AS young political workers, the two travelled by motorcycle. Narendra Modi would pillion-ride with Amit Shah.
Their positions have changed but marginally. Modi is India’s prime minister. Lending strong political support, Shah heads the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Working closely and in tandem, Modi in May and Shah last month completed three years in their respective offices. Passion for politics kept them glued during adversities a decade back.
Shah was ousted under a court order from Gujarat that Modi ruled. They were charged with fostering sectarian violence in 2002. Courts have exonerated both.
At 65, Modi is a loner, while Shah, 52, is a family man. Their personal equations are rock-like; the political ones have endured.
Modi habitually keeps tabs on the party’s affairs. Shah runs its day-to-day operations, consolidating in states where it rules and strategising an aggressive thrust where it is not. He prepares the ground for Modi’s numerous election rallies.
The two are a ruthless election-winning combine. They give no quarter and expect none. Few political niceties are maintained. Under them, the BJP has transformed into a formidable election-fighting machine.
Primarily, they chose candidates who were eventually elected India’s president and vice-president. All new ministers inducted in the Sept 3 re-jig of the PM’s ministerial team made it a point to thank both Modi and Shah.
Formidable proximity to Modi enables Shah to share much of the limelight. In India, except for the communist parties, one who runs the government has an upper hand over the party. The two posts always have people from different regions for wider representation.
In another broken political tradition, both Modi and Shah
are from Gujarat. Thanks to them, a relatively small state in terms of population and political clout is India’s flagship on many scores, particularly foreign investment.
Arguably though, this combine reminds of another enduring partnership, of first premier Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
While Nehru led the nation, Patel, who had always nursed the Congress organisation and enjoyed wider support than Nehru, held not just the party, but also the nation together during crucial years.
Despite failing health, he integrated the princely states into the Indian Union, and ensured relief and rehabilitation to millions in the wake of India’s violent vivisection.
But for Patel’s death in 1950, the duo could have better consolidated an India in turmoil and transition. Despite differing perceptions, Nehru and Patel worked together keeping a commitment they had made to their common mentor, Mahatma Gandhi.
Modi and Shah, mentored by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), do not seem to have ideological problems, but are perceived as pushing two different, indeed, contradictory agenda.
The discomfort is talked only in muted tones. Modi pushes the development card while RSS espouses conservative and majoritarian causes. Shah’s sympathy lies with the latter.
The duo has broken yet another tradition. In any RSS-mentored arrangement, most BJP lawmakers and ministers belong to it, the RSS chief, Mohanrao Bhagwat, is supreme. With Shah playing the go-between, Modi has, however, sustained his pre-eminent role as the prime minister.
Shah is into his second two-year term as BJP chief, the maximum the party allows. Whether the party will bend rules to give him a third term before the 2019 parliamentary polls remains to be seen.
Their emphasis on issues differs. Modi remains silent on violence by his party’s vigilantes. He condemns it, but only in broad terms without arraigning party officials, lawmakers and ministers engaged in hate talk targeting the Muslims.
Modi refrains since becoming PM. But Shah freely engages in minorities-bashing, especially during election campaigns. And, the two match when it comes to pillorying the opponents. Their most favourite target is Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.
Trouncing one opposition party after another, the two are raring to go. A scattered opposition helps boost such perceptions. Main opposition Congress has failed to recover from its 2014 parliamentary debacle.
The Congress has lost in all state assembly elections except Punjab. Its alliances with the communists in West Bengal and the socialists in Uttar Pradesh proved counter-productive.
The party topped in two states, Goa on the Arabian Sea and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast. But, it mismanaged post-polls. And Shah-led manoeuvrings won support of smaller parties to form BJP governments.
The Congress rode piggy-back on two regional satraps in Bihar state. But in a political sleight of hand, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar switched sides to align with Modi. This rendered the Congress an orphan yet again.
Politically, it’s BJP all the way. But ground reality could change. Modi’s controversial demonetisation last November has caused a sharp fall in the country’s gross domestic product from 7.8 per cent to 5.7 per cent. India is no longer the world’s fastest-growing economy.
Setback to the economy is clearly evident from official data. The government vehemently denies demonetisation as the cause, but admits to its consequences. But, it cites recent electoral successes as proof of people having accepted the measure.
Modi tackles economic issues vocally and attacks on his social agenda with silence, often changing the goalposts. But there seems no stopping Shah. With 10 million-plus membership, he claims to lead the world’s biggest political party.
The bearded duo is disrupting and wooing regional parties by turns, including the Anna DMK in Tamil Nadu, hoping to form a formidable phalanx to secure fresh parliamentary mandate. The recent cabinet reshuffle was widely billed as preparing Team Modi for it.
Adding hugely to their political clout are cadres of the RSS and its myriad affiliates. No other party or alliance enjoys that kind of loyal support on the ground across most parts of India.
Come 2019, will that prove to be the clincher for Modi-Shah?
The writer, Mahendra Ved, NST’s New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ magazine