Modi-Shah share a unique power equation unlike Nehru-Patel

Shekhar Gupta
Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Our first such arrangement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was so fascinating, it is still making headlines almost 75 years later. As it did earlier this week.

What do we make of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP government now that the latter has finally moved away from his control of the party? He had done so a few weeks earlier, formally handing charge to his successor JP Nadda, but the Delhi election was still the pending item on his agenda. How does the road ahead look?

This, the Modi-Shah government is the third such in our 73-year independent history yet. Governments led by the power of two. A pair of leaders with comparable stature working closely together. Of course, there are others that had just one leader, or short-lived ones that had none at all.

For those of us watching politics from the sidelines, all three types are fun. The leaderless arrangements, from Charan Singh to IK Gujral, through VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Deve Gowda, are the most entertaining because they fight, leak, and die quickly. Those with one leader, like Indira and Rajiv, compensate you with stories of intrigue, mostly set around who is in and who is out. But those where power is shared between two near-equals aren’t boring either.

Our first such arrangement, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was so fascinating, it is still making headlines almost 75 years later. As it did earlier this week.

You could argue that it was a sharing of power in mutual trust between Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh. But the difference is, there the prime minister wasn’t even the first among equals. In fact, towards the second half of that arrangement, he wasn’t even the second. He was the third, after Rahul Gandhi.

That leaves us with the two BJP/NDA governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, respectively. Both have been run by that power of two, the first, Vajpayee and LK Advani, and the second, now, with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. There are differences, however. Vajpayee and Advani were close personal friends and kindred souls, also fellow long-marchers and about the same age.

They were always seen as equals, one more popular, acceptable and soft, the other harder, more political, ideological. They disagreed often but deferred to each other. I had sometimes compared them with an old couple, deeply loyal, dependent and affectionate mutually, but squabbling often and lapsing into periods of long, sullen sulks. 

Modi and Shah are in a different category altogether.

Nehru and Patel were near-equals with many disagreements that were known publicly. But there was never a doubt who the boss in that arrangement was. How their tensions would have played out, in the long run, we will never know because Patel died too soon. 

Vajpayee and Advani had a different equation. There is zero doubt that Advani founded and built the new BJP, created a new Hindutva space and positioned it firmly there. He built and controlled the party.

Within the BJP, he was also a mass leader and deal-maker, building and breaking alliances. Vajpayee was more a public performer and romantic. 

For most of his politics, he followed Advani even if he sometimes fretted about his methods, or withdrew into hurt and embarrassment, as after the Babri Masjid demolition. But he would never defy or overrule Advani. At the same time, when the party came close to power, Advani faced his moment of truth with pragmatism.

He knew it would be impossible to knit a coalition of diverse ideologies with the thin thread of anti-Congressism under his leadership. He needed someone more inclusive and acceptable, namely Vajpayee. It follows that Vajpayee did become prime minister, but the real power in the party remained with Advani, as it did in many ways within the government.

We saw early evidence of this as Vajpayee wasn’t allowed to induct his trusted and much-valued friend and aide Jaswant Singh into his Cabinet and the continuing squabbles within, as circles close to the RSS (and surely not far from Advani) kept harassing him over his alter ego Brajesh Mishra or foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. Then, most importantly, Advani prevailed when Vajpayee wanted to sack Modi in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Even on strategic issues, whether India was going to make war or peace, Advani had the final word. It’s a documented fact that even the Agra Summit with Gen. Pervez Musharraf was an idea moved forward by Advani, as was the decision to scuttle it. In the usual sycophantic and gossipy circle around them, the buzz was, arrey bhai, they are always together, like Ram and Lakshman.

Until Advani got impatient waiting. He had quite a durbar of his own. And, as I had written in a 2009 National Interest, ‘The making of the Flaw Purush’, it was people around him who egged him on. A few dramatic things happened then. Rumours from ‘informed’ circles spread in Vajpayee’s last year that he was tired, and might be retiring — and handing over to the successor -apparent. This made Vajpayee break his silence. He asserted famously, with a touch of irony more than humour, that he was ‘neither tired, nor retired’.

This became more complicated as Advani, again encouraged by his party’s heartland sweep (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh) in the winter of 2003, forced a reluctant Vajpayee to advance general elections in 2004. Midway through the campaign, stories about Vajpayee being tired and old surfaced again, suggesting he would abdicate midway through his next term and hand over to Advani. Vajpayee was furious and made no secret of it. After the 

NDA lost that election against the run of play, he let people know whose ‘greed and sin’ had brought them to their deserved fate.

The Modi-Shah arrangement is strikingly different in many ways. Let’s count the three most important ones. First, while they have been fellow travellers for about two decades, one is an all-conquering mass leader and the other a brilliant party commissar. There is a clear role and skill-set distinction.

One brings the votes and the other gets the party and its electoral machine in place to collect these. To that extent, it is truly a number one and two relationship. A bit like a corporate CEO and COO, a chief minister and his most trusted chief secretary, commandant and sergeant-major or, if you prefer it that way, although Shah said at this week’s Times Now event that he didn’t want that comparison, Chandragupta Maurya and Kautilya.

Second, the two have a radically different outlook on public life. One, an extroverted public performer, enjoying global adulation and attention, the other a back-room power player unwilling to give an audience to even ambassadors of key countries. One, a crowd-puller, the other a rouser of only the party faithful. One, careful to play the good cop often, the other equally content to go with his beliefs, even if it means being the bad cop always. And third, in this case unlike the other two, the number two is considerably (14 years) younger than the other. Therefore, he looks at a political future way beyond the number one.

This Delhi election completes Shah’s innings as the party boss. He might have preferred for it to end differently. But, from Haryana to Delhi through Jharkhand, and to some extent 

Maharashtra, voters have underlined a tough fact to him: That the vote for Modi is not the same as a vote for BJP and definitely not for the most polarising aspects of its ideology.

It is with this sobering realisation that Shah now enters an unfamiliar and interesting phase of his political career. His success or failure will henceforth be assessed based on his performance as a key minister. With Modi, he now forms the most powerful and fascinating pair in our political history yet. And much political writing in years to come will be defined by their equation, and as time passes, more by the Shah story.

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