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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Modi, Shah: Vajpayee, Advani 2.0

Shah’s hardline image has achieved the impossible: just as Advani made Vajpayee look statesmanlike, Shah is doing the same for Modi. There’s little doubt that a succession plan has been drawn up by Modi and Shah in consultation with the RSS.

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In the early years of  Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the soft-spoken, erudite globalist while Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel played the iron-fisted strongman.  

When the BJP came to power in 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the gentle persuader. Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister L. K.  Advani was the executor.  

Is history repeating itself today? Ironically, the harshest critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who have vilified him since 2002 now look fearfully at Amit Shah. They hope, if the BJP wins the 2024 Lok Sabha election, that Modi stays Prime Minister and doesn’t retire to the Himalayas. The prospect of Amit Shah as Prime Minister has unnerved them so much that they are prepared to anoint Modi as the new Vajpayee – internationalist, moderate, even statesmanlike. 

Curiously, much the same happened with Vajpayee. He was vilified by the Congress and its allies as communal. In December 1984, when Vajpayee, then the 58-year-old BJP president, was defeated in the Lok Sabha election by Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior, the Congress rejoiced at the electorate’s rejection of a Hindutva icon. 

Vajpayee was replaced as BJP president by L. K. Advani in 1986. With just two seats for the BJP in the Lok Sabha, Advani turned Vajpayee’s moderate Hindutva into a harder, more aggressive version. His 1990 Rath Yatra led to a resurgence of Hindu identity politics. It set into motion a sequence of events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. 

As Advani’s hard Hindutva image solidified, Vajpayee gradually assumed the role of the consensual moderate. The combination worked to reassure voters that the BJP could be a responsible right-of-centre national alternative to the left-of-centre Congress. By 1998, re-engineering complete, the BJP formed the government as head of a 24-party NDA coalition. It was Vajpayee’s mild-mannered charm that attracted parties like Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and Mamata Banerjee’s newly formed Trinamool Congress to join the NDA.  

By 2002, a new star was on the horizon: Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi. Few recognised his potential at the time. Sonia Gandhi, however, did. After Modi swept the Gujarat assembly election in December 2002, barely months after the Godhra-sparked communal riots, Sonia began to keep a close watch on Modi. When the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004, a series of attacks on Modi’s credibility were launched, including the charge of complicity in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case.  

With Vajpayee in retirement and Advani in the bad books of the RSS after calling Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah “secular” during a visit to Pakistan in 2005, the quiet ascension of Modi began. In May 2014, having survived attacks on his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi was about to become the most reviled Prime Minister India would elect. 

The foreign media was especially venomous. Roger Boyes wrote superciliously in The Times just before the 2014 Lok Sabha election: “It looks as if India is embarking on a sea change. We can and must respect their democratic choice. We can also warn our Indian friends, in case they haven’t worked it out for themselves, Mr Modi is potentially big trouble.”  

The Economist editorialised in April 2014: “We do not find the prospect of a government led by Congress under Mr (Rahul) Gandhi an inspiring one. But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.” The publication has – unsurprisingly – been relatively muted about Gandhi’s performance since.  

Modi has meanwhile shifted gears. After leading the BJP to a landslide victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Modi like Vajpayee of yore, has become gentrified. He talks about inclusiveness, visits mosques, and plays the global statesman. An excerpt from Modi’s speech following the BJP’s victory in 2019 could legitimately have been delivered by Vajpayee: “My beloved citizens of India, you have filled the bowl of this beggar with expectations, hopes and dreams. I understand the gravity of this but I will tell the country that in 2014 you didn’t know me much yet you trusted me. In 2019, after knowing me well you have given me more strength. This means that Indians have so much trust in us and as the trust increases, so does the responsibility. I might make mistakes but none of them would be with bad intentions. If I fall short of any expectations, then criticise me but the things I say publicly, I will try to live up to those expectations.” 

Home Minister Amit Shah is the new hard Hindutva man. He convinced Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to go all out over invalidating key provisions in Article 370 and settle the Jammu and Kashmir issue once and for all. Shah’s performance in parliament has taken on a new edge. 

Shah’s hardline image has achieved the impossible: just as Advani made Vajpayee look statesmanlike, Shah is doing the same for Modi. There’s little doubt that a succession plan has been drawn up by Modi and Shah in consultation with the RSS. Broadly speaking, the plan sees Modi and Shah using the next five years to deal with the J&K issue, implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), build the Ram Mandir, revive the economy and enlarge welfare benefits for the poor. 

With an economic turnaround likely by 2020-21, the BJP hopes to sweep the Lok Sabha election in 2024 on a dual plank of hard nationalism, a resurgent economy and expanded welfare benefits. Modi turns 75 in September 2025. He would have been Prime Minister for over 11 years, longer than any Indian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Amit Shah would have been Home Minister for more than six years, perhaps controlling the finance ministry by then as well. Modi could well decide to hand over the mantle of prime ministerial candidate to Shah before the 2029 Lok Sabha poll. 

It is a prospect that frightens the Congress so much that it has begun calling Modi the new Vajpayee, hoping he doesn’t ever abdicate in favour of Shah. The man Sonia Gandhi called maut ka saudagar has been all but forgiven so long as he keeps Shah in check.