Is Amit Shah’s talisman failing?
Shah, as the BJP chief, was considered a Chanakya of Indian electoral politics. His tilism or talisman was so strong that the BJP started looking invincible and saffron was spreading across the country. But now, the Delhi debacle marks the saffron party’s sixth assembly election defeat since December 2018. Will Shah take responsibility for an eroding saffron base?
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins an election, there is always a long list of leaders who are eager to take the credit. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP’s Chanakya Amit Shah are the ones who are hailed for every victory. Ever since Shah took over as the BJP chief in 2014, he was the one directing Modi’s juggernaut. State after state, the BJP went on forming governments either with a full majority or with alliances. Shah was on a mission to fulfil Modi’s dream of “Congress Mukt Bharat.”
The first jolt to the BJP’s victory march came in 2015, during the Delhi assembly election, when it faced an embarrassing defeat in the Bihar assembly polls. The BJP top brass looked in the other direction and marched on. Then came the historic mandate of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Again, it was the Modi-Shah duo who were given credit for defeating the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
When the BJP formed governments in states like Goa and Karnataka, Shah’s political prowess and his Chanakya Niti were applauded. Even some journalists couldn’t stop themselves from justifying every move, whether right or wrong, by the saffron party, irrespective of whether it was able to defeat the opposition parties or form the government. Unethical practices were glorified by giving them names such as Operation Kamalam.
With every passing election, the saffron footprint spread from Jammu and Kashmir to Karnataka, the north-eastern states, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. Later, the BJP also formed a government in Bihar when Nitish Kumar abandoned the Grand Alliance and joined hands with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Shah's Midas touch made Modi invincible.
Their campaign strategy more or less remained the same in every state – exploit the Modi wave, talk of development, and the “double-engine government”. The BJP’s commander-in-chief’s poll’s strategy was also laced with Hindutva politics and hyper-nationalism. So much so that the BJP contested the Delhi civic body polls by projecting PM Modi’s face, with the top leadership keeping a close eye on the polls. Shah has been leading, or at least overseeing, every election campaign that the BJP has contested between 2014 and 2020.
But every time the BJP has lost an election, the Central leadership has left it to the state unit to own the drubbing. The Delhi assembly polls are a classic example. The saffron party kicked off its uphill mission for Delhi in the first week of January. It was widely reported that the Union Home Minister had decided to lead the campaign in Delhi and take it to every lane of the national capital. Shah started his campaign with a door-to-door padayatra seeking support for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
It was Shah who polarised the Delhi elections by making comments against Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protesters by asking people to vote with such a force that the “current” reaches Shaheen Bagh, by choosing to impose a high-voltage toxic campaign on the Delhi voters, and by allowing motor-mouths such as Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Saheb Singh Verma to run amok with inflammatory comments during the campaign.
The BJP exhausted all the artillery at its disposal in the 2020 Delhi assembly elections. PM Modi was the face of this election as well. BJP chief JP Nadda and Union ministers were campaigning in every assembly fought by the BJP. Chief Ministers such as Yogi Aditynath were roped in, and 200 MPs were deployed to oversee the electioneering machinery. Shah himself held 53 roads shows, public meetings, and rallies in Delhi.
Soon after the exit polls for Delhi 2020 were out, Shah was missing in action in Delhi politics. He has not made a single tweet from his Twitter handle about Delhi since February 8. The results were out on February 11. The world’s “biggest political party” faced yet another crushing defeat in Delhi, for the second time in a row. The BJP managed to win only eight of 70 assembly seats in Delhi. Shah neither conceded defeat in Delhi nor congratulated Arvind Kejriwal for his overwhelming victory in Delhi.
It was Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari who had to come forward and take responsibility for the Delhi debacle.
The saga of BJP’s drubbing starts from December 2018. Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot ensured the BJP’s defeat in Rajasthan. Shah was not to be seen after the defeat. The BJP was ousted from power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress state units snatched away power from Shah’s BJP in three big and crucial states, right before the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
The poll drubbings for the BJP continued post-2019 general elections. BJP lost in Haryana, but managed to form the government with the support of Dushyant Chautala’s rookie party.
BJP’s Chanakya strategies didn’t pan out well in Maharashtra. Despite winning the elections in Maharashtra, Shah failed to convince its alliance partner Shiv Sena. The BJP was left red-faced when it formed a short-lived government by attempting a coup in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). NCP chief Sharad Pawar left no option for Devendra Fadnavis but to resign as the Chief Minister and face the humiliation for the BJP’s strategic mistake.
On the other hand, Udhav Thackeray chose Sena’s ideological rivals – Congress and NCP – over the BJP to form a majority government in Maharashtra.
Shah raked up the abrogation of Article 370 and Ram Mandir – the most potent Hindutva card – in the Jharkhand assembly polls. He was taking the opposition parties, including the small regional party – Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) – head-on. Shah never spoke about the local issues or job losses in Jharkhand. In response to Shah’s Hindutva and hyper-nationalist campaign in Jharkhand, Hemant Soren pitched a hyper-local campaign and kept himself focused on issues such as unemployment and schemes for the underprivileged communities. The BJP was single-handedly ousted from power by Soren. It was outgoing Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das who had to come forward and own the rout.
Add Delhi to the list and that makes six continuous assembly poll defeats for the BJP. And, each time, Shah has refused to take responsibility for the defeats. The saffron footprint has reduced from governing 71 per cent of the population in December 2017 to 40 per cent in February 2020.
In fact, the magic of Shah’s talisman started wearing off in December 2017. In the Gujarat assembly elections, three young Turks - Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, and Alpesh Thakor – shook the BJP’s mega electioneering machinery. In Modi-Shah’s home ground, the BJP failed to achieve an impressive victory, and managed with just a face-saver.
Five months later, even in Karnataka, the lotus didn’t bloom. The BJP used everything at its disposal and formed a minority government. But B.S. Yediyurappa had to resign as he failed to get the numbers. Congress’ DK Shivakumar outsmarted Shah.
The latest defeat in Delhi exposes Shah’s weakness. He is unwilling to change his strategy or recalibrate his campaigns to comprehend the aspirations of the local electorate. Under him, the BJP imposes its agenda on voters, and distracts and diverts them from local issues. It runs a high decibel campaign to make voters believe that the saffron party’s electoral pitch is the real agenda. And wherever it meets a strong regional force, Shah’s campaign fails to impress. Clearly, the Delhi debacle has marked the failure of Shah’s talisman.