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?
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