Modi-Shah BJP and the surprise factor

As long as they win, Modi and Shah will upend the rules of politics

Let us admit it. No political pundit, whether on the left, right or centre, was able to predict who would be the new chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

The Narendra Modi government and the Amit Shah party organisation have always thrived on the surprise factor, and it was no different this time. That the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP under Modi are different is a given. But with one fell swoop the Modi-led BJP has ended the political careers of what used to be known as the party’s second generation leaders in the Vajpayee years. With the exit of Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the only state level leader the BJP central command would find it tough to replace at will is possibly Uttar Pradesh stalwart Yogi Adityanath.

Raje sat stoically surrounded by MLAs as she was handed over a parchi (small paper). The speculation is that like an Oscar or a Grammy award, this hand-written note had the name of the new chief minister—Bhajan Lal Sharma, a first time MLA from Sanganer district. If Raje was unhappy—as she must be—she did not have the luxury to show it. To compound her disquiet, the deputy chief minister is Diya Kumari—female and royal, like Raje. Chouhan, otherwise low-key in the way the Sangh parivar prefers it, revealed his feelings. “I would rather die,” he said, “than go to Delhi to ask for something for myself.”

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

So the BJP’s recently won states are led by a tribal CM in Chhattisgarh, an OBC in Madhya Pradesh and a Brahmin in Rajasthan. Clearly caste engineering and not disruptive decision making for its own sake is at the heart of these choices.

Even so, there are two ways of looking at what has happened. The opposition says this is further evidence that under Modi-Shah no one else with an independent political profile will be allowed to rise. However, the BJP can easily throw that back at the Congress and several regional parties—where families continue to control the organisation.

The other way to see it is the BJP and the RSS have decided that the organisation is bigger than the individual. The paradox is that this clearly does not apply to Modi, who is now the message, and clearly bigger than the Sangh parivar in terms of electoral winnability.

Ironically, there is a precedent which is similar but not identical in the history of the Congress. Hark back to what Nehru called the ‘Kamaraj’ plan. Kumaraswami Kamaraj’s plan for Congress revival was born after India’s defeat in 1962 and the Congress drubbing in three by-elections in 1963. Kamaraj argued that ministers and chief ministers should resign from their posts and work for the party. Six Union ministers and six chief ministers complied.

Today, the Congress may not be able to take such a risk given that it has tried to regionalise its fights in the states. But there is some merit in keeping the party agile by constantly changing incumbents so that entitlement and status quo instincts do not set in.

Have the BJP’s choices in these three states been ruthless, strategic or laden with risk? Possibly, all of the above.

As long as the party keeps winning elections under Modi, it will continue to take such chances with convention, upending the rules of politics and the capacity of journalists, pundits and the opposition to anticipate them.