Up in the air playing with numbers in the privacy of a chartered flight or among the swelling legion of followers on the ground, Amit Shah has only one mission in life: Modi in power. On the campaign trail with the tireless BJP president
MUJHE ELECTION LADNE MEIN MAZAA AATA hai (I derive great joy in fighting elections),” Amit Shah announces in a deadpan manner as he leaves his 11 Akbar Road residence in Lutyens’ Delhi. The BJP president isn’t talking only about the elections he has steered at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, but also about the 28 elections he has fought so far individually. Since 1989, he has contested many of them—the Gujarat state Assembly and various local bodies in the western state—and has lost none.
On the short drive to Terminal 1 of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, he is invariably busy chatting on the phone. Each call barely lasts a minute as though he is just reminding someone what to do or listening to updates. Familiarity with people on the other side is inescapable. Sometimes these calls are merely nods of approval or knowing murmurs. He is on the phone even as he walks into his chartered flight, a 12-seater Falcon 2000, and the people he speaks to include party leaders, war-room strategists, call-centre nerds at 11 Ashoka Road and constituency managers at Gandhinagar from where he is contesting his 29th direct election. Many of the callers are famous names. Most often he throws instructions and pauses to listen and then offers advice that is either solution to a problem or a new idea. Shah is calm and composed as he multitasks on the phone and leafs through sheets of papers provided by the number-crunching expert accompanying him. He wields his pen with the light dexterity of a surgeon using his scalpel. He continues to talk on the phone as the aircraft stands on the tarmac awaiting the green signal for take-off. Seated tight, Shah chats with a few noted heads of religious NGOs and other cultural institutions before finally putting his phone on airplane mode as the jet cruises towards the sky.
Unlike other politicians, Shah hardly has any hangers-on inside the flight. He seems to abhor the idea. Besides the crew, my colleague Rohit Chawla and I, there are only his personal assistant and the number cruncher. Once the plane is airborne, he turns towards the numbers expert. He wants an estimate of the expected margin of victory in Gandhinagar. The young man mumbles something inaudible. Shah insists that the target has to be higher; the number he heard isn’t impressive enough. After a brief chat, he tells the youngster to alight at Madurai and return to Delhi via Ahmedabad the same night. And then Shah turns to us and says, “Thanks to Modiji’s leadership, the BJP will return to power far more emphatically than last time.”
Breakfast is served, a medley of upma and other vegetarian dishes. He continues to talk through the meal, announcing that the BJP will henceforth spend very less on advertisements because already (as on April 2nd) Prime Minister Narendra Modi has “got 113 hours of TV time this election season”, while Shah has clocked 40 hours. He says the party got the rights for NaMo TV for a mere Rs 1.50 because a slot had been lying vacant and they chose to pick it up. He keeps referring to Modi and his sway over the masses as the flight heads on its journey to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The BJP has tied up with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to gain a foothold in the southern state where non- Dravidian parties have till recently only had a marginal presence.
Modi and Shah have been associated with each other for a little under four decades. Shah, 54, was born to a wealthy family from Mehsana where he finished his schooling before moving to Ahmedabad to study biochemistry. As a young Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist, he met Modi for the first time in 1982 when the latter was a pracharak in charge of youth activities in Ahmedabad’s Mahanagar area. In an earlier interview, Shah had told me they had been so close that when the late RSS Sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras asked Modi to join the BJP, the young Shah was one of the few with whom he shared his apprehensions. “[Modi] was initially reluctant,” Shah had said. “‘He was worried how a square peg would fit into a round hole.”
The friendship only deepened over time, and when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, Shah was destined to grow in stature as a politician, party organiser and minister. At one point, in Modi’s Gujarat Cabinet, Shah handled 12 crucial portfolios, including home, parliamentary affairs, home guards, excise, law and justice, and transport. It was Modi’s faith in Shah that made him hand over the coveted home portfolio that chief ministers usually handle directly.
A few hours—of conversation and laughs—later, the aircraft touches down in Madurai’s scorching heat. Shah says something he would elaborate on subsequently, “After the 2014 win, we decided to change tactics in a big way as we couldn’t squander away this opportunity like we had done on many occasions in the past.”
At the tarmac, there is a warm reception by key local partymen. Shah walks swiftly to board a helicopter to fly off to a BJP rally in Thoothukudi constituency where state party chief Tamilisai Soundararajan is taking on DMK’s Kanimozhi, daughter of the late chief minister and iconic politician M Karunanidhi. BJP leaders here say this election offered them an opportunity to create a base in this coastal seat.
Shah, speaking at the rally, raises issues that have been typical to the BJP in this election: nationalism and national security. He speaks highly of Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot captured and later released by Pakistan following a diplomatic blitz by India. He dwells a bit on the Indian aerial strikes in Balakot inside Pakistan. He also lashes out at the DMK for corruption that, he says, had become the hallmark of their politics.
By the time we are back at the Madurai airport, ready to head to Coimbatore for another rally, it is 5pm. A late lunch is served. Shah, nibbling on a sandwich and coffee, gets back to the subject we had left behind: the BJP’s game plan as soon as it came to power, winning an absolute majority five years ago under the leadership of Modi. Within months of the resounding victory, Shah was deputed by Modi to present a ‘growth’ plan for the party before the RSS brass in Nagpur. Modi and Shah were of the view that the movement could not sustain its electoral prowess despite having made breakthroughs four times in the past. This time, with the Congress meltdown, the BJP could not afford to let go of its advantage. It had to expand aggressively.
One of the earlier occasions when the movement couldn’t buttress its growth was when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the predecessor to the BJP, aligned with the likes of socialist Ram Manohar Lohia in the 1960s as an anti-Congress formation. The BJS’ best performance was in 1967 when the Congress, for the first time, showed signs of a decline, and they won 35 seats to the fourth Lok Sabha. The BJS was formed in 1951 and lasted until 1977 when it merged with the Janata Party. The BJP was created in 1980 after the 1977 grand coalition experiment of anti-Congress opposition forces failed within a few years.
The second major opportunity came in 1977 after non- Congress governments came to power in several states across India and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi lost power at the Centre in the post-Emergency elections. But the political momentum, according to current BJP leaders, was lost within years after the BJS-Janata Party merger. It was the first non-Congress Central dispensation but would soon find itself in a major crisis over dual membership—some leaders were RSS members and still part of the Janata Party, which comprised socialists, Hindutva leaders and other assorted parties. This issue snowballed and resulted in the fall of the Janata Government. The Congress under Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. Years later, Hindutva forces showed signs of a revival thanks to the Ram temple movement but couldn’t immediately emerge as an electoral alternative to the Congress. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government of 1998-2004 was the fourth opportunity whose great hopes were dashed in the 2004 elections.
RETURNING TO POWER AFTER 10 YEARS, THE BJP under Modi decided that it would go for inorganic growth and cast its net wider to become the pre-eminent and lasting electoral entity in the country. The Congress was languishing at its lowest ever tally of 44 seats and the party’s time had come, they decided. The pitch before the RSS leadership was that the BJP would work towards fostering cultural nationalism and grow through enlisting the support of leaders from the non- saffron fold in as many states as possible. There was resistance from some who felt that such a move would dilute the identity of the organisation. But RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat agreed to it, giving the BJP leadership permission to forge ahead with the new game plan. Shah was by then named BJP’s new president and the party started off on its fresh path in full swing. It launched a massive membership drive and an all-India campaign that saw leaders from other parties shifting their allegiance to the BJP. A massive jump in membership followed and the party expanded its footprint to areas where they had had only a negligible presence before, especially in the east and the Northeast where the RSS had already begun activities long ago.
At 5.45 pm the flight lands in Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu by population. Shah addresses a large rally and asks rhetorical questions on national security. He asks whether India should have remained quiet after the Pulwama attack, and receives a loud ‘No’ from the cheering crowds. Shah is on the phone whenever he gets an opportunity to make and receive calls. It takes a while before the flight heads to Bengaluru where a massive roadshow is planned.
Shah has steered many election campaigns successfully following the 2014 win. But his biggest test was during the election five years ago when he was tasked with winning Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial state in the country that elects 80 Lok Sabha members. He worked for almost a year in UP before drawing up a list of candidates who could hold their own against tough rivals in the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, as well as a few from the Congress. Of the 282 seats BJP won in the Lok Sabha, 71 came from Uttar Pradesh alone.
In Bengaluru, Shah draws a huge crowd of party workers as he is taken on a truck through a two-km stretch in which senior leaders, including former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, accompany him. His roadshow was delayed and it is getting late, but he still decides to hold a meeting with party leaders at the HAL airport from where his flight takes off for Delhi. “I like people who act instinctively, take quick decisions and don’t sleep over it and wait too long for instructions. I like people who dare and act,” he tells us. Contrary to popular perception, he makes friends across party lines easily and knows a great deal about families of politicians from several parties. His friends are from various walks of life and some of the calls he receives, while we are on the flight, congratulate him on his candidature. BJP leaders have told me earlier that Shah keeps an eye out for young promising politicians from other parties. “He spots talent and if an opportunity arises, these young people could one day be part of his team. He keeps all his options open, like a quintessential politician,” says a BJP leader.
Shah says that the Modi wave in UP this time is much stronger than what it was in 2014. “There is an upsurge in favour of Modi. Let’s not forget that the last time he was a chief minister when he contested the polls. This time he is the prime minister,” he says. Shah was among those who had backed the idea—long before the 2014 polls—of pitching Modi from the temple-city of Varanasi as a strategy to make major inroads across the state, especially in the eastern belt of Poorvanchal, where the party had been weak. Shah went on to lead, under Modi’s watch, his party to electoral gains in several states including Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam and Tripura, alongside Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
In Uttar Pradesh this time, the BJP is far ahead on the campaign front. It has already organised a series of mega rallies while others are lagging behind. About the grand coalition of the BSP and SP, Shah tells me, “Remember, elections are not about caste arithmetic alone. Modi has the power to break through barriers of caste, geography and class.”
Shah, as inscrutable as Modi, has over the past five years earned a reputation as a tough taskmaster. He is building a new team of leaders by replacing the old guard, a policy visible in the selection of candidates too, he insists.
He says the night is still young for him as we land in Delhi at 1.15 am. He has people waiting at his home for discussion on campaign literature. Shah admits that he needs very few hours of sleep. “That’s because I sleep very well,” he says. Very early in life, he trained himself to slip into deep sleep as soon as he hit the bed. “Most people take time before they start sleeping well. Through training, you can fall into deep sleep in no time,” he says. He is an all-consuming workaholic, his free time being spent reading the Gita, Chanakya, Vivekananda and Gandhi. A family man, Shah is also into astrology and memorising and chanting shlokas. A diabetic, he practices yoga to keep himself fit.
By the time he goes to bed, it is 3 am. He has to be at the airport at 9 am the next morning for another day of gruelling campaigning. Shah looks as rested as he was last morning. In fact, he had not slept for even a second on the long flight. “I am never tired,” he says with a smile.