other state, Shah will face tough challenges. He has to understand the local equations and be a practitioner of realpolitik, rather than sticking to a rigid formula. The BJP and the RSS can only hope that their Chanakya will do his best.