With the opposition in disarray, it looks like the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah jugalbandi will dominate the national political scene for a long time to come.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the big political achievers of this past year, are both Gujaratis and consummate political animals. Yet, they are very different as individuals. Shah is a social person, comfortable with family and friends, the rare politician who goes on holidays with his wife and actually takes time off from work (or does he? That’s another story, really), and reads books on religion and history, the two themes that obsess him. Like so many other Gujaratis, he has strong views on how the financial markets are run and should be regulated, the sort of technical conversation that would leave most politicians cold.
Modi is very different. He lives an antiseptic, almost ascetic life. By his own confession, he has no close friends and, in fact, avoids deep close personal associations. He has tens of thousands of professional acquaintances and colleagues but still sees himself as a loner, the man without family bonds from the time he left home as a young boy to work for the RSS, attempt to become a monk at the Ramakrishna Mission and finally emerge as a workaholic politician, chief minister and prime minister.
What unites the two, however, is a nose for practical politics and for the realities of running an election campaign. Through the general election of 2014, it was Modi and Shah, one nationally and the other in Uttar Pradesh — the state Shah managed as BJP general secretary — who kept urging their party colleagues against overconfidence.
With the final three rounds of the nine-phase polling marathon left, the opposition was in tatters and it was clear Modi and the BJP were headed for first position. Worried that complacency had set in and voter fatigue was inevitable after a high-octane, 24/7 bombardment of electoral and Modi-specific messaging, Modi summoned a war council in Gandhinagar. The focus was simple: what campaign innovations and tactics needed to be devised for the geographies of the final lap to keep voters sufficiently engaged and ensure fence-sitters and incremental supporters queued up outside polling stations, rather than just stayed home, convinced the election was over.
In UP — the final rounds of polling, as it happened, took the battle for 2014 into the heart of central and eastern UP — Shah had been playing exactly the same game for months. It had all begun a year earlier. Shah and his wife had decided to travel around India in the period when the courts had asked Shah to stay away from Gujarat, following investigations of Shah’s alleged complicity in a suspected fake encounter killing. Those investigations got nowhere, but Shah certainly went a long way.
With his wife, he spent several weeks in UP, visiting historical and religious sites. Just another Gujarati tourist-pilgrim couple, like so many others, Mr and Mrs Shah were in Varanasi for many days. It was not a political tour, at least ostensibly it wasn’t. Shah travelled as a common citizen into the interiors, the lanes and by-lanes, the many cultures and sub-cultures, of what is reputed to be the world’s oldest living city.
Perhaps he had an inkling that his friend and senior, Modi, may be the candidate from Varanasi in 2014. If so it was just the germ of an idea and far from a done deal, for Modi had not been named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and mascot for the general election. Perhaps it was a mix of curiosity and old-fashioned political instinct, attributes common to Modi and Shah.
Whatever it was, it proved invaluable for Shah (and for Modi) in the summer of 2014. It allowed Shah to surprise local veterans with small details and pointed questions, some of which were the result of documented research but much of which had come from experiential learning going back to that UP yatra of a year earlier.
Modi and Shah first met in the 1980s as colleagues in the BJP and the larger RSS-nurtured Hindu activism of Gujarat. One was from a business family and had lived part of his early years in Chicago. The other had humbler roots, born to a tea-vendor father and a mother who went house to house washing dishes, earning that something extra to pay school fees for her children.
What brought them together was an interest in politics, not just the politics of Gujarat or of a city or state but politics as a phenomenon, in their state and beyond. Few minds in Indian public life have been more engrossed in the mechanics of running an election campaign, in the energy and skills needed to build an optimum social coalition to win a seat and a constituency, and finally a state and a country. In a polity and a party of tacticians, Shah and Modi are strategists — they hope and they plan, they work and they gamble, they take huge risks; and going by the evidence of 2014 at least, they win.
For Modi, the 2014 Lok Sabha election was a huge, huge risk, perhaps the biggest such in the history of Indian politics. The BJP put all its eggs in Modi’s basket. That was logical: opinion polls conducted by the party consistently showed Modi had a 20 per cent greater acceptability than the BJP. The campaign and the campaigner, the message and the messenger — everything combined in the personality, the ubiquity and the boundless energy of Modi. If he had failed, he would have been laughed out of history. The BJP, following three successive election defeats and no Plan B, would have faced an existential crisis as a national party.
Modi’s gamble, his upping of the stakes, didn’t take place in a vacuum and wasn’t just the product of an absence of choices for the BJP. It was born of both confidence and a remarkably accurate reading of the popular pulse. He realised this was a moment of transition in Indian society. He realised India was poised for an election fought on economic issues, in which concerns of jobs and urban dreams trumped identity and regionalism. He realised India was ready for his heady cocktail of anger and aspiration. He realised India was ready for him.
The same determination drove Modi and Shah — by now prime minister and BJP president respectively — to even more audacious risks in October, when their party eschewed problematic alliances and fought alone in Maharashtra and Haryana, two states where the BJP had never led a government.
In Maharashtra, the party broke with the Shiv Sena after 20 years, giving up the chance of an easy victory. In Haryana, an alliance with the Chautala family’s Indian National Lok Dal or to a lesser degree with the Bhajan Lal dynasty’s Haryana Janhit Congress could have ensured sure-shot success. Instead, Modi and Shah took the long road, in the case of Maharashtra, Shah standing by his assessments and in-house surveys and convincing even the prime minister that this mother of all gambles — of dumping the Shiv Sena — was worth it.
There was something unusual in such decisions. These were more than plans for an immediate election. Fundamentally they were bets on a new India, one to which the BJP needed to respond: to a changing demography, a younger country, driven by opportunity and ambition rather than sullen victimhood.
At50, Shah is the youngest president in the BJP’s history. He is also among the youngest presidents of a major political party, national or regional. Gerontocracy was not always the hallmark of Indian public life. Jawaharlal Nehru became president of the Indian National Congress at 40, and Subhas Bose at 41. Rajiv Gandhi was prime minster at 40. Yet, these are remote or outlier examples. In recent years, grey hair has dominated India’s politics. Consider the contemporary Congress. Its vice-president is in his mid-40s, not much younger than Shah, and is still regarded as an “emerging” and “youth” figure.
That Shah was chosen as president of the BJP at 50 was not merely recognition of his aptitude as a political manager and the success with which he ran the campaign in UP, delivering 73 of 80 seats. It was not even because of his proximity to Modi. Shah’s arrival in the proverbial corner office at 11 Ashoka Road, the BJP’s national headquarters in Delhi, represented a process so rare in India, in business corporations and political parties alike: a succession plan.
In the course of 2014, the BJP quietly pensioned off its founding generation, the 75 and 80-somethings. Modi, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj – the core of the Union cabinet – are in their early 60s. They’re good for the next decade and will lead the party in the 2019 election. With luck, they could win a second term.
What of 2024? A new generation — BJP 3.0 — will need to be battle-ready by then. In the coming decade, a new corps of party functionaries and managers, state-level leaders and national faces, younger politicians in their mid-30s and early 40s, will need to be found, groomed and promoted. By anointing a 50-year-old as its president and giving him this job of talent spotting and nurturing, the BJP has indicated it is aware of its responsibility.
The sterling work LK Advani did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he mentored a whole generation of BJP leaders — the ones who’re running the government today — has now been institutionalised by Modi. In a sense, Shah is its institutional face. If one interprets Shah’s mandate, and Modi’s resolve, in these terms — rather than just as a matter of a few state elections here and there — one gets an indication of the shift in the BJP. Encapsulated in the stories of those two men from Gujarat, that is the true political phenomenon of 2014.