Modi/Shah: Testing The Mind-Muscle Combo

By R K Misra

Pregnant pauses petrify. The best seems over from close and the worst worries from a distance. The deadly duo-Narendra Modi and Amit Shah- who delivered India firmly into saffron hands through the 2014 general poll mandate, find themselves in precisely such a predicament today. The Delhi drubbing signals the end of the honeymoon while the looming Bihar battle no longer augers well. Is this the end of the joyride or the beginning of disillusionment? Let’s analyse.

If criminal domination turned politics into a trip through a sewer in a glass bottomed boat, the art of elections sequenced into a systematic organization of unabashed idolatry has carried the day in the 2014 general elections early this year. A turning point in independent India’s chequered history, these polls binned the Congress and brought a clear majority BJP government headed by Narendra Modi to power at the Centre for the first time. “India is not Gujarat”, said the Congress before the polls feigning optimism. “It is”, proved the former Gujarat chief minister who barnstormed the country, enlarging the prints of a strategy perfected in the western state over a decade and a quarter to build a brand and bag India in the bargain.

Divide to split, rise to conquer, stoop to prevail, is how it goes. Ten months into governance, the prime minister’s office now calls the shots, with Modi presiding over a cabinet of pygmies. 

The entire top brass of the cadre-based party from LK Advani down stand inconsequential. 

As in Gujarat, so in Delhi, Modi is in complete command. It would often be said of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s government, post the 1971 victory over Pakistan that she was the only man in the cabinet. In terms of sheer command and control, Modi is a step ahead for he is the government and he is the party and much more. Their ego and aspirations suborned many within the confines of the party, murmur unhappily. None dare speak as the Modi juggernaut rolled, pushed by man Friday–turned party president, Amit Shah, annexing state after state while a sycophantic media applauded from the sidelines, sheepishly seeking to atone for its ‘sins’ of the past. Rajasthan, Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir are in the bag while Shah works assiduously to put in place a strategy for Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh before casting covetous looks down South in furtherance of Modi’s dream of a saffronised India under his branded umbrella.

Or so was the plan.

The excessive saline in this saccharine laced story has come from Delhi where the party was reduced to a paltry, to a number allowed to ride in an auto-rickshaw. Good of three in a 70-member House with the underdog AAP picking up 67 seats. A resounding electoral slap it was to the Modi-Shah brand of arrogantly aggressive politics. Modi had, in fact, himself articulated such an audio-visual ad campaign in the 2012 Assembly elections in Gujarat while charging the UPA led Centre with injustice against the state. The stunning blow to a man long used to basking in a long line of victories – three Assembly polls in Gujarat, then the general elections followed by the states. A saffron bath seemed on the anvil and then …it soured. The magical duo failed to deliver a cakewalk.

The proud possessor of a razor sharp intellect which can oscillate between deeply devious to adroitly appreciative, Modi chooses close aides with care and puts them through the wringer before he upgrades them to a position of confidence. He has softness for self-effacing, hardworking, unquestioningly loyal individuals. Amit Shah easily falls in this category. He is his closest confidante, the other being chief minister Anandiben Patel who replaced him after he became the prime minister. Both, Shah and Patel who were at loggerheads with each other, have been amply rewarded. Both were groomed by Modi for different roles. 

While Shah remained, like Modi himself, essentially an outdoor man involved in the hurly-burly of hardcore politics, intrigue et al, heading his dirty tricks department, Patel was more into state level governance and allied matters. There was not an iota of doubt ever about her succeeding Modi as the chief minister. Shah owes his presidentship of the BJP to the confidence of the PM he enjoys and his ability to execute Modi’s planning to a T.

Hailing from Mansa in Gujarat, Mumbai born Amit is the only brother of six sisters who cut his teeth attending RSS shakhas and later moved on to the BJP’s youth wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). He met Modi, an RSS hand at a Sangh event in 1982 and was elevated to city unit chief of the BJP youth wing. Here he made a mark with his organisational skills and in the all important 1995 state Assembly elections-when just 30 years old- was given the challenging task of ensuring the victory of the BJP candidate in the Congress stronghold of Sabarmati where Narhari Amin, a close confidante of former chief minister Chimanbhai Patel, was the Congress candidate. Amin lost and Shah’s stock in the party rose.

Years later Shah also wrested the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) from Amin (who subsequently joined the BJP) and gifted it to Modi to head. Elected to the Assembly in a by-election in 1997 from Sarkhej in Ahmedabad and subsequently again in 1998, he never looked back. Made minister of state for Home after Modi became the chief minister in 2001, he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state until his arrest in 2004. Shah was singularly responsible for the wane of Congress influence in the cooperative sector and in the field of sports and games. If his rise was spectacular so was his fall when he was arrested by the CBI in 2010 in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case and spent three months in jail. (Both Sheikh and his wife were killed by the Gujarat police in an alleged fake encounter).Though granted bail by the High Court in October 2010, he was barred entry into Gujarat. It was only in September 2012, the court permitted Shah to enter the state even as it clubbed the Sheikh encounter case with that of another fake encounter (Tulsiram Prajapati) and transferred both cases to a Mumbai court.

His name also figured in a Rs 2.50 crore bribery scandal involving stock market scamster Ketan Parekh who made the Ahmedabad based Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank go bust. The then additional DGP Kuldip Sharma, in his report submitted to the state chief secretary on August 31, 2005 stated that there was sufficient evidence to merit a further CBI probe but nothing came of it. In fact, the top cop’s IAS officer brother Pradeep Sharma who fell-foul of the then chief minister Modi, has been at the receiving end of his (Modi’s) fury, finding himself implicated in a plethora of cases and has been biding his time between jail and courts. Shah was also at the centre of a controversy for ordering snooping against a young woman architect at the behest of a ‘sahab’ using the police network when he was minister of state for home in 2009. A judicial commission of enquiry was set up to probe the charges but the next of kin of the architect successfully challenged it in the high court and the probe was folded up.

The numerous criminal court proceedings, some in which he figures as an accused, have not come in the way of his dizzying political rise ever since Modi was declared the BJP candidate for prime ministership in the 2014 general elections and drafted to do duty in UP. It was Modi’s decision and he persuaded the then party president Rajnath Singh to appoint Shah, general secretary in-charge of UP. He proved his mettle when the party bagged 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP. His appointment as party president, at the young age of 49, youngest ever, was a grateful return gift from his mentor for it played a major role in his becoming the Prime Minister.

A staunch Modi loyalist, Shah and his mentor are sharp studies in contrast. While Modi’s oratory and his political flamboyance attract mass attention and audience, Shah is a master of backroom operations and enjoys the role of a fullback in a football team. He prefers to be self-effacing, understands his boss and delivers tirelessly making him the ideal complementing arm of the present prime minister. So far he has delivered at will; his grassroots planning and attention to detail yielding excellent results. Brought in as minister of state for home after the 2002 communal riots by Modi, Shah moved into the job effortlessly as a slew of cases and hundreds of police investigations piled up. In the bulk of these cases, the results were predictable as the accused went scot free. It was only after the Supreme Court ordained Special Investigation Team (SIT) moved in that the reversals began. As Modi came into the line of fire, it was Amit Shah who moved in as the fall guy, taking the blow and ending up in jail. Once Delhi bound, it was Shah that Modi fell back upon. The man Friday delivered but now the strains are showing.

The reasons are not far to seek. For one, from a distance, the Gujarat model, propagated by a slick media campaign lubricated with generous dollops of advertisements, looked enticing. As the country gets to watch from close quarters, the fault lines are showing. It is pure baloney. Skeletons kept securely locked for long while Modi held the reigns of Gujarat, are now trickling out, after his departure. The debt burden of Gujarat less than Rs 50,000 crores when he took over as chief minister in 2001 now stands at Rs 1, 65,742 crores around end March 2015. In the last five years BPL families in Gujarat increased by 97,297 people.

It is Haryana which is the most successful among states in converting investment proposals into reality and not Gujarat which has been spending colossal sums on global investor’s summits. Again, tall claims notwithstanding and constant cries of injustice to Gujarat by the UPA government, the Modi government in the state spent only 51 per cent of budget funds allocated in 2014-15. One woman was raped every third day in Ahmedabad in 2014.And these are figures provided by the Gujarat government. The list is endless and exposes the hollowness of official claims.

For those who have closely followed Modi’s rule and politics in Gujarat, there is no change whatsoever, either in style or content after he moved to Delhi heading a BJP majority government. In fact, it is thoroughly predictable in its unpredictability, both in terms of style as well as content.

It is the same concentration of power in the PMO to the detriment of the other ministries. It has been packed with officers from Gujarat. As in the state so at the centre, mediapersons are persona non-grata and a sharp eye is kept out for those critical of the government. Key IPS officers in his good books are in the process of being shifted to Delhi to man crucial posts in the IB, CBI even SPG and NSG. All top cops who were behind bars in various fake encounter cases are out of jail and back in jobs while those who laboured hard to bring them to book, are now serving penal postings or have put in their papers. These include Satish Verma, Rajnish Rai and Rahul Sharma. Suspended IAS officer Pradeep Sharma who crossed Modi’s path continues to be hounded like a petty criminal. Modi would derisively call the CBI as the Congress Bureau of Investigations. Now with him in power, the court clearances to Shah and release and reinstatement of the errant top cops, the shoe is on the other foot.

Meanwhile the next bout of Assembly elections will be the litmus test for Shah. He derives all his power from Modi. Another Delhi like reverse in the elections for the BJP will see the Modi-Shah duo in trouble. Modi’s detractors within the party and government-and there are many-will be baying for Shah’s blood who will be the fall guy again, to safeguard the supremo. Shah’s depletion will leave Modi’s flank exposed and the master vulnerable as never before.
Modi-Shah’s politicking has worked to unite the opposition. The land acquisition bill is the lodestar. Activists toiled over decades to get the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 passed. According to Persis Ginwala and Sagar Rabari, prominent activists of land rights struggles, within 40 days of taking charge on June 27, 2014 the Modi government called a meeting of state revenue ministers and by December 31, 2014 it was amended by an Ordinance. A mere closer look reveals that it is partisan to the core and makes the antiquated Land Acquisition laws of 1894 look like a picture of piety. Comparisons of key features leave no scope for doubt. It is arbitrariness of the worst kind bordering on a sell-out. God help the land holders of India after Modi is done with them! However, the upshot of the issue is that, the BJP government has, in its zeal to aid industries (read industrialists) united the Opposition. Modi-and not Shah-is on the back foot. There is a subtle difference. If Modi is forced back, Shah is the next chief minister of Gujarat. Ambani relative, minister Saurabh Patel who has had an inordinately long run heading, among others, the petroleum department and was seen as a chief ministerial claimant, has already been marked out for wing clipping.

The Modi government’s claim to fame is the supposedly successful coal block auction. However the issue is already open to litigation. High courts in Delhi and Bhopal have ruled against the government’s coal block allocation, cases are pending elsewhere and the Supreme Court has refused to club them together and transfer them to it. No coal, no sufficient electricity so no make in India, at least herein!

Modi may have taken the Congress apart in the 2014 polls but Amit’s forays under his guidance have united the Opposition. Modi, in Gujarat exercised dominant national sway over the perception game through dictatorial control, but though persona non grata with the US with the cloud of the 2002 riots hanging over him, it did not deter him from engaging top American PR and strategic communication firm APCO Worldwide from hard-selling him and the state-in that order. Who paid for the image building? Gujarat, of course! APCO is one of the most powerful global entities in its domain. It boasts an advisory council which comprises more than 40 recognised global leaders including former US elected politicians, leaders of business and industry, academics of leading universities, world class journalists, NGO and non-profit pioneers, diplomats as well as policy experts. The company has/had a former US ambassador to India on its board as senior vice-president. No wonder, Modi is the Prime Minister of India and Gujarat is where it was.
For all of Modi’s derisive comments of Manmohan Singh’s Sonia led remote control, he himself suffers a Sangh (RSS) led leash much more. From the Hindu women’s womb control- espousing to increase childbearing from two to ten-to the male-led ‘ghar wapasi’ and pressure to alter modern science to hermitage era and education to ancient times, the man who was elected to fulfill modern India’s dream agenda is literally in the dumps. One year down the line, this is not what a youthful India wanted. The result is anybody’s guess.

The opposition is uniting. The process may be slow but the spirit of survival will ensure that. Whoever thought that Nitish and Lalu would find common cause in Bihar, but they have? Many more such national re-alignments are on the anvil. All manipulations, notwithstanding, the media presently at the beck and call of Modi, remains, at best, a Machiavellian maiden, flattering to deceive. Ask Rajiv Gandhi (God bless his soul) and VP Singh and they will have lots to narrate. Modi and Shah exercise considerable control for now when the going is good. But when it is not then…? Again for now, the RSS is going along for Modi is their best bet in fulfilling their agenda and Shah a loyal soldier. However the RSS has implicit faith in their pracharak but does not trust brand builder ‘Modi’. And therein lies the rub.

Control freak Modi, dictatorial by nature is today a Prime Minister caught between the devil and the deep sea. The RSS sees it as their first government ever in independent India which must perforce implement the Sangh agenda. Modi agrees genetically but disagrees politically. He ushered in his rule, riding astride a development agenda carried aloft by youthful aspirations which have scant respect for the Sangh. Where does he go? ‘Cannons to left of them, cannons to right of them, into the valley of death rode the six hundred”– Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Poetry has many political parallels.

(As published in the Current, Cover Story, March 23-29, 2015,


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