Amit Shah took over as BJP president in the summer of 2014, after incumbent Rajnath Singh was made the Union home minister. In his inaugural address at the BJP’s national executive meeting nine months later, he was full of confidence and enthusiasm. “The Modi government at the Centre can last for 15 to 20 years,” he said to thunderous applause.
On January 25, Shah was elected to his first full term as BJP president. The Narendra Modi government is a little under two years old, and the man Modi trusts the most continues to look confident and enthusiastic. But many of those who had applauded him last year, as well as the millions of people who expected the Modi magic to transform their lives, do not seem excited anymore.
Shah’s current tenure, says a party insider, is primarily to “stop that feeling of drift and dejection if the Modi government is to face the voters confidently in 2019”. He does not look at the assembly poll debacles in Delhi and Bihar as a matter of concern, as “polls are won and lost”. And victory in the assembly elections due this year “is very important, but that is not the end”. In effect, he says keeping Modi in office beyond this term is what Shah’s new tenure will be all about.
Shah has his task cut out. Sources close to him say he feels every election has to be won. “The only concession he sometimes hints at is that in some states where the BJP has traditionally no base, the party should improve its performance,” says one source. Apparently, Shah wants the party to substantially improve upon its past record in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam, which go to the polls this year. “You will see a change in the pattern of results in these states,” says a source close to Shah.
So what will Shah do? His confidants say he will not rush to reshuffle his team in the party or seek a cabinet rejig. He might, however, ensure “conditions for growth of local leadership in poll-bound states”. There has been a feeling that ever since the Modi-Shah duo came to prominence in the BJP, local leaders have been trampled upon in states where the party is not in power. “After the Bihar debacle, there was no shying away from projecting Sarbananda Sonowal as the leader of the election campaign in Assam, and later naming him as the chief ministerial candidate. That is, in effect, making room for local leadership,” said a source close to Shah.
“What is the need to reshuffle party office-bearers?” Shah is said to have asked a BJP leader who broached the subject, possibly to get a few dalit names in. What he did not say was that the current lot were chosen by him, in consultation with Modi. Shah abolished the various party cells, created 18 departments and roped in people like scholar Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and journalist M.J. Akbar to head a couple of them.
Some party leaders, however, are itching for a reshuffle that will give others opportunities. “Elections are not the only opportunities for party members to show their leadership qualities. They have to be recognised even when party elections and reshuffling in the executive take place,” said a leader. The number of such leaders who want to be in the panel of office-bearers is particularly high in states where the party is not in power. Some party leaders say Shah’s selection is based mainly on loyalty.
Shah is said to be keen on a cabinet reshuffle after the budget session, in order to stem the feeling of dejection among workers who hear complaints that achche din have not come, black money has not been brought back, the employment sector has not looked up, and price of food and household items is going up. In fact, party circles were rife with rumours about a cabinet reshuffle early this month, and there was even talk of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley being moved to the defence ministry, an additional charge he held at one time. “That may, at best, correct the perception, but things will have to change politically,” said a former BJP minister. “The BJP has to somehow reach out to the other parties and ensure the parliamentary logjams do not come in the way of reforms.”
THERE ARE HINTS that some ministers may be “promoted” based on their performance, and some moved to the national executive “so that instead of underperforming in the government, they can be used effectively in the organisation.”
The fear of Shah refuses to die in the party, even though he has travelled across the country and met most state and district-level workers. Such is the fear that after the Bihar debacle, there were apprehensions that some of the 30 ministers who campaigned there, especially the dozen ministers who stayed put there through the long-drawn campaign, would be axed. Nothing of the kind, however, happened.
“The reallocation of duties in the party will be done by the president, whenever he thinks it is necessary. There is no hurry. And cabinet reshuffle is the prerogative of the prime minister,” said Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, when asked to comment on rumours that he might get additional charge of civil aviation, in case of a rejig in the government.
Shah was the prabhari, or in-charge, of Uttar Pradesh for two years before the Lok Sabha polls. The party won 73 of 80 seats, an achievement that elevated him to the nonexistent rank of “super strategist”. His eyes would now be on the assembly polls in the state, due in 2017.
Shah is also focused on increasing the BJP’s strength in the Rajya Sabha. “We will keep on winning elections in the assemblies, and that should be reflected in the Rajya Sabha,” he told THE WEEK during the parliamentary logjam last year. “That is my strategy.”