In It to Win It: 3 Years of BJP’s Youngest Chief
Published: Septembr 13, 2017
Chanakya, who is believed to be the greatest Indian strategist ever, had one lesson for all his disciples: “Never share your secrets with anybody. That will destroy you sooner or later.”
Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah follows this lesson in letter and spirit. “Kisi Prakalp ki safalta uski gopniyata par nirbhar karti hai (A project’s success depends on its secrecy),” is an oft-repeated phrase in 11 Ashoka Road, New Delhi – the BJP headquarters he lords over.
No wonder Shah’s decisions surprise not just the masses but also those who used to be considered well-entrenched in Delhi’s circles of selective leaks and gossips.
— Ravi Shankar Prasad
“Shah doesn’t believe in the old-style politics of obliging people or of keeping leaders in good humour. He is a man on mission who wants to convert the popularity that the BJP has earned under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi into consolidation of votes and to make BJP a truly pan-India party,” said a top BJP leader.
Shah believes in leading from the front. In his 36-month tenure as BJP president, he has travelled 5,68,940 km, covering 325 out of 680 districts. He has attended 575 rallies and events, and chaired 2203 organizational meetings.
SHAH THE STRATEGIST
He considers organization as something larger than a team. A leader privy to the restructuring at 11 Ashoka Road told News18 that when Shah took charge, he didn’t replace the staff of the president’s office. And unlike popular perception, there is just one person from Gujarat in the current office of the party president who handles Gujarat affairs for him. When Shah took charge, he dismantled cells within the party organisation, which were functioning as silos. Instead, he carved out 19 departments and 10 projects to ensure smooth and effective functioning. These departments, his close aides say, were to give a message that “a party with 11 crore members must have a robust organizational and scientific methods of functioning”.
National President of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah visits party worker's home in slum area at Chetla in Bhabanipur in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's constituency in Kolkata, on 26th April , 2017. (Photo by Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Another key message was: “Party ki sanskriti ko badle bina party ke kaam kaaj ka aadhunikaran. (Modernisation of the organization without changing its basic tenets).” This is visible in the way the departments have been designed. For example, there is a department on good governance, policy research, documentation, party journals and publications. Emphasis is also on training and feedback.
Among the 10 projects being undertaken is one on office modernization and district office construction. By 2017, every district in India will have a BJP office. Such is the drive that even in Lakshadweep – a small Muslim-dominated union territory in the Arabian Sea – Shah held a booth Vistarak meeting in the third week of May. Shah has also ensured that party leaders and ministers also hold booth-level interactions.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told News18, “Shah goes deeper into a matter and as the PM has said, he has brought back the core values which have been the mainstay for us since the Jan Sangh days. We have to go to the booths and hold reach out programmes at all levels. He has tightened the organizational nuts and bolts.”
In the last week of April, Shah started the project of spending three days in all big states, two days in small states and one day in each union territory. In all, he will be spending 95 days, travelling over 2 lakh km. His booth Vistarak plan began in West Bengal, a state which ebbed Modi wave in 2014. Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP’s national general secretary and in-charge of Bengal, recalls his meeting before Shah undertook this yatra. “He asked me — sabse kathin kskhetra kaun sa hai? [Which is the toughest region] And then he said, let’s begin from there,” said Vijayvargiya.
— Vinay Sahasrabuddhe
Shah holds a review meeting on West Bengal every three months and sets goals for the next three months. “Banjar bhoomi mein bhi woh hariyali karte hain [He can turn barren land into an oasis],” said Vijayvargiya. His conversation with Shah was brief: “He called him and said the organisation is weak in Bengal and he wants to build the party from the ground up.”
PLAYING ON FRONT FOOT
Another interesting aspect is that Shah doesn’t believe in having a core team. He relies on different people for different jobs. “It neutralizes the negative impact of having a coterie,” said another BJP leader.
When asked, a top BJP leader explained Shah’s style of picking people for various jobs with an example. “Once Shah picked a little known Sunil Bansal, who was in ABVP and had first worked in Rajasthan and Delhi. Shah sent Bansal to oversee the implementation of his plans in Uttar Pradesh before the Lok Sabha elections in 2013. His micromanagement gave us 71 MPs,” he said. Bansal also played a key role in delivering the UP state assembly polls for BJP in 2017.
BJP President Amit Shah during a press conference at BJP Headquarters, on November 5, 2015 in New Delhi. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Besides Bansal, Shah’s trust in Ram Madhav as in-charge of strategically crucial Jammu & Kashmir and North East has earned dividends for the party. Madhav is seen as the man behind BJP’s turnaround in Assam. The party is in power in Arunachal Pradesh, is part of the Nagaland government, and it managed to wrest control of Manipur. In the first week of May, Shah travelled to Tripura and launched a scathing attack on Manik Sarkar government. Soon, six Trinamool Congress MLAs rebelled and joined the BJP.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, party vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP, feels Shah’s BJP is much more than a ruthless election-winning machine. “We are strengthening at the booth level and it would be wrong to look at BJP as an election winning machine. It’s the one that’s doing politics with a mission of achieving greatness of India.”
There can be no denying that Shah has taken BJP to heights it has never seen in its four-decade history. Political analyst Neerja Chaudhury said, “Shah is unlike the usual politician we have seen. He is hard working, driven with killer instincts, his hunger for power makes him a formidable foe for the Opposition. One may disagree with his approach, but his performance will ultimately be judged by how he has delivered.” When Shah arrived in Delhi, the BJP had government in 7 states, now that number is 18.
— A BJP leader
A DAY WITH SHAH IN THE FIELD
At 1pm it’s 36 degree Celsius in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. At the Terminal 2 of Biju Patnaik International Airport, BJP workers are waiting patiently for the party president. This is Shah’s third visit to the state in six months, the first was for the BJP national executive meet that happened soon after the party’s Uttar Pradesh victory. Out of 150 Lok Sabha seats identified by BJP as its target territories, 62 are in Odisha and Bengal. Straight from the airport, Shah and his team head to the state guesthouse where he will stay for the next 3 days. First on Shah’s schedule is a meeting with district presidents and other state leaders.
At Kushabhau Thakre hall, Shah is seeking accountability and giving management lessons. “What is the status of grading the booths? And what’s happening with local-level meetings? Learn to distribute the work and the art of getting things done,” Shah tells partymen.
Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who has worked closely with Shah in multiple state elections, told News18 in Odisha, “Shah is a taskmaster and that is his style. He is very methodical and has redefined political activism within the party. Gone are the days of leisure and enjoyment.”
Political analyst Nilanjan Mukopadhyay said Amit Shah has been a very different BJP president, the kind that BJP has never had. “Amit Shah has been able to bring in a kind of cohesion between the party and government, which was non-existent when Vajpayee was the PM. Earlier, BJP and government were often at loggerheads; whereas now you have synergy between the two. This speaks volumes on the way various differences have been handled within the Sangh Parivar,” said Mukopadhyay.
On Day 1 of his Vistarak Yatra, Shah addressed a group of retired professors, teachers and lawyers at Pall Heights Hotel in Bhubaneshwar. His focus was on comparative study of political parties. Hemant Parekh a doctor from Odisha, who was present at the meet, said, “Our CM is disconnected from the ground, he doesn’t step out to interact. The BJP is making an effort.”
LESSER KNOWN SIDE OF SHAH
Sahasrabuddhe recalled how six months ago Shah had asked him to suggest some books on Maratha history. “I went to the Parliament library and picked 12 books for Shah, of which, half of them he returned within 2-3 months. He is a keen student of history and also reads on literature and culture.”
Only a few people know that he maintains meticulous diary before calling it a day. And amid his packed schedule, Shah never forgets to FaceTime with his one-year-old granddaughter. He prefers to take a regular flight and not a private plane for his party visits. He stays at government guesthouses and holds meetings in party offices.
BJP MP Bhupendra Yadav, who has worked closely with Shah for over 7 years, said Shah plays pakhawaj (a classical instrument).
BJP National President Amit Shah and Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari during the release of a book ' Bhavishya Ka Bharat' authored by Nitin Gadkari, at Maharashtra Sadan on August 14, 2015 in New Delhi. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
As Shah has entered Rajya Sabha, a sense of panic has set in among the MPs, some of whom were recently pulled up for defying the party whip during the OBC Bill, which left the government red-faced as the Opposition managed to push through some amendments. A junior minister, who was reprimanded for being absent, told News18 that he didn’t leave the Parliament for five days after the matter.
The man who catapulted brand Modi has a unique relationship with the PM. “Like Modi, he doesn’t take rest and doesn’t let us take rest,” said a party leader. Someone who has seen generations of such pairs, from Nehru-Gandhi to Indira-Kamraj to Chandra Shekhar-VP Singh had an interesting observation to make: “Their equation is about perfect mutuality; nation has seen several pairs, but this one is about trust, confidence and respect.”