Amit Shah was formally re-elected as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president for the second consecutive term on Sunday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Ministers Rajnath Singh, J.P. Nadda, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and the Chief Ministers of the BJP-ruled states proposed Shah’s name for the presidential post after he filed his nomination papers The decision was announced at the party headquarters in the national capital.
Many think it is either because the party has no alternative or because the party wants to take recent debacles in their stride instead of creating hierarchical disruption. Pushing him aside and considering his presidency to have been a failure would be grossly unfair, for that isn’t the case. No doubt things could have gone better, but Amit Shah still remains the best man for the job.
BJP’s politics can be divided into two spheres: the electoral aspect and the administrative one. The first includes winning elections, making new electoral inroads, increasing vote share, staying ahead in the perception battle etc. The second is making sure things move in Delhi and the capitals of BJP run states, bills are passed in parliament, results are visible on the ground, MPs look after their constituencies etc. Despite the Delhi and Bihar debacles, there is little doubt that Shah’s among the most astute politicians in the country. His proximity to the prime minister and his reputation of being a hard task master ensures he ticks both the political and administrative boxes.
2016 won’t be very interesting for the BJP electorally. Assam is the only state in which they have a chance of forming the government. In order not to botch it up, the party needs to look at the past and get some basics right: empower credible local faces, not depend on the prime minister and Amit Shah ’s charisma, stick to the narrative of nationalism and development (lessons from Bihar), no symbolic para-dropping (lesson from Delhi) and use anti-incumbency to the fullest (positive lesson from 2014 general elections, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand). The Modi government’s achievements and its vigorous North-Eastern push are additional benefits. But other than Assam, the other states that go to polls next year (West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry) have negligible BJP presence. Although the BJP has made significant in-roads in the first three, they aren’t significant enough to make them serious contenders. Despite an eighteen percent vote share in Tamil Nadu, the party will get nowhere in terms of seats if it fights on its own. The party can settle as a junior partner in an AIADMK-led coalition and crawl its way independently into government later, like it did in Karnataka. Or it can sacrifice assembly seats, ministries and the perks that come with it for a while and build a strong, sustainable base by attempting to add ten more percent to its vote share. If the Shah-led party chooses the latter, it will have to stick to its nationalist-developmental narrative, refuse to stoop down like its rivals and wait for some years. In West Bengal too, it isn’t much of a force on its own in terms of seats. But having an alliance with any serious contender over there will result in a loss of credibility on both sides. The best thing Amit Shah can do is to have a tacit understanding with Mamata to help some of his candidates out in certain constituencies with their only mutual interest in mind: trouncing the left. Were she to put up strong candidates in BJP strongholds, a split of votes might end up sending a communist to the assembly. This needs to be avoided. All these states have the potential to become BJP bastions. But not this time around. Amit Shah needs to make sure the party treads carefully and patiently in these states.
The elephant in the room is of course the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. This gives us an insight into the party’s electoral dynamics and its two recent debacles. Basically it is the same story in every state which has three or more serious contenders and the BJP is one of them. The BJP’s vote share remains so precisely uniform that some have nicknamed it ‘the thirty one percent party’. These aren’t bipolar states like Rajasthan or Gujarat where vote shares swing back and forth whenever there is a change in government. In these states (U.P., Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra), the BJP has a loyal vote bank which subscribes to its agenda and keeps voting for the party whatever may be the circumstances. Incumbency or anti-incumbency, Modi or no Modi, thirty one percent of the vote share in these states is assured. The BJP can win these states in two ways: make further inroads or create circumstances where thirty one percent is enough. Making further inroads is of course the better solution but this would mean either sacrificing the nationalist-developmental plank and risking the shrinkage of the thirty one percent all-weather vote share, or displaying results on the ground, for which one has to be in government. Generally the party is left with the option of creating the right circumstances for thirty one percent to be enough. Amit Shah has done it before in U.P. during the general elections, and so has Dharmendra Pradhan in Bihar. This is how the BJP won all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, and the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. The right circumstances mean the opponents’ votes are equally divided, which wasn’t the case in Delhi, leading to a humiliating defeat on paper but not in terms of vote share. Obviously the opponents’ vote share cannot be consolidated like it was in Bihar, and the party should have seen that one coming. But in U.P., both the BSP and the Congress have declared that they will go it alone this time, which is a positive sign for the party. The U.P. elections will be BJP’s biggest test. Shah needs to use every tool at his disposal to ensure that it remains a four cornered contest in letter and spirit, and that each opponent of his is as empowered as the other. Instead of micromanaging such a massive operation, he needs to delegate work to reliable and competent lieutenants, just like Modi assigned U.P. to him in 2014.
Punjab too goes to polls along with Uttar Pradesh. Widespread anti-incumbency against the Badals, the Jaitley-vanquishing captain leading the Congress once again and a resurgent AAP are perfect circumstances for the BJP to ditch the Akalis, take part in a four corner contest and make the best of it. This is an old alliance, so Amit Shah needs to make sure people don’t get emotional, the alliance is broken (at least during the election period) but that their support in Delhi continues. Shah’s done it before with the Sena and pushed the Thackerays into a corner. He needs to do the same to the Badals. It is possible that the party might not make much headway, but with anger seething against the Badals, this might be a good time to test the waters and attempt an independent foray.
Recently there was an article on Firstpost about Amit Shah becoming the chief minister of Gujarat after the U.P. elections. According to the article, Anandiben would be seventy-five by then and her leadership has been a threat to BJP’s supremacy in the prime minister’s home state. Although she is no Modi, one Hardik Patel and one Panchayat election are no testament to anything. Be that as it may, U.P. 2017 will be a defining event in Shah’s political career. If the party were to be successful then who knows, Gujarat’s chief ministership might be well below his stature.
Now let’s examine the second sphere: making sure things move in Delhi, BJP ruled states and constituencies. Expect a drastic change in gear when it comes to Delhi. Shah’s been there long enough now to realise the extent of infestation of the Congress led cartel of convenience. He’s been there long enough to digest the lows that they are willing to stoop down to, to prevent this government from succeeding. He’s seen the media, people known as credible opinion makers, and even elected representatives question the government’s nationalism, spread lies about the government and obstruct progress. Recently an ED notice was shot off to NDTV and government agencies have started going after Congress’ first family with renewed vigour. (If somebody has broken the law, one cannot classify it as vendetta politics.) At the same time, the prime minister invited Sonia and her aide Manmohan for tea. It looks like the government is finally in the driver’s seat, holding a gun to the cartel’s head. They’ve reached a flashpoint now. What Shah needs to ensure is that even if they choose to go for the kill, the country’s developmental agenda isn’t stalled. It’s high time certain MPs are suspended, joint sessions are called and certain bills are passed.
For a continuous stream of electoral bounty, BJP’s talk of development will have to materialise. Shah will have to ensure that targets set by different ministries are met, schemes empowering the common man are implemented successfully by BJP MPs in their constituencies and that egos don’t come in the way of progress. So far, this is one area where the party has been quite successful. Amit Shah needs to make sure that divisive voices within the party are not heard, so as not to distract the public from the developmental narrative.
The party’s communication strategy should be completely revamped in the days to come. Shah understands the importance of communication and there is a general belief that the party might have erred on that front. The party’s erstwhile spokespeople have become ministers now and the show put up by the current lot is not worthy of a ruling party. The mainstream media is a dying entity which doesn’t wield much public influence, but what the party needs to tap into is the regional media. They are already much ahead of others on social media, but there too changes need to be made. Since it’s the biggest and fastest-growing platform, the lead needs to be maintained and the effort needs to be more coordinated. The international media too needs to be given the right picture of what’s going on in India, if not for anything else then at least so that FDI keeps flowing. Many reputable international media houses have simply paraphrased the lies that our mainstream media peddles.
The party’s long term aim, for which Amit Shah will have to make certain sacrifices, is that sustainable large scale inroads are made everywhere. Building a foundation for a pan-India ‘forty percent party’ ten to fifteen years from now is what Shah should aim for. Making inroads is probably the toughest task politically, but they have plenty to draw inspiration from. Every other week, some local body election in some part of the country is won for the first time. Every other month, some survey shows that the prime minister’s popularity remains intact. In terms of volume, the party became the biggest one in the world this year. Miracles like the one they pulled off during the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections bring a lot of hope to the party.
And for Amit Shah, the man who used to paste BJP posters on the walls of Ahmedabad once upon a time, what will be tougher than his magnificent journey to the highest echelons of power is to stick right there successfully.