11, Akbar Road, Delhi, has a distinctly quiet, government bungalow look. Indeed it is. It emits no sign of the power its resident wields. Here lives the president of the world’s largest political outfit: the BJP. This is the place Amit Shah chose to speak to The Indian Express Group on a dull, rain-soaked afternoon. But unlike the climate outside and far from his image of being reticent towards the media, Shah was in an expansive mood, not avoiding any question. Excerpts from an interview with Loksatta Editor Girish Kuber, that ran well over 75 minutes, over kande-pohe, rounds of masala chai and under the watchful stare of Arya Chanakya and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar from two portraits hanging on the wall behind where Shah sat:
You travel a lot. Do you sense a change in the wind for the Modi government?
Not at all. In fact it has become more stronger, solid for the Modiji-led BJP.
What makes you think so?
The ground situation and the kind of efforts we are making… I am personally monitoring the situation in every constituency, having covered over 7 lakh km by road. We have everything going in our favour — right from the work of the government to the ineffective Opposition.
But the Opposition is determined to fight unitedly against you….
In which state can they pose a challenge to us? Uttar Pradesh? Where we are widening our base. Maharashtra? Where the Congress has been wiped out. Tamil Nadu? Madhya Pradesh? West Bengal, where we are sure of winning close to half of the total 42 seats? Bihar? Here we lost but we have substantially gained in percentage of votes polled and we have an alliance there which is going strong… So where is the Mahagathbandhan that will challenge the BJP? Bhajapa ko door-door tak koi challenge khada huwa nahin dikhta (I see no challenge to the BJP at all).
Two points. In UP, the by-elections have shown that your vote is shifting, and in Maharashtra, that sends 48 MPs to Parliament, the biggest chunk after UP, the Shiv Sena, your partner of over two decades, is upset with you.
Bypoll results don’t matter because voters don’t vote to elect the PM, unlike in the general elections. So for bypolls, issues are very local. And as far as the Gorakhpur bypoll defeat is concerned, I must admit we failed in bringing our voters to polling booths on voting day. You can say we were a little complacent. And the Shiv Sena continues to be our alliance partner — in the state as well as at the Centre. I have every reason to believe that they will stay with us. So why should I react to its criticism?
But if you are confident that the BJP’s strength is growing, why do you need an alliance partner like the Shiv Sena, which has been a more bitter critic of you than even the Congress?
We need everyone. Not for anything but for the fact that we believe in taking everyone together. We have formed governments in many states on our own, but we also have alliances in many states. We are ruling 20 states. So we want everyone to come with us.
You don’t think there is a need to look for newer partners?
There are always pluses and minuses in alliances. It happens. And why not? You discover new friends along the way. Pre-poll alliances are good for voters too. They know whom they are going to vote for.
Any chance of the Sharad Pawar-led NCP joining you?
(With a smile) As of now, the Shiv Sena is our coalition partner.
Will you be going back to the TDP?
No way. They have broken away from us. We won’t go back.
When you talk of new alliances, what’s your take on what happened in J&K? Do you think, looking back now, that it was a mistake to join hands with the PDP?
No, it wasn’t a mistake. Our intentions were good, we wanted overall development of the region. But it didn’t work. We have already talked about the reasons why the alliance failed there. The most important reason your critics cite is your approach to J&K. The BJP is criticised for following an alleged only-Hindu policy. That you were more concerned about Jammu and Ladakh and not so much about the Muslim-dominated Valley.
Every good government’s duty is to do more for the regions that are underdeveloped. If we were seen as doing more for Jammu, etc., then it’s basically to compensate them for years of neglect… The BJP is trying to correct historical wrongs that have taken place in handling of J&K right from Independence. Jammu and/or Ladakh have been left way behind due to faulty policies (of the past governments). We are just correcting those. If any party is to be accused of being partial, it should be the Congress, which is responsible for this skewed development of the region. It’s (Jawaharlal) Nehru’s legacy. Hamein wo musibaten virasat mein mileen (We inherited those problems).
How far is it true that the BJP is trying to engineer defections in the PDP to form a government there with a breakaway group?
Absolutely wrong. We have no intention of forming any such government in J&K.
One of the biggest criticisms against the BJP government is also its inability to stop the growing menace of cow vigilantism and lynching, etc. What’s the reason for this?
You have to understand that it’s not happening only now. You can’t single out only the BJP for it. It was much more during the UPA regime. The number of lynchings or communal crimes has not gone up, those are getting reported more now. Contrary to criticism, BJP-ruled states are seen taking actions quickly against all such elements. We don’t let them take law into their hands. There is not a single instance where those involved in such crimes have gone unpunished or not been booked. FIRs have been registered in every single case. We take these cases seriously and deal with them with equal seriousness. The problem is with the perception which is being created by the media.
Meaning no one (from the media) discussed such incidents that took place during Congress rule. If you people (the media) research, you will realise how facts can shame the perception about the BJP. There were more such incidences taking place then than now. It’s your (the media’s) responsibility to tell the truth.
But why don’t you stop sundry leaders from your party from making inflammatory speeches? Does the party believe polarisation will help?
How can I stop them? Main unke moonh ko taala nahin laga sakta (I can’t gag them). There’s democracy in our party. The question also is why you (the media) give publicity to those making such statements? Is there a BJP leader worth his name like Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari making such statements inciting violence or cow vigilantism? You (the media) give these elements undue publicity and later blame us for inaction. Polarisation on religious lines for political gains shall not be on the BJP’s agenda. There will be no attempt whatsoever from us that will communalise the political atmosphere. With the wide-ranging development agenda we have, the Narendra Modi-led BJP will improve its performance in 2019.
You mention inner-party democracy. Another criticism against the BJP is that it’s no longer a democratic party and it doesn’t believe in democratic norms. For example, Opposition leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s recent letter to the Prime Minister on the Lokpal panel….
Firstly you have to realise that Khargeji can’t claim the status of Leader of the Opposition. The Congress doesn’t have that much strength in the Lok Sabha. So he can’t claim his right to what actually was a courtesy extended to him by us. Whatever he is saying is all useless drama. He wouldn’t have been a member of the panel had we not been democratic.
But while you claim to be democratic, critics say the BJP is a two-leader party. There is no inner-party democracy.
Who says so… other than the Opposition?
Many within the BJP too feel so, they tell us off the record.
Give me their names.
You know no one would say on the record or in front of you… They are scared.
No one will say this even off the record or behind my back. Because hardly anything stays off the record. So it’s not true. It’s the perception that’s being created.
Your slogans, say Congress-mukt Bharat or Trinamool-mukt West Bengal, aren’t they undemocratic?
Why? I have no right to widen, expand my party? If I have that right, how will I exercise it? Do you want me to say, ‘Unko bhi rahne do (Let them stay too)’? I lead the BJP, so I will say, ‘Follow my party’. Will you, as a print journalist, tell readers read this paper, that paper, or will you tell them to read the paper you work for? Yeh channelwale kahenge woh bhi dekho (Will these channelwallahs say this)?… So whatever right you have, why can’t I have it? It’s as simple as that. There is nothing undemocratic in these slogans. It’s my ambition to have my party at every booth and I am striving to achieve this. No other party president is making efforts as much as I. So I have every right to give these slogans. If a person living in a bungalow next to mine starts objecting to me exercising for my physical fitness on my terrace arguing he is petrified of me becoming strong, will you accept it? Isn’t it weird? Then it’s the same thing here (in politics).
That is one aspect. The BJP is also accused of inciting trolls on social media. Anyone criticising you becomes anti-national….
We are not doing it. No one can control social media. We don’t even intend to. We have never backed or encouraged trolls. Many a time we too are a victim on social media. But we won’t complain. Those who do, need to raise their level of tolerance.
There was an effort by the government to create a social media hub… Wasn’t it an attempt to control it?
Has it happened? And people are criticising it even before studying it properly. We can’t be intolerant about social media.
Many states are witnessing agitations by more social groups to get reservation benefits. The BJP is conspicuously silent on the issue. Why so?
There are constitutional limitations to what can be done under the existing reservation policy. Under the law, reservations are capped at 50 per cent. However, the demands to bring in more into the bracket (of reservations) can’t be ignored. So we need to have a wider debate on creating an all-party consensus to widen the scope of reservations.
Does the BJP plan to initiate such a debate?
First, let me make one point clear. That there won’t be any change, and I repeat, any change, in the current reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs. We are here to protect them. But considering the demand from various other or additional social groups to bring them under the reserved category, there has to be a national debate. Why should it come from us? It’s not necessary to have such initiatives only from the ruling party. We will support any such move by anybody. Even you (the media) can initiate the debate on it, we will support.
The Narendra Modi government is inconsistent or directionless on the economic front. As a party chief, how do you look at it? Say demonetisation. Didn’t it hit the economy hard?
Yes, it hit the economy hard. But not that of the nation or the common man. It hit the Congress’s economy very hard. And what’s wrong with India’s economy? It’s reaching newer heights on every front. The GDP, forex reserves, ease of doing business, inflation, even Sensex… the economy is doing great on every count. Compare the BJP with the UPA and you will realise how the Indian economy is set to fly even higher. India is the fastest-growing economy in the world. We will soon be in the top five.
But it’s jobless….
Who says so? Don’t go by what experts say. Look at the ground situation. The government has offered loans to over 12 crore individuals under the Mudra scheme. And they are not meant for pakodawallahs, as alleged by some. There are MBBS graduates, other professionals who have availed loans. Won’t you consider this as employment generation? The media should go in deep to find facts. Along with economy, the Modi government’s performance is exceedingly good on creating India’s brand image overseas. Surgical strikes — which the Congress couldn’t have ever dared — Doklam, Chabahar port, you name an issue… you will realise how good the Modi government’s performance has been. Also, we have plugged many loopholes such as Singapore, Mauritius, Cyprus routes that were helping siphon off black money from India. The world is proud of the economic and political stability the Modi government has brought to the nation. It’s a matter of pride for all of us.
After hearing this, one point comes to mind. Despite having so much on your progress card, as you say, why is the BJP so obsessed with Rahul (Gandhi)?
We aren’t obsessed at all, you (the media) are. We are busy and happy showcasing our positive agenda but it’s the media that seems to be obsessed with Rahul, polarisation etc. We have grown too big to be obsessed with such issues.
Agree. You have grown a lot. But how far is it true that along the way the BJP has been Congressised? The Congressisation of the BJP is very rapid.
This can be said or would be true if you could predict who would be the BJP’s next president after me. Can you? Could you have ever thought who after Rajnath Singh or Nitin Gadkari? No, right? But I can tell you who can be the Congress’s president after Rahul. Such a situation doesn’t arise in the BJP because we are a truly democratic party and blieve in democratic values and principles, unlike the Congress, which just offers lip service.