Amit Shah is a man on a mission. Handling his biggest election campaign since he took over as BJP president in 2014, Shah has added another dimension to it with his decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Gandhinagar, a party stronghold which had elected Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1996) and L.K. Advani (1991, 1998-2014). The 2019 Lok Sabha elections hold deep political significance for not only Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but also Shah. Will he be the prime contender for the top post after Modi?
Shah is always on the move. As part of his hectic election campaign, he will address 135 rallies in 50 days. As Modi’s principal strategist, Shah has made national security the main poll plank for 2019.
A day after his show of strength in Gandhinagar—where he filed his nomination in the presence of several leaders of the National Democratic Alliance and two former BJP presidents—Shah returned to western Uttar Pradesh on March 31 for campaigning. Aboard his chartered flight from Ahmedabad to Delhi, Shah took stock of the previous day’s rally and discussed the progress of the selection of candidates with party general secretary Bhupendra Yadav and IT cell in-charge Amit Malviya. He also found time for an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, his first after filing his nomination. Shah spoke to Special Correspondent Pratul Sharma on issues ranging from the BJP’s electoral strategy, his ideological commitment and his relationship with Modi.
Q/There is a lot of curiosity about your decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections, as you are already a member of the Rajya Sabha.
A/There is no big suspense.
I have been an MLA for 25 years. I am a political worker who stays among the people. When my assembly term ended, there was no Lok Sabha election. So, I went to the Rajya Sabha. I wanted a direct mandate from the people to go to Parliament and the party agreed.
Q/It also conveys the message that if the BJP forms the government, you will be part of it.
A/This argument has no basis. One can become a minister even from the Rajya Sabha. The party has given me a big responsibility. I am the party president and it is an important responsibility in a party like the BJP. I am satisfied with whatever responsibility I have.
Q/There appears to be another subtext to your election, that you will be a contender for the prime minister’s post in the future.
A/There is no question of that. There are many senior leaders in the party before me. I respect them all. Modiji will stay as prime minister for a long time. We are all standing beside Modiji.
Q/Members of the margdarshak mandal and a few other senior leaders have been denied tickets. Are they upset?
A/Only the media is pushing this issue. No one above 75 has been given tickets. This is the party’s decision.
Q/What are the key issues for the BJP this time?
A/The biggest issue is who will lead the country. I believe that Modiji has worked towards winning the confidence of the people. People—be it in the north, south, east or west—want Modiji to be prime minister. So, the biggest issue before us is Modiji’s leadership.
The second issue is national security. Since the 1990s, the country has been affected by terrorism. How have governments over the years had dealt with terrorism and how has the Modi government handled it? We adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism. Modiji brought this policy to the fore. This policy has been successful. We had the surgical strikes and the air strikes. Through these two interventions, a message has gone to the world that apart from the United States and Israel, if there is any other country which can avenge the murder of members of its armed forces, it is India.
In five years, due to our successful economic policy, we have become the fastest growing economy in the world. We are now the sixth largest economy in the world, up from 11th in 2014. After the elections, our economy will be among the top five in the world.
Our prime minister launched several schemes for the country’s 50 crore poor, which happened for the first time since independence. Seven crore people got gas cylinders, eight crore got toilets, 2.5 crore got houses and 2.35 crore got electricity. As many as 19,000 villages got power for the first time since independence and 50 crore people got relief under the Ayushman Bharat scheme.
Q/During the 2014 elections, the BJP’s campaign was centred around aspirations of the people, with the promise of acche din and development. This time there is a shift towards issues of nationalism, security and Pakistan.
A/The people want to make India a major power in the world. Only Narendra Modi can fulfil their dreams. Time has come for India to think about leading the world, and our people are thinking in that direction.
Q/Couldn’t the government have taken the opposition into confidence on matters of national security?
A/Definitely the opposition could have been taken along. But if they feel that we should not retaliate even when 40 of our jawans are killed, then it cannot happen. We are firm on our path. What does Sam Pitroda mean when he says that we should hold talks after 40 jawans are killed? If this is the policy of the Congress and the opposition, then we are not in agreement with that.
Q/After the Balakot strikes, different leaders gave different figures about the number of terrorists killed. You spoke about 250 deaths. Why wasn’t there uniformity about the numbers?
A/Rough figures came in media reports. Now, this was the Air Force’s operation. The Pakistani army, parliament and even their prime minister accepted that they had suffered losses. Pakistan was preparing to attack us in retaliation. Still, the opposition is asking for proof. I believe there cannot be a bigger disrespect to our armed forces. The opposition should not stoop so low for their vote-bank politics.
Q/Many questions were raised about the Rafale deal. Rahul Gandhi has turned it into a political campaign.
A/Tell me something, when a controversy breaks out or an allegation is made, who should decide on it—the person making the allegations, the person against whom the allegations have been levelled or a neutral agency? Obviously, a neutral agency.
What is the highest judicial process in the country? Does the opposition believe in the Constitution? A bench headed by the chief justice of the country said there was no favouritism, that all procedures were followed and that the fighter jets were of the highest technical specifications. The court said there was no need for a probe. Still, the opposition goes on talking. I don’t think the people believe them. Modiji’s public life has shown that allegations of corruption won’t stick on him.
Q/The government’s job creation record has been controversial. There are doubts about job data figures.
A/Under this government, the speed of road and rail construction increased by two times, eight crore toilets and 2.5 crore houses were constructed. Optical fibre has reached over one lakh villages. Won’t these things lead to job creation? Over 14 crore people have benefited from Mudra loans; will not one job per person be generated? Data collection agencies in a country like India should understand the difference between a job and a permanent job, between employment and self-employment. Not all 125 crore Indians can get a government job. India’s data collection system cannot be the same as that of the Netherlands or England. We should evolve our own system based on our needs and environment.
Q/The Congress has promised its Nyay scheme, guaranteeing Rs6,000 every month to the poor.
A/First Jawaharlal Nehru promised to remove poverty, then it was Indira Gandhi who said garibi hatao (remove poverty), followed by Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. But the nation does not trust them. The Congress merely gives slogans. Only Narendra Modi has worked to alleviate poverty and uplift the poor. Only the BJP government has performed to alleviate poverty.
Q/Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly using the slogan chowkidar chor hai against Modi. The BJP has been targeting the Gandhis. Shouldn’t there be some sort of self-regulation on the use of abusive language?
A/In a democracy, what political parties say is of little importance. But what the people say is more important. The kind of disrespectful language Rahulji is using against the prime minister has resulted in crores of people saying they are also chowkidars. Now, the slogan is main bhi chowkidar hoon. Let the people of this country decide. On the counting day, we will get an even bigger mandate and Modiji will be prime minister again.
Q/You always predict the number of seats for the BJP. What about this time?
A/This interview is happening a bit early. The first phase of the elections is yet to take place, so it will not be proper for me to predict. But I can say it will be a bigger mandate than in 2014.
Q/Has Priyanka Gandhi’s entry made it tougher for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh?
A/It is a misunderstanding. Priyanka Vadra has been in politics for 12 years. She has been campaigning in Uttar Pradesh for 12 years. But she has not been able to win more than two seats. It is a propaganda for her party, and even the media is giving more importance to that.
Q/Priyanka, like Rahul, is visiting temples. She also undertook a Ganga yatra. They are also focusing on hindutva, albeit a softer version.
A/I want every leader in this country to show faith in his religion. Priyanka and Rahul are doing it. I believe that is good, even if the reasons are political.
Q/What are your criteria for selecting candidates? Many of your candidates have been changed or dropped.
A/Winnability and representation to all classes of society are the two criteria for selecting BJP candidates.
Q/You have changed almost all dalit MPs in Uttar Pradesh. Is it because of the threat posed by the BSP-SP alliance?
A/It is not that we have changed dalit MPs. We have changed many MPs, which include some dalits.
Q/Despite Modi’s popularity, many of your MPs face anti-incumbency.
A/You correct this misunderstanding that everyone is contesting parliamentary elections. Even Amit Shah is not contesting elections. From every seat, Narendra Modi is contesting. The country is voting to make Narendra Modi prime minister.
Q/The Hindi heartland has been your strength. How do you view your chances in the south and the east?
A/In Karnataka, we will perform well. The state government has been formed against the mandate of the people. There is rampant corruption and people are angry. Our tally may increase. We will perform well in Kerala. The National Democratic Alliance may win four or five seats there. In Tamil Nadu, we have been able to set up a rainbow coalition. Even the media which was saying that the DMK-Congress alliance will sweep the state, now say that both sides may win 50 per cent seats each. As elections approach, this will change.
We will sweep the northeast. In Bengal, we will win 23 seats. In Odisha, we will form the government after the assembly elections and win more Lok Sabha seats.
Q/In Maharashtra, your government and party supported women’s entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple. In Sabarimala, you are opposing it despite an order by the Supreme Court.
A/This is a question of faith. The BJP is with the devotees of Lord Ayyappa. I believe that Kerala’s communist government is unleashing highhanded action on Lord Ayyappa in the name of the Supreme Court order. The BJP is ready to face any struggle for that. There are many Supreme Court decisions. There is one on stopping mosques from using loudspeakers. Why isn’t the Kerala government following it? Does it have the courage to implement the order? Let them remove even one.
Q/There have been widespread protests against the citizenship bill in the northeast. You are still pushing for it, despite your allies opposing the bill.
A/This is an ideological stand for us. We will pass the citizenship bill and provide relief to those ousted from neighbouring countries, which include Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists. It is our ideological commitment.
Q/There has not been any movement in the last five years on other ideological issues like the Ram temple, uniform civil code and Article 370.
A/These are issues that require a full majority in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The Ram temple issue is pending in court. We will wait for the judgment. But our stand is that a grand temple should be built at the same spot as early as possible.
Q/Your former ally Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP said if Article 370 was revoked, Jammu and Kashmir’s relations with India would be under question.
A/This country has adopted a Constitution which gives equal respect to all religions. Our stand on Article 370 has been there since 1950.
Q/With the benefit of hindsight, do you think the experiment to form a government with the PDP was a mistake?
A/It was not a mistake. It was a fractured mandate by the J&K people. Based on that mandate, we made an effort to work together for the development and unity of the country. But when we felt that the nation’s security was at stake, we withdrew our support. This is a very natural, democratic process.
Q/Compared with earlier elections, you accommodated demands from your allies during seat distribution. Are you feeling insecure?
A/There is no insecurity. We know how to respect our allies. In Uttar Pradesh, we have a three-fourths majority, yet we have ministers from our allies. In the Centre, we had full majority, yet all our allies were given ministerial berths. The BJP has always kept our allies closer. But expanding my party is my right. I work to strengthen my organisation. From 2014, we have expanded, and so have the number of allies in the NDA.
Q/How do you see the challenge from opposition alliances in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?
A/You tell me, whether voters in Uttar Pradesh are voting to elect a prime minister or a chief minister. Who will be the prime minister from the opposition? The people understand everything. Earlier also there was a caste-based alliance when the Congress and the SP came together. The media made a huge noise about it. But the people give their mandate looking at the leaders, manifestos and performance. I believe no one has an alternative to Modiji.
Q/Will you be looking at parties like the BJD or the YSR Congress in case of a fractured mandate?
A/The question does not arise. We will return with a bigger mandate. Journalists can think of these possibilities, but I stay among people. I know their pulse. The people are with Modi.
Q/What do you think about electoral bonds. The Election Commission has been opposed to the bonds.
A/I don’t want to comment as the matter is before the Supreme Court. But I believe it has been the biggest electoral reform.
Q/Your government has been has been using all critical decisions, such as the recent A-SAT test, politically.
A/We did it because of our political will. ISRO’s former director said the capability was acquired ten years ago, but there was no political will to conduct the experiment. It was a political decision to conduct the test. Our Army has always been competent. But there were no surgical or air strikes. It was only because of Narendra Modi’s political will that these were done.
Q/You are contesting from Gandhinagar, which has been a BJP stronghold. What do you promise the people of the constituency?
A/I have been an MLA from the area for five terms. The people of the area know me. No new promise will be made. I want to tell them humbly that this seat has elected leaders such as Purushottam Ganesh Mavalankar, Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji and L.K. Advaniji. I will not let the prestige of this seat go down even a bit. And the way this seat has been represented in the country’s politics, I will do it the same way. I will work to make Gandhinagar the country’s best developed constituency.
Q/Will you agree that the benefits of demonetisation were limited than what you envisaged.
A/Three lakh shell companies were found out, the number of income tax payers increased massively and direct tax collections saw the greatest increase since independence. All these things point towards the success of the note ban.
Q/Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu said there would not be any more elections if Modi was elected again.
A/There will be elections again. But after the voters teach him a lesson, no one will know whether he will take part in elections the next time or not.