Inside the mind of Amit Shah: Rahul Kanwal

A well-known guru among the tribals of Rajasthan once told a young Amit Shah, "Your fate is such that even if you are sitting on top of a camel, a dog can come and bite you." The traditional saying conveyed that no matter how high his station in life, Shah would never be far from trouble. Shah laughed off the guru, but hasn't been able to shake off his prophecy.

Ruthless. Machiavellian. Authoritarian. Many adjectives are used to describe the new president of the BJP. But none of them fully capture the persona of an election wizard who believes he's programmed to win. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, himself an ace strategist, thinks of Shah as the sharpest political mind of his generation. Apart from a razor sharp understanding of caste and electoral dynamics, what sets Shah apart from his peers is his burning desire to win. From completely disregarding local leaders and their egos, to using the RSS network to keep an eye on his own candidates, to propping up proxies, Shah believes all is fair in war and elections and is willing to do whatever it takes to end up on the winning side.

Shah is the Shehanshah of the election control room. While Modi hops from rally to rally, Shah sits for long hours with dozens of young workers poring over desktop screens, dicing latest reports from each constituency, dividing seats into the smallest of segments and preparing action plans down to every ward.

In the Amit Shah book of election management, every seat is classified into three kinds. In the first category are seats where the BJP is highly likely to dominate and hence not much time and effort need be expended on them. On these seats, Shah ensures that the candidates have sufficient resources and leaves the campaigning largely to the local candidate. The second category is of seats that the BJP is likely to lose no matter how much time and effort is put into them. These seats too are largely ignored by Shah's team.

The third category is of seats where Shah believes his USP lies. Seats which are in play and which can go either way on Election Day. It is on these seats that Shah makes the maximum effort going down to micro-details on what factor could swing the seat for the BJP. A rally by Modi, propping up a proxy candidate to divide the opposition votes, weaning away an opponent, reaching out to disgruntled leaders of locally dominant castes and winning them over, Shah is prepared to disregard egos and do whatever it takes to swing the seat. By Shah's own estimate, the BJP bagged between 15-20 seats in the Gujarat Assembly Elections of 2012 where the party was set to lose before campaigning began.

The Delhi Assembly election last December saw the mysterious appearance of 15 independent candidates who fought on the symbol of a torch, which with its rays closely resembled the broom, the symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party. On at least five seats, AAP prospects were damaged by these independents. In Janakpuri and Kalkaji, the winning margin of the BJP candidate was less than the number of votes polled by the mysterious torch candidates. Ask Amit Shah about the torch candidates and his eyes gain a mischievous gleam. "Some questions are best unanswered," he says.

The Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh saw Shah burst into national prominence but he was initially apprehensive when Modi gave him the mandate of managing the BJP's campaign. He had not been involved in active politics outside Gujarat and India's most complex state was a labyrinth for him. Immediately after assuming charge, at a time when he was still relatively unknown outside Gujarat, Shah travelled incognito for two weeks through Uttar Pradesh to assess first-hand the party's position at the booth level. What he saw shocked him. The BJP in UP had stopped contesting local body and panchayat elections and party workers were completely disillusioned with the local leadership.

Then began the process of building a new structure which superseded the BJP's moth-balled state machinery. Backed by the RSS, Shah activated pracharaks who would go to street corners in every village and chat with residents on how the UPA at the Centre and the SP Government in the state had ruined their lives and how it was time to vote for change. Even though they wouldn't say so in front of cameras, at the tea-stall the pracharaks stoked the resentment among members of the majority community about the level of minority appeasement being practiced by the SP government in UP.

The Mobile Modi Rath was Shah's breakthrough idea. During his travels, Shah discovered that there were large parts of rural UP, which were completely cut off from satellite TV and oblivious to Modi's message. He called it the Black Zone of UP. Using cheap, locally available technology, Shah built Modi Vans which travelled to hundreds of villages carrying the BJP PM candidate's message. In village after village where we travelled on the India Today Group's Election Express, we saw dozens of villagers crowding intently around the rath listening with rapt attention to the man who promised to lift them out of their misery. These were remote villages where most other parties and their leaders did not even manage to reach.

The success of his state wide caste re-engineering plan was key to Shah's victory formula. After assessing the caste arithmetic of Uttar Pradesh, Shah came to the conclusion that the upper caste vote bank of the BJP was simply no match for the formidable OBC and Dalit and Muslim vote bank of the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. "I start from zero, but the others start from a base of 25 per cent of the votes in the bank." Consolidating all the myriad Hindu castes that comprised the remaining 50 per cent vote share in favour of the BJP seemed like a formidable challenge.

Shah started to shed much of the Brahmin and Thakur baggage of the BJP and gave tickets and prominence to OBC leaders so that backwards once again started associating with the BJP. Highlighting Modi's credentials as an OBC leader was Shah's idea, something that Modi himself was initially reluctant to go along with. Let the focus remain on development, not caste, Modi told Shah. We won't win if we don't play the caste card, replied Shah. In the end, Modi went along with the advise of his trusted general. Even Modi's decision to contest from Varanasi was pushed by Shah who felt it would light up the party's prospects in Poorvanchal where the BJP had become weak.

Even though everyone thinks that Amit Shah enjoys Modi's unquestioning trust, Shah is very pragmatic about their relationship. He thinks of Modi as someone who goes by whatever suits his personal and his party's interests best, without caring about personal relationships. "If I can get the job done then I am the best man, if someone else is better suited for the job then he's Modi's best man. It's nothing personal."

Modi has had a soft corner for Shah ever since their days as RSS pracharaks in Gujarat in the early 1980s, but what really brought them inseparably close was Shah's stint in jail after he was charged with orchestrating the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. An unrelenting CBI tried every tool to break down Shah in custody, but Shah didn't squeal against his boss. That Shah stood by Modi in the face of such grave adversity made Modi believe that here was an aide he could trust without question.

For those in the BJP who were dancing on the streets on the day he was elected president, Amit Shah is their ticket to power. They're hoping he can repeat the miracle of Uttar Pradesh and lead the party to power in the forthcoming elections of Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana. Apart from the poll-bound states, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are key focus areas for Shah and he believes that the ground is ripe and with the right amount of effort the BJP can soar in these battleground states in time for the next Assembly election.

On the day Modi was elected chairman of the BJP's election campaign committee, Shah told me at the Mariott Hotel in Goa, "Our national plan is already ready. We were waiting for this day. You see the speed and scale with which we roll out the Modi campaign." The plan to anoint Shah the BJP's new president too was readied many weeks before it was formally announced. Shah's battle plan for the forthcoming Assembly elections has long been prepared. He's itching to roll it out.

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