Amit Shah interview: The day Nitish, Lalu, Congress declared tie-up, BJP got 2/3 majority…we were surprised

The BJP president, guiding the party through the poll, discusses strategies, rivals and PM’s pichchada identity.

Amit Shah, BJP, Narendra Modi, BJP, Bihar polls, bihar elections, Nitish Kumar, Amit Shah, Lalu, Bihar news, indian express Bihar polls: BJP President Amit Shah in Kolkata (Source: PTI Photo)

What makes the Bihar poll so key? You have stressed Bihar’s importance nationally. Even American, Chinese and Australian diplomats want to know who will win; some have sent teams here. 

If foreigners are observing the Bihar election, it proves that in the last one-and-a-half years, Narendra Modi has taken India’s position on the world stage to a new level.

You have given a twisted reply.

No, I am explaining to you the correct interpretation of their interest (smiles).

Their view might be, say, that if Modi-Shah lose this election then they will lose a lot of their political weight, and economic reforms will be ruled out. Might it not be that anxiety that brings them here to Patna?

There is no question of losing in Bihar. We will win with a two-thirds majority. I don’t see any possibility under any circumstances of the NDA getting less than two-thirds.

The poll has taken the shape of a prime minister against a chief minister.

That impression has been created by the media. In any election, the prime minister has the right to campaign… I am of the firm opinion that the party’s supreme leader should himself put forward the party’s views before the people. I don’t see anything gadbad, or a better way to put it — I don’t see anything inappropriate in it. When the janata is in the process of deciding whom to vote for, it is very necessary in a democracy that the party’s top leader directly talks to them.

But when Vasundhara Raje or Shivraj S Chouhan is facing polls, you wouldn’t play the Modi card , would you?

“Card” or “star campaigner” are words in the media’s vocabulary. Narendrabhai is the BJP’s supreme leader. I see no wrong if he conveys the BJP’s message to people of Bihar.

There is a widely accepted view that it is because of a lack of confidence that you have not been able to project CM candidate. How can you deny that?

Really? Did we lack confidence in Maharashtra? According to your theory, we didn’t have confidence in Jharkhand or Haryana either but we still won in all three states. I think you need to change your formula for assessing our confidence level. This is our strategy. We change our strategy in each state according to the ground situation.

One more question on this. It is hard to imagine Bihar leaders, say Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad — if circumstances throw up such a situation — coming to Gujarat without any Gujarati face to campaign there, and asking for votes. Or, for that matter, in any southern state. What would happen to Gujarat’s asmita then? What about Bihari asmita now?

Let me tell you first, without ambiguity, that only a Bihari will become the chief minister but that Bihari will be from the BJP. Do you want such skewed politics in the country that leaders of one region cannot campaign in any other region? Can any prime minister belong only to one region? Can the national president of any party be limited to one region of the country? Why can’t those who worry about pradesh… see Italy here? If someone comes from Italy and campaigns, you don’t find it objectionable, but you have an issue when the country’s leaders campaign in a part of the country. My responsibility is national; I will campaign in Kerala, Bengal and wherever else I have a duty to do.

Amit-Shah-interview

Is your larger vision one of a national identity for the states, erasing their regional and unique identities?

The regional identities of Indian states will never be erased. When the BJP’s Bihari CM is sworn in, he will take forward the Bihari regional identity only… Bihar’s identity will become vikas ki identity, its identification with jungle raj will vanish.

The way Modi-Shah are fighting the election, many see it as the beginning of a new culture of campaigning. Is it?

That is a perverted idea. No two persons or two leaders on their own can fight any Indian election. Some 40 lakh people are behind us in Bihar, working to ensure we win.

You have been polling agent for L K Advani in most of his elections in Gujarat. Your career took root while managing his and others’ elections. When you sat down to plan for Bihar, what factors did you see in your favour, and what factors to fight against?

In Bihar, the biggest exercise we did was unique. We studied all the issues of Bihar in less than 15 months. We focused on what should be the growth trajectory, then provided the budgetary provisions for it. We planned the package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore, we provided Rs 40,000 crore as additional funds for ongoing projects. The message has reached the people. They have got an idea how the BJP wants to solve the problems of Bihar. This is the biggest offer from us and has become a big issue in the election. Two, even today, Modi’s popularity is undiminished. Not an inch of it has waned for the people of Bihar, no change since 2014. The third issue we have in our favour is their (rivals’) unprincipled alliance to grab power. For years Nitish was cursing the jungle raj of Lalu. The Bihari janata now cannot digest the sight of Nitish asking them to vote for Lalu. This is a big poll issue. The Bihari janata is not at all ready to accept, under any circumstances, the mask of Nitish Kumar with Lalu’s jungle raj lurking from behind.

Those three issues, it appears, have failed to hurt Nitish, who looks untainted as ever.

Nobody in Bihar would interpret Nitish as being untainted after he sat with Lalu. The whole of Bihar believes he got tainted as soon as he decided to fight the election with Lalu.

Your party men say that Lalu’s RJD will win more seats than Nitish’s JD(U). Why?

That is an assessment. Nitish’s image has been dented so much by going with Lalu that he will get a lot fewer votes than Lalu can expect. See, you should understand that Lalu has stuck to his theories for 25 years, but Nitish has lost his credibility by going with Lalu… his credibility has hit rock bottom.

You have reworked your strategy quite frequently. You came in with the Bihar package and development. Then, you brought in the negative issue of jungle raj. Outside Bihar, BJP leaders raised certain issues that can echo in Bihar, such as the controversy over cow slaughter and beef. Now, you have pitched the PM’s identity as an OBC.

I disagree with you. First thing: vikas and jungle raj are not different issues. If there is jungle raj, there is no possibility of development. Our poll plank is that to develop the state, we need to arrest jungle raj. We have been trying to explain that if Nitish and Lalu come to power together, they cannot develop the state. I think we have been able to drive home our point. We have not raised the beef or cow slaughter issue in Bihar. The rival parties did it. Nor have we raised the Dadri incident. Only when Lalu spoke about it did the issue of beef and cow slaughter come into the election. It is not right to blame the BJP for it. As far as the issue of the PM’s identity of being a pichchada is concerned, it is a reality of life. In Bihar, our election issue is that the BJP will be able to pick up issues of OBCs and EBCs much better because our PM belongs to that class. It is not casteism. We have not made an issue of PM’s caste. “Pichchada Varg” is a block recognised under our Constitution after the amendment. “Backward Classes” is not a jaati.

With 282 seats in the Lok Sabha and a strong leader on top, isn’t it a sign of desperation that you are resorting to identity issues citing the Constitution? The PM’s speeches Sunday were about his background. Even without saying “Main pichchade pariar ka hu”, he would still be PM. So why make that point?

Even if he does not talk (about his pichchada identity), the message has gone home. We are not getting any political advantage out of it. Even if he does not talk about it, people of Bihar already know he is from a backward class. You mentioned “desperation”. No question arises of our getting desperate. The day Nitish, Lalu and the Congress declared their alliance, the BJP got its two-thirds majority.

Can you clear the confusion in Patna about the PM’s background? Is he an OBC or an EBC?

There is no EBC list outside Bihar. PM Narendrabhai’s caste is listed as EBC in Bihar. Elsewhere, his caste is recognised as OBC.

With your urban background — you are from upscale Narainpura and Vastrapur of Ahmedabad — how awkward is it to talk of the PM and castes?

It is not about me linking it with the PM. It has been associated with him since birth. This is not something new… it got tagged with him when he was born 65 years ago.

When the maha gathbandhan was declared, we got to hear that you and the PM were very surprised at the news. You had not expected Lalu and Nitish to come together.

True, we never calculated that they would commit such a big mistake! How can any rajneta leave behind his political struggle of 25 years against Lalu and of 40 years against the Congress? Yes, it was really beyond our imagination to see that someone, merely to be chief minister, can join hands with a rival of 25 years, Lalu, and a 40-year enemy, the Congress. It was an event impossible to predict. We were surprised, indeed.

Were you also a bit scared?

Not at all. We had no fears.

Look at the figures of the last elections. Add the vote share of those three parties.

Oh, ho! Since the age of 15, I have been a student of electoral politics and strategies. I can vouch for one thing. Figures of past elections have no value at all. Only the figures of the current poll matter. Wait for the new statistics. The BJP is destined to get a majority.

To repeat what you said — “Past election statistics have no value”.

When new alliances take place, old figures and old opinions lose relevance. It is a momentous phenomenon in Bihar politics when Nitish and Lalu, who have fought against the Congress all their lives, are with the Congress. You can only see desperation on that side. What could have happened that they got so desperate that they went for such an opportunistic alliance? They have dumped all political norms, all political principles, and all niceties of public life. Why will Nitish forget the 25 years of his opposition to Lalu? What an ugly picture it must be when they met to finalise the deal! The Congress president had to deliver her speech before regional leaders did. I pity the Congress’s situation, to see that before Lalu and Nitish speak the Congress president has to deliver her speech and then sit through the event. I believe that in the history of Indian politics, it is the first time such a phenomenon (grand alliance) has taken place.

One can understand you want to highlight your achievements but, alongside, fears too have arisen after your party came to power. V K Singh’s remarks on dogs in connection with the killing of Dalits, the Dadri lynching, the ink attacks on Sudheendra Kulkarni and Engineer Rashid have had a depressing effect… these fears will echo in Bihar too.

About V K Singh’s statement… I want you to go through the entire statement. It has been misinterpreted. In spite of that, whatever the misinterpretation, he has apologised for it. His apology is unconditional. About fears, let me make one request. Collect figures for all similar events in the past 15 years. You won’t find one event more during our regime than in any of those years. Yet, you get the impression that there have been more because the media has started highlighting these more than before. I can discuss each event with you. Where did Dadri happened? In UP. Who is responsible for law and order there? Samajwadi Party.

This is not about merely policing. It is about politics and the whipping of emotions. You cannot escape that responsibility, you cannot put all the blame on the SP.

If this event had not happened, then?

Meaning?

If this event had not happened in Dadri, there would not have been any fears.

That is not true. It happened because of existing fears over the beef and cow slaughter issues.

If Dadri happened due only to fears, then such events should have happened earlier in states where we are in power — Gujarat, MP, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan. There, police are under our control. The unrest in UP is due to the government, which is doing vote-bank politics with the help of police. Police are indulging in one-sided politics. The incidents of Karnataka and UP are due to the police’s actions and policies based on appeasement. I have condemned the Dadri incident and I believe such a thing should never happen. I think 100-per-cent responsibility is on the SP government.

Does the resignation of over 40 writers embarrass you?

I believe writers should not indulge in politics. Why didn’t they resign when the Bhagalpur massacre took place? Why didn’t they resign en masse when so many Sikhs were killed? When the country’s PM (Rajiv Gandhi) said the ground shakes when a giant tree falls (Indira Gandhi’s assassination), why did nobody protest? Why didn’t their souls stir then? When so many bomb blasts occurred in Maharashtra, why did nobody resign? When so many Kashmiri Pandits were thrown out, why didn’t anybody get upset? What kind of one-sided soul is this which awakens selectively?

There is an answer.

There is no answer. I was astonished that the awakening of their souls is one-sided. If writers want to resign, they should resign because of the inaction of the SP government, against the Congress in Karnataka. I believe this is beginning to mislead the country.

The resignations must have made you think.

Yes, I do think. I am surprised at our alert editors. It is their duty to expose them. I don’t feel embarrassed. I regret why my country’s media is not asking them the right questions. Where is the incident taking place and where are you reacting?

It is all about the fear of the RSS family. You are from the RSS. The BJP has never denied the link. There is a fear that some people want to go ahead with the idea of making India a Hindu rashtra, hence the fresh talk about banning beef, etc… Many Muslims are apprehensive.

The RSS has been working since 1925. Give me one example when it has worked on an anti-national agenda. They are engaged in re-energising our culture. Its members are patriotic. It is not right to defame them.

You will find the last poll phase difficult, with Muslims in those seats worried.

The fear was created by the media in the minds of the minority. But we are confident of victory in the fifth phase too.

What was your most difficult challenge when you started the campaign?

The lotus had never bloomed in 125 of the constituencies due to our alliance with the JD(U). At short notice, we had to make the lotus famous in those areas. I have an army of cadres and so I could manage it, but it was a challenge to set up an infrastructure where no BJP candidate has fought an election in the last two decades. After the initial planning, the BJP has not changed any strategy midway. We are sticking to our blueprint.

Someone groomed in Gujarat politics is giving speeches in Purnea and Nalanda. Your words will not have the flavour of Bihar. How do you manage?

Is it possible that somebody can be born in all parts of India? You mean to say that there won’t be any national leadership, then? Didn’t Nehru and Indira Gandhi go on poll campaigns? They did. You have got accustomed to Manmohan Singh, who never got an audience. Nobody flocked to listen to him.

How different are Bihar’s voters?

Bihari voters’ IQ is quite high. Their grasp of politics is much stronger than that of other Indians.

Those who voted against the Congress and those who voted for you, too, believe the Bihar election will be tough for you.

We don’t know how to communicate our side properly to media. In my career, I have seen the relation between the media and my party. The media said we were losing in 2002, same prediction in 2007, and in 2012 they gave a confused picture. We won all those elections. Then came the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the media asked thousands of questions. We won the election with a thumping majority. Our cadres had predicted victory in all the elections, and we have proven right in all except in Delhi. We learn from success and failure. In a successful election, too, there could be one part of the strategy that has failed; we learn from it.

The PM will address 17 rallies in six days. Isn’t that desperation?

Bilkul nahin. Election speeches are not only for campaigning and winning. This is a time when the party spreads its views and ideals. We have been fighting elections since 1952. We have been relentless even when we lost… We use the time to reach out to more and more people of India.

Nitish Kumar says he is astonished to see the PM talking in language that he feels doesn’t befit the stature of a PM.

Nitish is afraid of something. That he is narrating before you. That is enough to understand what I mean.

The BJP seems to struggle whenever it has no one who can cut into the votes of the opposition camp.

According to you, what is the main strength of our rivals’ camp?

Nitish Kumar.

Wrong! Lalu Prasad. The media will not understand us. When ballot boxes are opened, only then will I explain Bihar to you. Call me at 2 pm on November 8.

Will you take responsibility if the BJP loses the election?

There is no possibility of losing, so that question does not arise. Yes, there is the question of taking credit for the victory (laughs).

Why are you contesting with a ‘karo ya maro’ spirit?

In the BJP, all elections are fought with that spirit.

How hard has the controversy on reservation hit you?

Our rivals tried their best but at the PM’s level, my level to block and village levels, we reached out to explain to Dalits and OBCs that the RSS is not against reservation and doesn’t contemplate changing the system. We reached out with speed and a strong message about our support for reservation.

Click here to read the interview in Hindi