The Sangh parivar is more comfortable with the Namo-Amit Shah combine compared to the tension-filled Vajpayee-Advani reign.
By Vishwas Kumar
It is the beginning of a new era in the NDA-BJP-RSS triumvirate. The dawning of this fresh age was beautifully captured during the recent anointment of Amit Shah, Narendra Modi’s right hand man, who is out on bail on charges of “encounter killings” in Gujarat, as the BJP’s new president. Most viewers saw the image of a desolate, sidelined and embittered Lal Krishna Advani, the man who could never be king. His head was down; he didn’t look at Shah. It was the image of a politician who had been vanquished.
The earlier epoch (1990-2004), lorded over by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-Advani old-guard combine, officially ended on that day, although their decline had started with NDA’s humiliating electoral loss in 2004. Ten years later, the senior pair is out, the younger Modi-Shah partnership is in.
There are many similarities and differences between the two pairs. It is not only about the individuals involved, but the relationships between the government and party, party and RSS, and RSS and government. And, all the four politicians are closely aligned with the RSS.
During the NDA’s previous rules, Vajpayee focused more on governance, or government, while Advani was involved in rejuvenating and energizing the party. Thus, there was an attempt to balance the demands of the government, BJP and RSS.
Similar is the situation in case of Modi and Shah, wherein Shah will focus on the party, and become the main bridge between the BJP and RSS. The recent induction of Ram Madhav, the RSS pracharak-turned-Modi loyalist, into the BJP, most possibly as a general secretary, signals that he will be another crucial link between Modi (government), Shah (BJP) and the RSS.
However, the similarities end there. Modi and Shah share an amazing personal and political relationship. They met during their RSS days in the 1980s; this led to a 12-year partnership in Gujarat between 2002 and 2014. While Modi was the state’s chief minister, Shah was his most important loyalist as the home minister, comfortable to remain in his leader’s shadow.
Modi had the charisma and vision in Shah’s scheme of things. Shah’s job was to translate the chief minister’s dreams into reality; he was the organizer and implementer, who achieved Modi’s objectives without questioning the motives.
The success of the “Gujarat model” can be traced to both Modi and Shah. The chief minister envisioned it; his home minister enforced it. Shah created the “right” environment to ensure that the model worked and yielded results. The same will happen at the center. Modi will set the agenda for a new India—a 2020 blueprint—and Shah will make it happen.
The Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandhi was similar, but not the same. Before the BJP-led NDA came to power for the first time—for 13 days in 1996—the duo was in perfect sync. Vajpayee was the political leader, Advani was the political organizer. Vajpayee was the astute schemer, Advani was the intellectual. Vajpayee was the liberal face, Advani was moulded in the Hindutva image. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that Advani mooted Vajpayee’s name as the prime minister. (The RSS was unhappy with the move, as its candidate was Advani.) Equations between the two leaders, however, changed dramatically for the worse once the NDA came to power for 13 months in 1998, and for a full term in 1999.
Although Advani wanted Vajpayee to be the prime minister, he felt that their stature was the same. One wasn’t more equal than the other, merely because of the post. Therefore, egos came into play, unlike Modi-Shah combine, where Shah will always remain the number two.
Second, Vajpayee bent backwards in a bid to prove that he was a liberal who could work with various political and ideological groups. Vajpayee had regular altercations with Advani and the RSS. While the RSS respected the prime minister, it could not depend on him to deliver on Hindutva objectives, like the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
Finally, Advani continued to harbor a dream to become the prime minister and remained wary and jealous of Vajpayee.
Two events in the last NDA tenure highlighted these varying and layered tensions. In the 2000s, Vajpayee was reluctant, and had to be forced, to defend his three ministers, including Advani, whose names had cropped up in the Babri Masjid demolition case. After the NDA’s 2004 loss, Advani and the RSS were shocked when Vajpayee said that the 2002 Gujarat riots was one of the factors responsible for the electoral debacle.
Given these nuanced, but critical, differences, the Modi-Shah combine is likely to work in a more conducive manner than the Vajpayee-Advani one. The former is likely to yield more political and governance dividends to the NDA (government), BJP and RSS.
However, it will depend on several factors. One of the determinants will be how quickly Modi can evolve as the “good cop”, even as Shah remains the “bad cop”. This is crucial to appease vast sections of the voters, BJP as well as RSS.
If Modi can emerge as a global leader, who provides good governance, futuristic policies, efficient development and corruption-free regime, his stock among voters and investors will shoot up further. This has begun to happen, as was evident from Modi’s electoral campaign and his first two months as the prime minister. During his canvassing, as he wooed voters, one didn’t witness the now familiar strident, belligerent body language and harsh words against the minorities and anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
After he became the prime minister, Modi appeared to be gentle and polite; he didn’t aggressively go after his political adversaries, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. His initiatives to push the bureaucracy to deliver results made him the talking point among urban Indians. His foreign policy moves—focussing on SAARC, BRICS and powerful nations, such as Japan, China and the US—sent the right signals. Budget 2014 fell quite short of expectations, but gladdened the hearts of investors.
In contrast, Shah’s image has remained controversial—from his Gujarat days to becoming the BJP president. He has emerged as a near-perfect Hindutva hardliner. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, when he was appointed the home minister, Shah was asked to pursue a two-pronged socio-politico-religious strategy.
Shah had to ensure there were no other riots in Gujarat, for that would have certainly finished Modi’s political career. But he also had to simultaneously and covertly continue with Modi’s majoritarianism.
The solution, some critical analysts opine, lay in a series of “encounters”, which were allegedly aimed against the Muslims. The state has vigorously opposed this allegation, maintaining that these were “real” pre-emptive operations based on solid intelligence against militants conspiring to kill Modi.
The fact remains that Shah, who has steadfastly maintained that the encounter bogey was a political conspiracy against him, was arrested in one of the cases, and given bail. Despite criticism from NGOs and human rights activists, the strategy worked. Modi romped home with two assembly wins, in 2007 and 2012, with huge majorities.
Shah was accused of playing a “polarizing” role in the 2014 general elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh. The party used the Muzaffarnagar riots in the state to consolidate Hindu votes; Shah was banned from campaigning, and then allowed to do so, by the Election Commission. One of his speeches urged voters to reject Muslim candidates, as Muslims in the area had raped, killed and humiliated Hindus. Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan dubbed him “Gunda Number 1”.
Yet again, the plan worked; BJP won 73 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Party insiders admit that the so-called polarization energized workers, made the RSS happy, and united the Hindus to support the BJP.
As the party president now, Shah has to achieve the same results in the forthcoming assembly elections. The reason: while the BJP has an absolute majority—and the NDA has near-two thirds—in the Lok Sabha, it is nowhere in the picture in the Rajya Sabha. At present, the NDA has 65 of the 245 seats in the Upper House.
Victories in the coming assembly elections will enable the BJP (and the NDA) to increase its numbers in the Rajya Sabha over the next two to three years. This will also help the BJP to pursue its social, economic and political agenda by pushing through important legislation in parliament.
Most importantly, this is the best way to appease the hardline factions within the RSS. Already, the induction of Ram Madhav, asenior RSS pracharak, in the BJP is being seen as the move in the right direction.
The RSS was discontented with Vajpayee’s liberal face. It had issues with Advani for his failure to stand up to Vajpayee; it never forgave Advani for failing it repeatedly. It has no such qualms about either Modi or Shah, as they have decided to involve the ideological wing in all crucial decisions of the government. According to news reports, RSS has also adopted a practical and pragmatic approach towards both the party and government. Modi welcomed and encouraged the RSS to present its version of the country’s vision. But the PM has the final say. RSS is happy if 5 out of its 10 recommendations are implemented. As a close and long-standing BJP watcher says: “RSS has now entered the party and government.”
The working of the NDA-BJP-RSS triumvirate has excited individuals within the BJP and the RSS. After Shah’s appointment as president, Dr Harsh Vardhan, central health minister with strong RSS links, tweeted: “Lets ring in a new India. With Modiji on Raisina Hill and Amitji Shah in Ashoka Road (party’s headquarters) BJP will be irrepressible. Greatest combine in politics.” Tarun Vijay, current Rajya Sabha MP, tweeted that Shah was “a man of the organization. Inspired with Sangh values. His dynamism & straight-forwardness won us UP. Great times ahead for BJP.”
But do “achche din” for BJP translate into good days for India too?