After the last vote was cast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked into BJP’s national headquarters in Delhi with party chief Amit Shah. For the first time though, Shah was not walking a step behind Modi. He walked alongside.
Media did not notice it because it was too preoccupied with what it perceived was the first press conference of Modi since assuming Prime Minister’s office in 2014. Modi shared the stage with Shah but didn’t answer a single question. Instead, he took a back seat and let Shah do all the talking. That was the first indication of primacy being bestowed on Shah over all leaders.
Very few attached any importance to the act then. Not even when Shah was sworn in as Union cabinet minister on May 30 at number three - ahead of Nitin Gadkari but after Rajnath Singh. But merely 12 hours later, Shah - handed over the all important Home ministry - had replaced Rajnath as number two in the scheme of things.
It became clearer a couple of days later, when Shah convened a meeting with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman, Railway and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Petroleum and Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant.
No Union Minister in the past had been authorised to chair such inter-ministerial meetings. Not even Deputy Prime Ministers like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram or even BJP’s own Lal Krishna Advani. Not even when then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had started showing signs of Alzheimer’s - forgetting names of his close colleagues like Jaswant Singh and Syed Shahnawaz Hussain or dozing off in the middle of an official meeting.
And here was a first time Union Minister having almost the entire Cabinet at his beck and call. Shah’s new role has been defined by Modi: a well written script of his succession. The first step is clear - empowering Shah in the Cabinet to run the show in his absence.
An indication of his role in chairing high-level discussions was his meeting with senior Cabinet colleagues for discussions involving India’s strategic options in Africa with specific focus on Mozambique whose President had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day earlier
The Spite and The Sulk
Then came the constitution of eight Cabinet Committees - on Economic Affairs, Political Affairs, Parliamentary Affairs, Appointments, Investment, etc. These Committees are constituted by the Prime Minister for his aid and advice on important matters. Lo and behold, Amit Shah figured prominently on all eight Committees while Rajnath found place on only two panels and Gadkari on four. In contrast, Seetharaman was in seven committees - she was left out of ACC (Cabinet Committee on Appointments) which had only two members - Modi and Shah.
In fact, the ACC in the past used to be a single-member committee involving only the PM. He used to take decisions on senior bureaucratic appointments - joint secretaries and above - in Union Government on aid and advice of his colleagues in the PMO. Shah’s induction in the exalted panel was another indicator of his zooming growth curve. Henceforth, no senior officer can be appointed without Shah’s approval.
Of course, Shah’s meteoric rise hasn’t been palatable to a lot of people, especially seniors like Gadkari and Rajnath. Gadkari was so upset with his portfolio that he lost his sleep that night. Rajnath went into a sulk after he was left out of important Cabinet Committees. He is learnt to have rushed to the RSS top brass offering his resignation if his pride was not restored. He was member of six of these Committees in the last government and the status quo was finally restored on the intervention of RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi.
Then came Shah’s discussion with Jammu & Kashmir Governor Satpal Malik on delimitation of Assembly constituencies in his state. The Constitution provides initiation of delimitation exercise every 10 years on the basis of changes in population of the constituency. But, delimitation of parliamentary boundaries was frozen through a Constitutional amendment till 2001 and then through another amendment in 2006 till 2026.
However, there is no such restriction on delimitation of Assembly constituencies. That is why Shah wanted the delimitation exercise in J&K to be completed before the Assembly elections due later this year. He knows fully well that BJP can never form the government there as the Valley has 47 seats, Jammu 36 and Ladakh a meagre four seats in the Assembly. So, whoever wins the Valley forms the government.
BJP, having negligible support in the Valley, has no hope in the state till the equation is altered through delimitation. The fact is Jammu has a bigger area and a higher population than the Kashmir Valley. Since the Constitution also provides that overall number of seats in a state legislature will remain the same and can’t be altered, delimitation is bound to reduce the number of seats in the Valley while increasing the number significantly in Jammu.
It was a clever move indeed but had to be shelved following widespread protests in the Valley. It, however, amply demonstrated Shah’s agenda in the Home Ministry. He wants to isolate separatist elements from the mainstream. Over 200 have already been put behind bars on various charges including waging war against the the state or for funding terrorists. These include well-known names like Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah, Asiya Andrabi and Masarat Alam. Shah has also cracked down on Jammu and Kashmir Bank, getting several senior officials including the chairman arrested, again on charges of terror funding. The message is clear - the Government will now talk only with pro-India forces in the Valley. How long this policy will continue and what will be its short-term and long-term impact on the Valley’s socio-political life remains in the realm of conjecture.
The abrogation of Article 35A and Article 370 of the Constitution top the list of priorities in J&K. Then comes preparation of the National Citizenship Register (NRC) to identify and flush out illegal immigrants, and the passage of the Citizenship Bill in both Houses of Parliament granting Indian citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis - the minorities in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have sneaked into India after being persecuted there.Promulgation of a Uniform Civil Code and construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya are also high on his agenda.
None of these is easy. Especially since BJP or for that matter even NDA, doesn’t have a majority in the Rajya Sabha yet - required for passage of a bill in the Parliament. Nor can it hope to have it at least till the latter part of 2020. The RSS, on the other hand is not too pleased with Shah being given so much importance. The RSS believes in collective leadership, not individualistic dominance. It was not too happy with Modi’s solo run for the past five years and now it has to contend with an even more dominant person like Shah.
Clout Beyond Home
His dominance in the government was on display in the meeting with the likes of Seetharaman, Jaishankar and Goyal in the Home Minister’s office. It was seen to underline the fact that he would be coordinating both political and policy matters. The discussions on Mozambique come in the wake of India’s bid to diversify its energy options and keep an eye on China’s footprint in Africa.
The meeting coincided with presidents of Mozambique and Zimbabwe calling on the PM to congratulate him on his electoral victory. The discussions in the Home ministry were seen to have been prompted by the Prime Minister’s conversation with them.
The meeting examined ways to enhance economic engagement in face of deepening Chinese inroads through investments in infrastructure.
It also took stock of India’s state-run oil companies ONGC, BPCL and Oil India having together invested $6.5 billion in the Mozambique offshore gas block Rovuma Area 1, where development work is going on. Area-1 represents one of the largest natural gas discoveries in offshore East Africa and has the potential to become one of the world’s largest LNG producing hubs. Indian Railways is also looking at markets for Train 18, the indigenous semi-high-speed train. Africa is seen as a highly prospective market for the cost-effective train. These issues were never in the domain of a Union Home Minister. Thus, it was clear that Shah’s area of influence extends beyond the BJP and the Home Ministry.
Since Shah continues as BJP’s national president as well, it puts an additional burden on him. He is unlikely to abdicate the party responsibilities anytime soon, with elections in important states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand slated for later this year.
He has been juggling both jobs well. On Sunday for example, he convened a meeting of senior leaders of election-bound states, outlying the campaign strategy and a roadmap of party programmes to be undertaken in a time-bound manner till the elections. He clearly pointed out that Jats had not voted for the BJP in Haryana and chided Jat leaders like Captain Abhimanyu for their lax approach. Similarly, he also pointed out reasons why the BJP lost a couple of seats in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. In two of these three states, BJP’s principal opposition party is the Congress. If it humbles the GOP this time as well, the party might plunge into deeper crisis.
It’s a tough task juggling two jobs and both equally important ones. While one is bound to cement his stranglehold over the party organisation and resist the RSS’s attempts to recapture the party, the other is expected to put him in an exalted space as the sole successor of Narendra Modi.
The two leaders have been together for past 30-35 years, in thick and thin. Modi trusts him implicitly and Shah obeys his boss dutifully. From Godhra train burning incident and communal conflagration in its aftermath, fake encounters of the likes of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Tulsi Prajapati, Qausar Bi, Ishrat Jahan; to even snooping on a young woman architect, Shah as Home Minister of Gujarat, stood by Modi like a rock.
He was even exiled from Gujarat for two years by the Supreme court which apprehended that Shah might influence the witnesses. But he took all these setbacks in his stride, built a strong team and ensured Modi’s ascendance to power in Delhi. He again slogged behind the scenes for five years, fought against all odds and ensured a second turn for Modi. The PM too is paying him back now by bestowing all the powers at his command to Shah.
Shah has been waiting in the wings for the past 20 years. When Modi had been exiled, Shah used to be his eyes and ears in Gujarat. Now Modi seems focussed on bigger things in governance - a mega picture, so to say, leaving the micro-management of party and the government to Shah.
Narendra Modi loathes anybody touching his feet. But Shah has been an exception. Be it in public place or in private, every time Shah meets Modi, he bows down before him and touches his feet. The world will be keenly watching whether the charade continues for five more years and beyond or will the wily Chhota Bhai pull the rug from under the feet of Mota Bhai (elder brother).