Even before Modi was declared BJP’s PM candidate, Man Friday Amit Shah had set about swinging UP for him, leaving little doubt about the man or his message. Lalmani Verma on the gameplan to conquer the state that matters.
Varanasi votes on May 12. However, the stage for the most symbolic battle of this general election was set almost exactly a year ago. The way the wind would blow in Uttar Pradesh was evident when on May 19, 2013, the BJP announced that Amit Shah, the man known better as Narendra Modi’s Man Friday, would steer the party’s campaign in the state that decides political fortunes in India.
Shah would take nearly a month to land in Lucknow for his first meeting with office-bearers at the state BJP headquarters. He would waste no time laying down his agenda: to project Modi as ‘Vikas Purush’ and to popularise the Gujarat Chief Minister’s development model in the state. Modi’s anointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was still four months away.
In the many months since, Shah has rewritten the Uttar Pradesh campaign over hundreds of such closed-door meetings, flying in and out of Lucknow, accompanied by armed personnel of the Gujarat Police.
If the BJP looks set to significantly increase its tally in Uttar Pradesh come May 16, if Modi’s detractors find themselves effectively pushed to the margins in the party, and if the coming election in the state looks sharply polarised, the imprint is of Shah.
Modi was named the PM nominee in September 2013. Within a month, the first of the eight rallies planned by Shah for him in Uttar Pradesh — the maximum for any state — had rolled out. These were dubbed ‘Vijay Shankhnad (victory bugle)’ rallies.
At a meeting with party workers in Bareilly on October 5, Shah further underlined that he expected “an atmosphere in favour of Modi” at every polling booth. “The only alternative to the Congress is the BJP, and not the Samajwadi Party or the BSP. The BJP’s PM candidate is Narendra Modi and you have to appeal for votes on his name alone,” Shah said.
“A crowd of more than 22 lakh people was mobilised through these rallies,” says a party leader, adding that the target was to mobilise 50 lakh people. The meetings also helped the BJP galvanise party workers, and draw in former MPs and MLAs who had left the BJP over the past 10 years.
Shah planned the rallies to the last detail, from deciding the venue to giving Modi inputs on local issues for his speeches. He also had an effective say in planning the 35-40 public meetings of senior party leaders in the state which have followed, with Modi and party president Rajnath Singh addressing the maximum.
The 400 Narendra Modi raths with video recorded messages saying “Modi aane wala hai”, which are plying across rural areas of the state currently, are also his initiative.
The importance of booths was a lesson Shah brought from his home state. He directed that committees be formed in all 1.40 lakh booths in Uttar Pradesh, to put in place the Gujarat model of ‘winning elections by winning booths’. To weed out bogus names, BJP office-bearers were told to record names of booth-level workers along with their photographs and mobile numbers. Many a district president recalls receiving calls from Shah, who checked routinely on the progress in the initiative.
The main task of the 10-member committees was to get people on electoral rolls and to ensure that they, particularly BJP supporters, turned out to vote.
There was another crucial meeting that Shah held during his first Lucknow tour — with former BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh. The importance of that meeting lay in what Kalyan brought to the table. After Kalyan had parted ways with the BJP in December 1999 (over differences with then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee) and later in January 2009 (over distribution of party tickets), a large chunk of the BJP’s backward votes had moved to the SP, Congress and BSP. While Kalyan merged his Jan Kranti Party with the BJP in January 2013, his involvement in BJP activities had remained negligible. That changed following Shah’s visit.
Sources said Shah raised no objection either to Kalyan’s demand to field candidates of his choice in Aligarh, Etah, Bulandshahr, Firozabad, Farrukhabad and Hathras, which have a sizable presence of Lodhs, the community to which Kalyan belongs.
According to sources, the BJP had identified three main factors for its decline in Uttar Pradesh: the Ram Mandir receding as a potent issue; the rise of caste-based politics, strengthening the SP and BSP; and internal differences among senior BJP leaders. The latter two, it was felt, had eroded the BJP’s efforts towards Hindu consolidation.
Shah talked of capitalising on the anti-incumbency sentiment against the UPA government at the Centre and the SP government in the state, he spoke of appeasement of Muslims by the SP government, and he talked about Modi’s OBC roots.
At a meeting in Jhansi on September 1, Shah asked party leaders to aggressively protest against the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to reserve 20 per cent allocations in 85 schemes for minorities. “Mahesh ka haq Mahmood ko mile, yeh BJP bardasht nahin karegi (The BJP won’t tolerate the rights of Mahesh going to Mahmood),” Shah said at the meeting, making it a backward castes vs minorities issue.
Caste considerations went down to the BJP booth-level committees, which were told to include members representing all castes, with the head being a person from the dominant community.
In Jhansi, Shah went to a Dalit household for lunch. While that immediately drew comparisons with similar gestures by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the difference was that Shah went to the house of a party worker, Darshan Balmiki, who was informed in advance that the BJP general secretary would eat at his place along with 50 others.
More than two dozen backward leaders have got party tickets for general elections in the state. Sunil Bansal, who holds the charge of Uttar Pradesh for the BJP along with Shah, says, “Apart from upper castes, the party has given maximum tickets to backward castes. Kashyaps, Kurmis, Rajbhars, Kushwahas have all got tickets.”
While Shah also tried to reach out to Muslims through the booth-level committees, that plan didn’t work out. The BJP failed to form panels at more than 1,000 booths falling in Muslim-dominated areas. In certain parts of riot-affected Muzaffarnagar and nearby Bareilly, Saharanpur and Shamli, party workers were wary of entering Muslim-dominated areas to even recruit members.
Wooing sulking leaders, including chairpersons of local bodies, was next. During his first Lucknow visit, Shah also dropped in at residences of leaders such as MP Lalji Tandon, Vinay Katiyar and former state president Om Prakash Singh, after taking prior ‘appointment’. These leaders — Tandon (a Vaishya), and Katiyar and Om Prakash (both OBCs) — had been complaining of being ignored by the state cadre. While Tandon was made in-charge of Modi’s Lucknow rally, Om Prakash was given the responsibility of the drive to collect iron for Modi’s dream Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat.
Shah’s October 5 Bareilly meeting gave a platform to disgruntled leaders to speak, following which many were similarly made coordinators for Lok Sabha seats or for Modi rallies. “This is the first time I have been given such regard in 10 years. Since 2004 when I lost the election, the party had been ignoring me,” said a former party MP at the meeting.
Those in the know say peace was also made with the RSS. In July 2013, Shah visited offices of the RSS and its wings in Lucknow, including the ABVP, VHP, Hindu Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, and sought the support of the Sangh Parivar in achieving the target of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, including feedback and suggestions on the campaign and candidates.
Sources said that, at the time, RSS leaders had been complaining of lack of communication from the BJP side. Soon after Shah’s visit, the ABVP started a campaign in educational institutes to associate youths with the BJP and to invite them to Modi’s rallies. Special passes were issued to students of IIT-Kanpur and other local higher education institutions for Modi’s Kanpur rally. RSS workers began visiting villages and getting a feedback on functioning of booth-level committees.
Senior RSS leader Suresh Soni later held a meeting of RSS and BJP workers in Lucknow and sought an end to factionalism, as well as promised action against those who countered Modi.
Shah’s most controversial contribution has been ensuring that the Modi campaign remained underpinned in Hindutva — confirming what many thought came with his selection for the Uttar Pradesh job. While the headquarters of the party in Awadh is Lucknow, on July 6, Shah for the first time held a meeting of the regional unit in Ayodhya. He later visited the Ram Janmabhoomi to offer prayers, seeking a grand Ram temple at the Ayodhya site as well as that India be “freed from Congress rule”.
At a meeting the next day in Gorakhpur, Shah told workers that the party had not deviated from the agenda of Hindutva or nationalism. Raising the Akhilesh Yadav government’s decision to withdraw cases against terror accused, Shah said, “Yeh sab dekh kar BJP karyakartaon ka khoon kyon nahin khaulta? In sab ko rokne ki zimmedari hamari hai (Why doesn’t the blood of BJP workers boil over this? It’s our responsibility to stop them).”
On January 9, 2014, the party felicitated advocates Ranjana Agnihotri and Hari Shankar Jain for challenging the government move to withdraw the terror cases. “I have not seen such misuse of the National Security Act (NSA) in any other state,” Shah said at the felicitation. “Here in UP, the NSA is invoked against those who oppose cow slaughter and not those who are behind cow slaughter.”
Modi’s rallies in Varanasi, Gorakhpur and Meerut have had images of temples in the backdrop on the stage.
While Shah has avoided speaking about communal violence in the state at public meetings, he was there at the Agra rally when the BJP felicitated MLAs Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, both accused of instigating the Muzaffarnagar riots. The felicitation was conducted before Modi arrived for the meeting. Som and Rana were described as heroes who had ensured the safety of Hindus.
At a meeting with party workers in the Miranpur Assembly segment of Muzaffarnagar on Friday, Shah pointed fingers at the SP government. “Muzaffarnagar mein jo ashanti hai, wo keval Samajwadi Party ki den hai (The disquiet in Muzaffarnagar has been created by the SP alone),” he said.
While at his first interaction with party leaders in June 2013 Shah had assured them that Lok Sabha candidates would be selected with the consent of local workers, his hand is seen in tickets going to outsiders and turncoats in 18 seats, albeit ones with a winning chance.
Unlike past state in-charges, Shah met every ticket-seeker who got his name listed for a meeting with him in a notebook handled by the party staff. Shah allowed them 1-2 minutes each to speak about themselves. Aspirants talk of Shah listening intently but impassively and later seeing them off with folded hands, with assurances to consider their case.
The tickets to “outsiders” have proved one sore point in Shah’s well-laid plans — including the nomination of Jagdambika Pal (the sitting Congress MP, from Domariyaganj), S P Singh Baghel (BSP, from Firozabad), former BSP MP Rajesh Verma from Sitapur, ex-SP leader Kirtivardhan Singh from Gonda, ex-RLD leader Chaudhary Babu Lal from Fatehpur Sikri, ex-SP leader Shyama Charan Gupta from Allahabad and Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh from Kaiserganj.
Annoyed partymen burnt effigies of party national president Rajnath Singh, though interestingly never of Shah. The BJP general secretary has since then made efforts to explain the distribution of tickets, citing surveys pointing to winnability, while making it clear that there wouldn’t be a rethink.
There have been murmurs of protest over the BJP’s alliance with the Apna Dal in Mirzapur and Pratapgarh as well — a tie-up initiated by Shah. The alliance followed a Lucknow rally on March 2, where the promised crowd of 15 lakh didn’t materialise, reportedly leaving Modi angry. The Apna Dal tie-up is expected largely to help the BJP get the backward caste votes in Varanasi, from where Modi is contesting.
Shah has also ruffled many feathers by keeping his own counsel. He is known to take along few leaders with him during his state visits. While he has six co-in-charges, Sunil Bansal is the only one who looks after organisational work in his absence.
His interactions with party leaders are one-sided affairs, with either him talking or just listening. Before any review meeting, Shah sends a proforma on which district presidents and secretaries have to provide information on organisational activities, including local caste equations of Lok Sabha constituencies. Any lapse is known to draw an instant rebuke.
On his first UP visit in June 2013, Shah had promised to spend at least 20 days every month in the state. While that didn’t materialise, Shah, who stays mostly in Gujarat and Delhi, has lately indicated he could be in Lucknow for the long haul.
He recently moved into the apartment of party leader Sudhir Halwasiya in Lucknow. Anybody seeking to talk to Shah has to still meet him separately at the party office, as he only meets senior leaders at home.
Party workers don’t remember Shah even smiling at such meetings. Till recently. On March 10, Shah was holding a party meeting in Ghaziabad when the district president of Baghpat, Kul Prakash, rose up to say, “Normally district presidents have no value. But when you are seated before us, we feel we also have clout. You are like lion and your presence gives us power like lion.”
In a campaign feeding on such machoism — thanks to him in no small measure — Shah couldn’t have been paid a better compliment. He acknowledged it with a grin.