Is Amit Shah a ‘Modi Proxy’ Or Does He Have a Future of His Own? 

Is Amit Shah nothing without Modi? Can Amit Shah become a soft target without Modi’s ‘protection’?

Published25 Oct 2018, 06:57 AM IST
5 min read

Among whispers heard in the course of the bitter fracas within the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – besides the dramatis personae – several other names have cropped up, for the role they allegedly played.

They include important functionaries in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and were listed as being part of one of the two camps in the vertically-split CBI.

But besides officials, the name of Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah also cropped up in the battle, which has deep ramifications, and has certainly not left the top echelons of the regime untouched.

Is Shah Still a Mere Trouble-Shooter for Modi?

This is not the first time that Shah has been mentioned as a player in a big debate, divergence or disagreement – playing out in the epicenter of power in India.

How does the ruling party’s national president wield such power in a regime led by a premier known for his iron hand? How has this unprecedented power-sharing arrangement between the government and the ruling party come to be?

To understand these two points, one has to go back in time, when the first steps of these arrangements were worked out. This exercise may provide clues to help us decode if Shah has emerged as a power-center in his own right, or if he remains what he initially was: a loyal trouble-shooter for sahib.

Among various questions that took centre stage in the Delhi durbar when Narendra Modi became prime minister, was the one pertaining to the party’s role thereon.

What would be the nature of the relationship between the central government and the BJP?

Would this follow the Vajpayee era model, when the party mostly played second fiddle? The Vajpayee era model had led to several such episodes when organisational leaders worked at cross-purposes with the government, because undercut saffron apparatchiks were keen on striking back.

Related to this was also the sort of relationship Modi would share with the RSS top brass – would it remain as hostile as in the Vajpayee era, or would his personal relationship with Mohan Bhagwat lead to a turnaround in Sangh Parivar-government ties, ensuring that Nagpur stopped operating through proxies?

The Making of Amit Shah

The answer to these questions at that time depended on the model Modi would follow. Would he follow the Congress model – with the party becoming an appendage of the government – or, would he follow the CPI(M) model – of the party virtually controlling the government?

The critical issue when these questions raged was, who would pick up the baton from Rajnath Singh as he was to step down after agreeing to join the government.

Would it be a man after Modi's heart, or would there be someone who would stand up to him and be more favourably inclined towards the Sangh leadership and others in the party who grudgingly accepted Modi's leadership?

Eventually, Modi had his way.

Shah’s appointment over other choices conveyed, that the RSS accepted the triumphant premier’s demand that the party must completely align itself with the objectives of the government.

The moot point was, whether Shah would remain a mere Modi adjunct or if he would acquire an independent identity. Would Shah be just a chief publicist or would he also contribute to Modi's further ascendance?

Whose Voice is Louder?

At a time when it is often being said that a BJP encore in 2019 will be more dependent on Shah's abilities to steer the campaign and less on Modi's charisma, there is a need to recognise that the former did not choose the easy way after becoming party president.

Instead, Amit Shah showed in election after election that his grasp over local issues and party machinery – as visible for the first time in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 – was not a one-time feat.

Moreover, the innovative way he went about making BJP the largest political party (on paper) in the world, and secured publicity in reams in reel hours, ensured the construction of the Shah enigma. Yet, it must be recognised that Modi provided Shah with the space and independence he has allowed no one since becoming prime minister. It has obviously led to occasional natural divergences but the two have managed the situation well because their laser focus on collective long-term goals.

Surely, there is no denying that Shah has a voice that at times has been more important than Modi’s.

This is especially true during elections, and there are numerous instances of a Modi ‘wish’ – a ticket to someone – denying a nomination to another and shifting the seat of yet another – which have not been followed by Shah. The party president is possibly the only man in the country who can get away without heeding a desire of the prime minister.

An Amit Shah Without Modi

Can Shah ever be the power that he is without Modi's backing? Will he ever have a future, independent of the man who mentored him from the mid-1990s?

If ever a Deewar-like confrontation takes place between the two, and the Amitabh Bachchan-like Shah asks of Modi ‘tumhaare paas kya hai’ or, ‘what is that you have which I don't’, Modi will have just one line to say: ‘mere paas support hai’ – ‘I have the support of the people’.

No matter the crowds at Shah’s public meeting and the cheering he evokes, there is no denying that he is seen as just a ‘Modi proxy’.

The real thing is the charismatic man who has repeatedly turned election campaigns on its head – Karnataka and Gujarat most recently.

It is undeniable that Shah is vital for Modi's return in 2019. But Shah succeeds only because he has a product like the latter to market. Take away the product, and Shah will lose his identity. Modi will survive an odd setback or two, but Shah will find it tough to recover.

Adversaries will not target Modi directly in the event of a loss, but they would attempt to weaken him by targeting Shah.

Beneath the image of a no-nonsense man who is merciless to opponents, Shah remains a soft target who is protected by the man who has hoisted him to where he is today.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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