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Clearly, India's 2nd Most Powerful Man

September 15, 2017 08:48 IST

'For half a century, Delhi has not seen a truly powerful ruling party president.'
'The Cabinet, chief ministers, and even the heads of the most powerful departments and agencies now acknowledge where power lies, besides the prime minister's office,' says Shekhar Gupta.

BJP President Amit A Shah lights the lamp as Prime Minister Narendra D Modi  and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley look on at the inauguration of the party's national executive meeting in Bengaluru, April 8, 2015. Photograph: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

The living room of Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit A Shah's residence has minimal furnishing, much like the homes of old generation politicians.

He speaks to visitors sitting on his favourite spot on the middle sofa, with his back to the wall. The visitor notes the two framed portraits on that wall: Chanakya or Kautilya to the left and Veer Savarkar to the right.

Those two deities determine his politics -- Kautilya for political craft, and Savarkar for his ideology of Hindutva nationalism.

Shah could, however, add a third portrait to that wall, ideally in the space between Kautilya and Savarkar.

It would be a pucca Congressman, because while his political and State power and philosophical impulse come from the two already there, his political style and authority over his own party hark back to the heyday of the late Congress president K Kamaraj (1963 to 1967).

Not since Kamaraj had Cabinet ministers trooped into the ruling party president's office, to read their own report cards, or offering to resign to devote time to party work.

The drama played out soon before the reshuffle of the Union council of ministers.

Not since Kamaraj in his first reign, 1963 to 1967, has a full-time ruling party president wielded such power.

For clarity, we are talking only of full-time party presidents, as distinct from Congress prime ministers who were also party president or a party president who had an 'appointed' prime minister with limited powers.

Other full-time ruling party presidents, Dev Kanta Barooah, Chandra Shekhar (Janata), and those who held the same position in the BJP during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's prime ministerial years had limited powers and, therefore, do not make the cut.

Shah's power is more unique because Prime Minister Narendra D Modi doesn't owe his rise to him.

It is the other way around.

Shah was Modi's personal choice as party chief in 2014.

You can search hard, with the highest degree of suspicion as medical pathologists like to say, but it isn't possible to find an issue on which he may have worked at cross-purposes with Modi.

Nor is there evidence yet of his having been over-ruled or a decision thrust on him.

'Just what were they smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, when they did so?' I had asked in a July 13, 2013 column when the BJP put him in charge of its Uttar Pradesh campaign in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

For sure, I was proved wrong because he delivered 73 seats (including two with allies) out of UP's 80.

The reason, in retrospect, was an assumption I made erroneously: It is that the BJP once again wanted to build an National Democratic Alliance government in the image of the one of Vajpayee, and that the party's approach would be inclusive, soft Hindutva without upsetting the centrist status quo.

If that belief was true, the conclusion about Shah being a bad choice for UP was going to be correct.

As politics unfolded, I was proved to have been unwise in making that assumption. Subsequent politics has further underlined how wrong that assumption was.

Far from building one more government in Vajpayee's image, the Modi-Shah view was to build a 'genuine' and unapologetic BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh government.

There was also an understanding that Vajpayee's government was hardly a BJP government because a large number of key ministries were with non-RSS people.

This is true for ministries given not just to allies like George Fernandes who had the defence portfolio, but also for Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Arun Shourie and others who were not ideological natives of the RSS and the BJP.

That government is now seen to have been true neither to ideology nor to the party. The current dispensation belongs to the other end.

Where the party doesn't have the talent for a job with the requisite ideological purity, it is no longer willing to explore outside to find it.

The party would rather give power only to the absolutely pure, or those who have paid their dues through the decades.

This approach has been driven unforgivingly by Shah.

This BJP/NDA government, in that sense, is completely different from the earlier one.

That the BJP now has a majority of its own makes a difference, but you can be quite sure if L K Advani or any of the other older BJP leaders Delhi is familiar with had been given this majority, he would not have built a government with such uncluttered ideological commitment.

Modi underlined this with his choice of RSS pracharaks and a young faithful as the chief ministers of Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra, though they were political lightweights.

Shah then moved in with his own choices -- Vijay Rupani as Gujarat chief minister, Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, and Ram Nath Kovind as President of India.

These were not in defiance of the prime minister, but it is just that the initial choice was made by Shah who kept each secret from the party.

On Gandhi Jayanti in 1963, Kamaraj created a political upheaval by resigning as Tamil Nadu chief minister to rededicate himself to party work.

Following him, six Cabinet ministers and five other chief ministers also resigned. It saw heads like Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram roll.

His was a brutal internal clean-up and was called the Kamaraj Plan though he wasn't Congress president then.

It has faded from memory now, but it was for long a purge of Stalinist dimensions, though bloodless and 'voluntary'.

It kept political cartoonists and satirists busy for a long time.

Jawaharlal Nehru, then in decline, was so impressed (and possibly insecure) that he asked that Kamaraj be made party president.

He remained in his element after Nehru's death, ensuring the swearing-in of Lal Bahadur Shastri first and Indira Gandhi next as prime minister, destroying the ambitions of the well-entrenched Morarji Desai.

During these years, 1963 to 1967, the most powerful Congressmen chased him for favours and his fabled reply 'paakalam' (let's see) in Tamil joined India's political dictionary.

We don't yet know if Shah has such a favourite line, but the rest of the Kamaraj playbook is all there.

Ministers line up before him, but not the prime minister, who has given him this power.

And he would persuade them to 'volunteer' resignations to rededicate themselves to party work.

They will all come out smiling, claiming to be loyal party workers with no other expectations even as their hearts bleed.

They work on the presumption that the Modi-Shah leadership will continue till 2024 and have more clout as time passes.

They would keep hoping that Shah takes notice of their party work and brings them back at some point.

For half a century, Delhi has not seen a truly powerful ruling party president. It is taking its time, making adjustments.

Shah has made other significant changes.

The BJP's parliamentary party meeting now takes place in the party office, and the prime minister goes there to attend it. This changes the long established practice of holding these meetings in the prime minister's house for his convenience.

The Cabinet, chief ministers, and even the heads of the most powerful departments and agencies now acknowledge where power lies, besides the prime minister's office. They are making adjustments accordingly.

This reshuffle will further reaffirm this new normal.

By Special Arrangement with ThePrint

IMAGE: BJP President Amit A Shah lights the lamp as Prime Minister Narendra D Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley look on at the inauguration of the party's national executive meeting in Bengaluru, April 8, 2015. Photograph: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Shekhar Gupta
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