To his admirers, he’s the Terminator, ruthless on the Opposition and pulverising anything that stands in the way of his party’s relentless march forward. The BJP 2.0 is on a roll from the Lok Sabha elections three years ago to last week's local body polls in Delhi and Amit Shah is the man who made it happen, conceiving strategy and translating drawing board planning into execution on the ground and making optimum use of popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If the political map of India has changed significantly in the last three years and the BJP is now a force to reckon with in large tracts of India where it not long ago barely existed, the credit largely goes to Shah’s considerable organizational skills and unprecedented popularity of Narendra Modi.
From the day he took over as party president in August 2014, barely three months after Narendra Modi became the prime minister, Shah has hit the ground running with his trademark energy and a plucky can do attitude. It is his tenacity and perseverance that has seen the party earn a string of successes in Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Goa, Jharkhand, Assam, Manipur, Jammu & Kashmir (in alliance with the PDP) culminating in last month’s landslide in politically crucial Uttar Pradesh for the BJP. All this, of course, fuelled by BJP's USP, Narendra Modi and his vision for India.
Shah is now on to his next challenge, which may prove to be the toughest yet: Conquering uncharted political territories in the East in the key states of West Bengal and Odisha and then to the South to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Speaking of the BJP’s plans to expand its footprint, Shah said in an exclusive interview to Khabare, “There are over 150 Lok Sabha seats where we consider ourselves weak. These are mostly in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal.” Two days ago, he set out on a 3-month-long tour that will take him through these states, virtually kick-starting the campaign for those 150 seats at least two years before the BJP's rivals.
Shah’s strategy is simple, yet powerful as it rests heavily on the party worker at the ground level. Having started his political career as a booth agent from the Nanpur constituency in Ahmedabad, Shah knows all about the dedication and commitment of the booth level worker that lies at the core of the BJP’s strength. “He places the worker at the lowest level at the centre of his strategy in every venture be it panchayat or Parliament,” a party leader said.
This sense of involvement due to the vision and charisma of Modi that he spreads among party workers coupled with the use of modern technology including social media has seen the BJP’s membership increase from 2 crore 90 lakh to more than 11 crore at the end of a massive three year-long national level campaign. That is a 381% rise in membership. To put it in perspective, the BJP has got more members than all but eleven countries in the world have citizens. He has toured virtually every state in the country and traversed over 39,000 kilometres, during the membership drive, but is forever on the lookout for that extra mile to cover.
Kashmir is top priority now. It’s facing unprecedented troubles. Your opponents say that the government in which your party is a key partner is yet to get a grip on the problem. How do you react to such observations?
Kashmir problem hasn’t cropped up all of a sudden in the past two or three months. There is a long history and it has its roots in the way things were managed since the time of Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru. This is a legacy issue. Our government is in power now for close to three years. The leadership at the state and the Centre, as well as the security forces, are doing its best to make things smoother in the state. And believe me, there is no place for simplistic analysis. The government there is functioning on the basis of a common minimum programme. We are pursuing the politics of development. We are doing a lot to bring about lasting peace, but much of our efforts cannot be in the public domain.
Now, before we talk of wins, let’s talk about states where the BJP’s legislative presence is negligible. What are your future plans?
There are over 150 Lok Sabha seats which we consider as our weak areas and most of these seats are in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south and the eastern regions of Odisha and West Bengal. In most of the Coromandel states, large parts of which fall within the Red Corridor, or the Maoist belt, politics has become moribund with the electorate getting restive over established players. The BJP is emerging as an alternative due to the welfare schemes of Modi government and people’s trust on him. In states like Tripura where we are a single digit vote percentage party, we have emerged not only as the principal challenger to the Left but are well placed to overthrow their 25-year-old regime in next assembly election.
The BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh stunned both partymen and rivals alike. Honestly, did you expect this scale of victory?
If one assesses the UP election verdict, one can see that it was a decisive mandate against three social and political evils that have plagued the state for the past several decades — casteism, political dynasties and the politics of appeasement. These three evils inhibited growth and development of the state and the process to banish them had begun in 2014 when the people of the state overwhelmingly endorsed Narendra Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s post by giving the BJP 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats. Now, with the emphatic mandate in the assembly election, the voters of the state have reposed their faith on PM Modi and have said they will no more allow the three evils to decide the outcome of the elections. Uttar Pradesh’s electorate has voted for a transparent and responsive government which is committed to implementing the development goals of PM. And we will work hard to fulfil this expectation of the people of the state.
Do you see a change in the voting behaviour more recently, since your party is on a winning spree?
Yes, after all, people vote for performance. There is no place for laggards in politics. If you perform, you will win the election. Otherwise, you will perish. The previous government in Uttar Pradesh represented just a handful of people with vested interests. The new government will work for the poor and the disadvantaged without any bhed-bhav (discrimination).
The Opposition keeps harping on a fear factor in the state over some of the decisions of the new government. They cite the shutting down of slaughterhouses and the setting up of an anti-Romeo force.
I can’t understand why action against illegal slaughterhouses should cause fear among people. Shutters went down on these slaughterhouses because they were being run illegally. Some people, and these are not people who live in UP, describe the anti-Romeo force as a vigilante group. It is not. It is a group that is working within the police force with due processes of accountability. Its mandate is to protect the women of the state. Lakhs of girl children have had to stay out of schools because of harassment. These and other matters are promises we made in our manifesto.
We had promised uninterrupted power supply in the urban areas of UP and 18 hours of supply in rural areas. We have been acting on each of the promises made in the manifesto. The new government in Uttar Pradesh is a break from the past. It is a proactive government working for bringing things back on rails under the leadership of a hardworking chief minister. UP was in a state of disrepair. Those who are railing against the new government should go to UP and see the changes that have been brought about by the government in this short period of one month.
In the run-up to the election, there was an impression that some of the decisions taken by the Centre — such as demonetisation — would affect the BJP’s prospects. Did you think so?
Not at all. See, some people are wont to ignore signs, perhaps because they don’t want to believe what they see. The signs of a surge in favour of the BJP were there for all to see. For reasons they know best, a large section of pundits ignored the signs. Since November 2016, the BJP has been winning seats that it never won before. In the Chandigarh civic election, my party won five wards, inhabited by the lower rungs of the society that have never elected a BJP candidate. The Odisha civic election outcome was another pointer, where we swept the poorest of poor districts like Kalahandi. Our gains came from areas where the state government has failed in its duty to improve the lot of citizens. In UP, we got every seat in the backward regions of the state. What do they signify? The poor consider the BJP as their party which is committed to implementing the development goals of PM. A party that can empathise with their concerns and work for fulfilling their aspirations.
Your critics had said demonetisation wrecked the economy and impoverished people?
They can say anything, but did anyone believe them? Did anyone buy these claims? Demonetisation was the biggest assault ever against corruption and black money and people believed us. The stories of people suffering because of demonetisation were spun in newsrooms and TV studios. In any case, who doesn’t know that many of these TV channels and news outlets are no more in the news business?
BJP was considered a party of the urban middle classes. Then, what has led to this overwhelming support from the urban poor and the rural masses?
Indira Gandhi gave slogans like “garibi hatao” but never did any thing for the poor. Rajiv Gandhi accepted that only 10 paisa of 1 rupee given by the government reaches targeted beneficiaries, but never did anything to remove corruption.But PM Modi has not just made promises. He has initiated programmes and policies to fulfill those promises. By opening Jan Dhan accounts and linking them with Aadhaar, the Modi government has been working to remove these leakages in development spending. It has launched dozens of schemes to benefit the poor and the farmers. Schemes like Mudra Bank and Stand-Up India have given ample opportunities to petty traders and entrepreneurs from SC and ST communities, as well as to women, to access easy credit. It has given insurance cover to farmers. And Neem Coated Urea has ensured that farmers are not fleeced by those indulging in black marketing. Thus, our new support base has its roots in the three years of pro-poor policies of the Modi government and PM’s resolve to ensure genuine “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”.
Ujjwala has been termed as a game changer in the last election. It was indeed so. No government ever has undertaken a scheme of this nature and on this scale. In just one year, we have been able to provide gas connection to two crore poor households. No other single scheme has helped change the lives of so many poor in the country. This has liberated poor women from the scourge of smoke-filled stoves that use coal, cow-dung cakes and firewood.
The success of schemes like “Give It Up” has given additional financial muscle to the government to support Ujjwala. The “Give It Up” exercise was backed by a call from the Prime Minister to the well off sections of society to give up their LPG subsidies. And the response from them showed the faith they had in Modi’s leadership. The success of Ujjwala and the Give It Up programmes is a case study for those who want to research the impact of a credible leadership on the mainstreaming of both the poor and the rich in the integrated development process of a nation. In such a sort span of time the way PM Modi has worked for the poor and masses of this country, he has certainly emerged as the most popular leader of India since independence.
Your opponents also say that the surgical strike was meant to induce an element of jingoism to help the BJP in the election?
How can protecting the nation become jingoism? Our country’s security was being threatened by forces across the border. Our soldiers were being attacked by forces from across the border. The government ordered a precision attack targeted to protect the interests of the nation and our soldiers did what they were expected to do.
Are schemes like the Jan Dhan Yojana and the Mudra Bank major force multipliers?
These schemes have resulted in the expansion of our formal economy. By its very nature, this entails adherence to rules and linked benefits. Whether it be the push for financial inclusion by opening of Jan Dhan bank accounts or loans bankrolled by Mudra for the small and micro sector enterprises, implementation of a goods and services tax or ramping up of the digital economy, the end outcome is the expansion of the formal economy. These will simultaneously end corruption, the principal cause for the failed aspirations of the average Indian.
Can we expect more reforms from the government?
In India, reforms were carried out by stealth until our government came to power. There have been attempts on the part of the Opposition to politicise key economic decisions. But we have been successful in resisting pressure. The number of decisions taken by the Modi government is more than the reforms carried out in the past 25 years since the country embraced economic reform. We have done a lot, but a lot still remains to be done. So yes, you can expect many more reforms because a healthy economy and a wealthy government are prerequisites to raising the poor above the poverty line and doubling the income of farmers, as promised by PM Modi.
Your opponents have been virtually decimated like never before. How do you see things panning out for them after such a drubbing?
What happens to the Congress party is not my concern. It is their look out. It will depend on their leadership. All I can say is that we ready to work with a constructive Opposition.
As with Bihar, do you see the possibility of a realignment of forces, particularly since Lalu Yadav appears to be becoming a liability for chief minister Nitish Kumar?
Let’s not forget the basic facts. We did not snap ties with the JD(U) in Bihar. It was the JD(U)’s decision to leave the NDA. Similarly, we are not going to send an invitation card to the JD(U) leadership. The ruling alliance in Patna had promised good governance but the recent developments in the state cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be termed good governance.
The Opposition has been targeting the Centre and Election Commission over voting machines. There are allegations that the machines are being tampered with to favour the BJP.
These charges are as laughable as they are ridiculous. EVMs are made in factories. And the controversies surrounding the machines are made in the factories of the Lutyens’ zone. Didn’t Mayawati, Arvind Keriwal and Akhilesh Yadav win elections that used the same machines? UPA1 and UPA2 came to power through the same EVMs. It is a controversy that is restricted to a few square miles of Lutyens’ Delhi.
The Presidential election is round the corner? Have you zeroed in on a candidate?
We have not begun consultations on the Presidential election. It has yet not reached that stage. We have enough time to take a view on the issue.
The recent decision to give Constitutional status to the Backward Classes Commission is being viewed by many as a thanksgiving vote for the support extended to your party by these sections in the recent elections.
The decision of the Modi government was to replace the National Commission for Backward Classes with the National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes. The new body has Constitutional status and that is a big achievement. With this, the power to grant OBC status would shift from the Centre to Parliament, as is done with SCs and STs. This is fulfillment of the long-pending demand of providing social justice to the backward classes of our society. This step reflects the strong resolve of the Prime Minister and his government to bring equality in a society where nobody is given a raw deal because of caste or educational backwardness. Justice needs to be delivered to every citizen without any bias or prejudice. But unfortunately, even on this issue, the Congress has been playing partisan politics and trying to delay the passage of the bill. While in power, they never acted on the demand from a large section of the socially and educationally disadvantaged. Our emphasis is on fairness and justice. We are committed to our principles. We are not in the business of politics of appeasement.
But these sections backed you in the recent polls.
We don’t treat any section of the population as a vote bank. For us, the welfare of the underprivileged is a mission. We are doing just that.
Lately, many leaders from non-BJP parties have joined the BJP. Some say that the BJP is going through a process of Congress-isation?
I want to assert that the BJP will not allow any dilution in its ideology. We are firm in our political beliefs. And if leaders from other parties are willing to accept our political ideology, we will certainly welcome them to our fold.
Whom do you consider your party’s principal challenger?
Politics across the aisle is in a state of flux. I don’t think even they know the answer to this question.
Will Hardik Patel and his campaign impact the party’s performance in the coming Gujarat election?
Since 1990, we have not lost a single election in Gujarat. We have a performing government there. And we have a track record to defend. The image of the Prime Minister has helped increase our vote share in other states. In Gujarat, it will be a force multiplier. The Gujarat voter will go with the idea that the Prime Minister represents.
The Prime Minister has made call for simultaneous elections. Will this idea come true by 2019?
The Prime Minister has been arguing the need for simultaneous elections — elections from panchayat to Parliament at one go. Governance gets affected because of frequent polls. All stakeholders should give it serious thought. This is something to be decided through consensus across the board.