Saturday, September 02, 2017

Modi-Shah duopoly in zombified BJP

The mail-fisted leadership has established its credentials through successive electoral wins

It would seem to be a paradox to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most successful, in terms of electoral victories –and yet a relatively inert party in the country. It is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party’s national president Amit Shah. When the party is in power and the two top, strong leaders seem to be steering the party to victory after election victory, it seems natural that the face of the BJP is Modi, and a little behind him, Shah. And it does not matter what the state of BJP is.
With Shah taking oath as member of Rajya Sabha from Gujarat on August 25, and taking his place in the BJP’s parliamentary party, it should be as good a time as any to look at the Modi-Shah phenomenon, as to what they have been able and what they have not been able to do for the party in the last three years.
This is the first time Shah will be entering parliament even as Modi entered the central legislature for the first time only after he became the prime minister in 2014. Shah had served as the party president for three years before he has entered parliament. The general response as to the significance of Shah becoming an MP, it is being described as a routine matter, that he has been a member of the Gujarat assembly and with the state going to polls in December this year, he would not be contesting the state election. The general sentiment seems to have been that the party president should now be a Member of Parliament, and when it turned out that Gujarat was choosing its members for Rajya Sabha, he has been included in the team. Of course, the presence of the party president in Rajya Sabha is sure to be a morale booster of sorts.
Prime Minister Modi addressing the parliamentary party meeting earlier this month warned the party MPs in Rajya Sabha that with Shah in the Upper House, it would not be possible for the members to play truant. He was angry that party members were not present while passing the Constitutional Amendment Bill setting up the National Commission for Backward Classes, and the opposition was able to press a crucial amendment before the bill was passed. This is an indirect hint that Shah will not be a passive member in the House and he would play the role of the monitor of the class, over and above the chief whip of the party in the House. It also reinforces the image of Shah as that of a disciplinarian. The BJP is a party that believes in party discipline more than in party democracy. It remains true to its roots of a right-wing party, an off-shoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Boy Scouts-cum-semi-militia-like organisation.
Surprisingly, the media have not scrutinised and commented on the state of the BJP and its leadership as it usually does with all other parties, especially the Congress. The Congress has been the butt of media ridicule and an object of unsparing criticism that it is dominated by party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president and her son Rahul Gandhi, and that the grand old party of India is a Nehru-Gandhi family firm, with no place for other leaders in the system. The woes of the party are attributed to the monopolistic power exerted by the mother-son duo. But not many in the media have even dared to comment that the success of the BJP at elections is due to the Modi-Shah duopoly, and that the two comrades from Gujarat have strengthened the party’s electoral prospects from Gujarat to Assam, from Goa to Manipur and from across the Hindi heartland. There has been no analysis of the quality of leadership provided by Modi and Shah.
The two enjoy unchallenged power at the moment in the party and in the government. Though the two leaders ascribe the party’s successes to all members of the party, especially the foot-soldiers at the booth level, it is quite evident that decision-making is completely in the hands of the two leaders. But it does seem that Shah has been successfully spotting winning candidates in the states, and he would not have been able to do this if he did not have his ear to the ground. It is a well-understood proposition that leaders take decisions all alone. A good leader does not fall back on collective decision-making. The converse of this thesis is the fact that the traditional middle-level leaders and lobbies are thrust aside and the party structure takes on a monolithic shape, with the leader at the top and the worker/follower at the base. There is not much challenge to the power structure as long as long as the party is winning elections.
The record of Modi and Shah is worth reviewing. It is generally assumed that it was Modi who had won the mandate for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The role of Shas has been limited to Uttar Pradesh in that election. He was made the ‘prabhari’ or the BJP in-charge of the state. This was no doubt done at the behest of the then prime ministerial candidate Modi. Modi was contesting the election from Varanasi, and it seemed that he wanted a trusted lieutenant there. It should be remembered that Rajnath Singh was then the president of the party. He was from Uttar Pradesh. Singh was also contesting the election from the state. The credit for the BJP winning 73 of the 80 seats from the state is given to Shah. To prove the point as it were that he was indeed the architect of the victory in 2014, Shah as national president the party led the BJP to a landslide victory in the assembly election in March, 2017. The party had won 312 out of the 425 seats in the state assembly.
Shah is very clear that his campaign strategy is based on the image of Prime Minister Modi and the success of his government’s policies at the centre. He is the political sales manager but the product he sells is the image of Modi. This strategy poses problems of its own. The party fought the assembly elections without projecting a chief ministerial candidate in the state assembly elections after the Lok Sabha victory in the summer of 2014. In Maharashtra and Haryana, it was Modi who picked up the chief ministerial candidate, Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra and Manohar Khattar in Haryana. It was not a democratic process, and the BJP had criticised this tendency whenever Congress president chose the chief ministerial candidate in similar circumstances. There is also the other significant aspect that the BJP had declared Modi its prime ministerial candidate in September 2013 much against the resistance of senior leaders in the party that the decision of naming the prime minister should be left to the parliamentary party.
The BJP under the Modi-Shah dispensation felt that there was no need to declare the chief ministerial candidate. There is speculation that Yogi Adityanatah became chief minister though Modi and Shah were not apparently enthusiastic about his candidacy for the post, and that the RSS had its way. If it is true, then it seems to be the case that there are limits to the power exerted by Modi and Shah.
Interestingly, Shah had declared in Bhopal earlier this week that Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the incumbent chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, will be the chief ministerial candidate in the assembly election due in the state later this year. It will be argued that in Maharashtra and Haryana, the choice of the chief minister had to be made afresh because the party was never in power in these two states earlier, and that where there is a chief ministerial candidate as in Madhya Pradesh, Modi and Shah would not disturb the status quo.

It has also to be noted that Modi and Shah faced defeat in the Bihar and Delhi assembly elections in 2015, and that the party did not win in Punjab, Manipur and Goa assembly elections in 2017. But with the change in the coalition status, BJP is back in power in Bihar, but as a junior partner to Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), as it was before 2013.
The Modi-Shah dispensation is likely to continue till 2019, the next Lok Sabha election. Shah completes his first two-year term as president of the party in his own right in January, 2018 – he took over from Rajnath Singh in July 2014 midway -- and the presumption is that he will get re-elected for another two-year term in January next. That is, he will be leading the party into the 2019 general election, even as Modi will remain the prime ministerial candidate party for a second term.
It is more than a matter of curiosity that two leaders from Gujarat, Modi and Shah, have taken complete control of the BJP, which has been an essentially Hindi heartland or cow-belt, force. The party rules over large swathe of Hindi heartland – Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Mahdya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana – and the whole of western India – Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa. It has also made a mark in eastern India by winning in Assam, and by forming governments in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
What is it then that marks out the Modi-Shah duo? It seems to be their hunger for victory more than anything else, and their ability to streamline the party, and stubbing out any trace of dissent within the party. The BJP-watcher cannot but notice that there is much inner democracy in the party. Modi and Shah make no secret of their distaste and intolerance for those who do not agree with them. They would argue that they are forced to be ruthless for the sake of the party, and that the BJP’s winning streak is due to the fact there are no murmurs and rumblings inside the party.
Modi arm-twisted the party in 2013 to declare his prime ministerial candidacy and in retrospect it has turned out to be the right tactic. Modi foisted Shah as party president in 2014, and he can point to the fact that his decision was right because BJP has won significant victories in the assembly elections that followed, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
It however leads to the general question: how do parties discover their leaders? Is there a democratic way of doing it? Or is it the fact that the man with the self-confidence to grab leadership is the real winner? Modi had certainly seized the opportunity. He did not wait for others to elect him the leader. The apologists of the BJP would certainly refer to the fact that the central parliamentary board (CPB) of the party unanimously chose Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, and there was nothing arbitrary about it. On the face of it, the argument holds good. But only a naïve political observer would take things at face value.
Shah’s power in the party is derived entirely and exclusively from Modi. He has not endeared himself to the party leaders. It is likely that Shah would retort that he is not in the contest for popularity ratings, and that he would prefer to fetch victories for the party instead.
What is evident is that the BJP is now marching like a Greek phalanx or a Roman legion under the elected and undeclared temporary dictatorship of Modi and Shah.

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