THE SHAH’S BIG TEST

FROM CHIEF STRATE­GIST TO MASS CAM­PAIGNER, THE AS­SEM­BLY POLLS HAVE SEEN AMIT SHAH EMERGE AS A CROWD-PULLER IN HIS OWN RIGHT. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN IN THE BJP’S BAT­TLE FOR THE HEART­LAND?

India Today - - INTERVIEW - BY UDAY MAHURKAR

AAmit Shah stands be­hind a saf­fron podium dec­o­rated with the party’s lo­tus sym­bol in Bhind, a town in Mad­hya Pradesh’s Cham­bal dis­trict. “Bharat mata ki jai!” he shouts. The au­di­ence echoes him. But the BJP pres­i­dent isn’t sat­is­fied. “Kya bhai, Cham­bal ka paani aise dheere bolta hai kya (Does the wa­ter of Cham­bal speak so low)?” he asks. The crowd’s Bharat mata ki jai roar grows louder. Shah be­gins his speech.

The rally in Bhind is one of over 80 pub­lic meet­ings and road­shows in the five poll-bound states that Shah has ad­dressed in the past two months, a vast ma­jor­ity in MP, Ra­jasthan and Ch­hat­tis­garh. This, as his par­ty­men will tell you, is al­most dou­ble the ral­lies Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi has ad­dressed. It’s part of a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy. The party doesn’t want their sta2r cam­paigner to be over­ex­posed. It is a gap the party pres­i­dent is fill­ing as he criss­crosses the state, soak­ing up the adu­la­tion from lo­cal party work­ers and giv­ing his Z-plus se­cu­rity de­tail night­mares as they strug­gle to con­trol the crowds. Shah has set a gru­elling pace for him­self. In four months, he has also had 34 in­ter­ac­tive pro­grammes in th­ese states with farm­ers, youth, women in­tel­lec­tu­als and other fo­cus groups. He is also the first BJP chief to ad­dress ral­lies in small towns such as Nar­war, Bhind, Morena and Katni.

On the cam­paign trail, he take jibes at op­po­nents, con­trasts the BJP rule with that of the Con­gress and pep­pers his speeches with ex­am­ples from lo­cal folk­lore. So, in Bhind, he quotes from Veer Savarkar’s writ­ings which ex­tolled the val­our of the lo­cals who helped Rani Laxmibai in 1857. In Ja­balpur, Shah re­calls the sac­ri­fice of lo­cal Gond queen Rani Dur­ga­vati who died fight­ing em­peror Ak­bar’s in­vad­ing army. As he chop­pers through the Ja­balpur re­gion, Shah tells BJP state pres­i­dent Rakesh Singh of a Rs 100 crore pro­posal from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for a mu­seum to lo­cal 1857 mar­tyrs Raja Raghu­nathshah and Shankar­shah. His speeches are emo­tive and they are get­ting longer as Shah gets into con­ver­sa­tion with the lo­cals.

In Morena, he at­tacks Con­gress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi and chal­lenges him to name five kharif and five rabi crops. “The other day Rahul baba was talk­ing about a potato pro­cess­ing plant…but does he know whether a potato grows be­neath the soil or above it... you can never feel the pain of the farm­ers with your Ital­ian glasses,” he said.

Shah the or­a­tor and mass cam­paigner is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non. It is a skill he has de­vel­oped over the past two years and the con­tent and de­liv­ery show he has clearly bor­rowed from his po­lit­i­cal guru Modi. The jour­ney from back­room boy to metic­u­lous mo­biliser and now fiery or­a­tor has been long. Shah started out as a party worker in Gu­jarat in the 1980s work­ing with Modi. He was later vice-pres­i­dent of the Gu­jarat unit of the BJP and then spent eight years as MoS for home un­der then CM Modi. It was only in 2014 when he be­came na­tional party pres­i­dent that he came into his own. The string of elec­toral vic­to­ries un­der his lead­er­ship—he has de­liv­ered 14 states so far—helped greatly. The em­phatic 2017 Ut­tar Pradesh polls marked Shah’s emer­gence as a fiery cam­paigner. Even so, his early speeches were short. This year, Shah’s ora­tory has im­proved, be it his voice mod­u­la­tion, choice of words or anec­dotes, or in­ter­ac­tion with the crowds. Shah calls it “learn­ing through ex­pe­ri­ence”. “I have ma­tured with time and the added re­spon­si­bil­ity on my shoul­ders. The con­stant in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple and work­ers has played a big role in im­prov­ing my ora­tory.”

“Ad­hyak­shji’s ora­tory has a unique id­iom,’’ says Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s na­tional so­cial me­dia unit. “It ap­peals to the vot­ers.”

Shah may be the high-fly­ing cam­paigner in a hired he­li­copter but he makes it a point not to lose his grass­roots con­nect, pre­fer­ring spare lodg­ings and food cooked at the homes of party work­ers. In the skies over Ch­hind­wara last week af­ter ad­dress­ing a rally, he di­alled a clearly over­whelmed party

worker, Ra­jesh Jaiswal, to thank him for lunch.

In the up­com­ing elec­tions, the party faces an uphill climb. In MP and Ch­hat­tis­garh, it has been in power since 2003 and an­ti­in­cum­bency is strong. Ra­jasthan, where the BJP is in gov­ern­ment, has not re­turned a party to power in nearly 15 years.

Shah had be­gun vis­it­ing the states even be­fore the start of cam­paign­ing to bol­ster the or­gan­i­sa­tion. He or­gan­ised 31 state-level meet­ings of booth work­ers to make them un­der­stand the im­por­tance of get­ting the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of gov­ern­ment schemes to the booths, his way of cre­at­ing a new vote bank. In his meet­ings, he ex­horts party work­ers to fol­low the ‘mera booth, sabse ma­j­boot’ strat­egy to win ev­ery booth in each seat. But it’s no one-man show, Shah has also given tremen­dous lee­way to sit­ting CMs Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Ra­man Singh. In MP, Chouhan runs the cam­paign and, ac­cord­ing to party in­sid­ers, de­cided can­di­dates on most seats. Shah spent al­most a fort­night in the state hold­ing meet­ings with party of­fice-bear­ers and iden­ti­fy­ing and bring­ing around lead­ers who were not do­ing enough in the elec­tion. In Ch­hat­tis­garh, too, Shah has al­lowed the cam­paign to re­volve around Ra­man Singh. His in­puts de­ter­mined only about half-a-dozen seats in the 90-mem­ber as­sem­bly.

In Ra­jasthan, where the BJP faces its tough­est fight, Shah’s strat­egy be­gan with first ac­cept­ing the worst-case sce­nario of the party los­ing the elec­tion. He then iden­ti­fied the rea­sons for it and con­cluded that anti-in­cum­bency could not be coun­tered by merely re­mov­ing Chief Min­is­ter Va­sund­hara Raje. Raje had to front the cam­paign, with party work­ers given the task of coun­ter­ing the spread of any neg­a­tiv­ity against her and the party. Shah then mo­bilised sulk­ing

party work­ers. He had re­moved state pres­i­dent Ashok Par­nami in April and ap­pointed Madan Lal Saini, a vet­eran with an RSS back­ground, to sig­nal that the party re­warded its grass­roots work­ers. He also brought in Chan­dra Shekhar, gen­eral sec­re­tary (or­gan­i­sa­tion), to tour the state and mo­bilise the cadre. A few hun­dred grass­roots lead­ers were also brought in to en­gage booth-level work­ers.

In Septem­ber, Shah be­gan to in­ter­act with mid­dle-level lead­ers. What he iden­ti­fied was that there was no spe­cific com­plaint against Raje, though an at­mos­phere of ‘teach the BJP gov­ern­ment a les­son’ had risen within the party. So, his next step was to send the mes­sage to work­ers that any talk of bad gov­er­nance had to be re­but­ted by ex­am­ples of achieve­ments. The party had to win in Ra­jasthan to set an up­beat mood na­tion­ally for the 2019 gen­eral elec­tion.

Shah’s op­ti­mism in Ra­jasthan is based on the as­sump­tion that the party’s com­mit­ted vote bank will get it 80 seats in the 200 seat as­sem­bly. If it can take party sym­pa­this­ers along, the tally could be pushed to 120. The BJP ex­pects dummy can­di­dates to take away an­tiparty votes which would oth­er­wise have gone to the Con­gress, thus mak­ing it a close fight. In ticket dis­tri­bu­tion, the party has de­ferred to the wishes of the RSS and Raje. The cam­paign has been so crafted to en­sure that the star cam­paign­ers—Modi, Shah, Raje and Ut­tar Pradesh chief min­is­ter Yogi Adityanath—do not over­lap each other’s ar­eas of in­flu­ence. The fi­nal two weeks have been de­signed to de­flect anti-in­cum­bency through a mix of Hin­dutva and na­tion­al­ism. Shah will cam­paign in con­stituen­cies where the party faces the tough­est chal­lenge. His speeches are pep­pered with ref­er­ences to the enemy, Pak­istan, and Bangladeshi mi­grants. “When we come to power in 2019, we will weed out in­fil­tra­tors from ev­ery part of In­dia, from Kash­mir to Kanyaku­mari,” he says to ap­plause.

Fail­ure in th­ese elec­tions is not an op­tion and Shah knows this well. Los­ing even one of the three heart­land states will mat­ter for him and could even im­pact the gen­eral elec­tion. He pre­dicts a clean sweep. “Wait and see,” he says, “we are not only go­ing to win MP and Ch­hat­tis­garh but also Ra­jasthan.” The elec­tion re­sults on De­cem­ber 11 are clearly more than just about the party. They are also a test of Shah the cam­paigner.

BJP chief Amit Shah at a pub­lic meet­ing in Morena, MP, Nov. 24

Shah’s road­show in Ashok­na­gar, MP, Nov. 24

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