At a rally in Solan ahead of the November 12 Himachal Pradesh polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a candid remark: “Remember, who is the BJP candidate? You don’t have to remember anyone. Simply remember the lotus… If you see ‘kamal ka phool’ while casting your vote, understand that this is the BJP, this is Modi who has come to you. Your every vote for ‘kamal ka phool’ will come directly to Modi’s account as a blessing.”
With the party’s chief ministers facing anti-incumbency, the BJP is increasingly relying on the final weeks of the campaign, when Modi steps in, reminding crowds that he is there for them in New Delhi. Nobody in the BJP is more in demand when it comes to lifting the party’s campaign, re-establishing connect with voters and regaining their trust.
If Modi is the face of the BJP, Union Home Minister Amit Shah remains the key organisational figure to give the party structure direction, cohesiveness and energy ahead of any election. For example, take Gujarat. Shah had been keeping away from affairs of the state BJP, more occupied at the Centre as the de-facto national head of the party. Even the state executive meeting which took place just days before the change of guard last year in the state – Bhupendra Patel replaced Vijay Rupani in September 2021 – was attended by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, with Shah conspicuously absent.
The party affairs were run by B L Santhosh (general secretary, Organisation); Mansukh Mandaviya (handpicked by Modi to be Union Health Minister); J P Nadda (BJP president); C R Paatil (chief of the Gujarat unit); and Bhupendra Patel. Incidentally, Paatil is considered a diehard Modi loyalist and replaced Jitu Vaghani, a Shah protege, as Gujarat BJP chief in July 2020.
However, with the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) making sound and fury in the Gujarat election scene, enough to be considered a serious contender, Shah has stepped in. Since mid-October now, the Union Home Minister has been in control of the party’s electioneering, holding marathon meetings with leaders from booths to districts to the state level.
This also reflects that despite aggressive campaigns and outreach programmes to take the BJP to all corners of the country, under the overarching shadow of Modi and Shah, leaders have struggled to rise in the party’s state units. Every month, BJP office-bearers, Union ministers, MPs and MLAs get a to-do list from the national leadership to remain on the ground, reach out to voters and communicate the “good works”of the Modi government.
The sole exception to the absence of vote catchers in state units is Yogi Adityanath, who has developed a following in Uttar Pradesh, and outside, since becoming CM. Even in UP though, Shah finally did step in to get cadre ready for battle mode to ensure a repeat win for the BJP in the 2022 Assembly elections.
Modi is known to have, more than once, expressed his disappointment at “the failure of party MPs to rise to expectations” when it comes to participation in organisational activities as well as parliamentary proceedings.
In Himachal, where the BJP faces a serious issue of rebellion, Modi is believed to have made the call himself to one of the dissidents, Kripal Parmar, to placate him. The Opposition had attacked the BJP after a recording of the call went viral, but the party neither officially confirmed, nor denied it. A top leader asked what was wrong in the call. “It only shows that Modi is in direct touch with his leaders.”
However, some discontent is brewing in party ranks over the “top heavy” handling of things, especially over selection of people for posts. While in Himachal, this spilled out in the open during the elections, the BJP is worried about disillusionment in state units in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all of which are headed for polls.
But the worry is tempered by the fact that the strategy of Modi as the face of the BJP, Shah as the organisation man and Nadda as its amiable chief, is so far a winner. And that the Opposition has no real counter to it.