The Rise of Jodi Number One

A hundred days and counting into the Modi government, whats the biggest difference between Modi 1.0 and Modi 2.0? The answer to that question doesn’t lie so much in the prime minister’s office but across the street in North Block. Where Modi’s first avatar had only one distinct power centre, we now have two. The rise of Amit Shah in his new role as home minister suggests that the Modi government has finally found room at the top for two. In particular, the question that has been sometimes whispered in the power corridors, ‘after Modi, who?’ has been conclusively settled in the last one hundred days.

Almost every major decision taken by the Modi government in its second coming bears the stamp of Shah. The effective scrapping of Article 370 is the most visible and dramatic example of the home minister’s impact on the government: this was clearly an exercise driven from the home minister’s office, planned and executed with the full support of the prime minister. Then, be it the amendments made to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that give sweeping powers to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to declare individuals as ‘terrorists’, the Right to Information act amendments that have constricted the autonomy of the information commissioners, to presiding over every major cabinet committee, Shah is now seen as the one individual outside of the prime minister himself who has the political heft to take crucial decisions.

Nor is this unusual. When Modi returned to power in Gujarat for the first time in 2002, Shah was appointed minister of state for home but also was in charge of as many as 12 portfolios in government at one time. He was seen as the eyes and ears of the Gujarat chief minister, tasked with executing the daily functioning of the state government even as Modi was the chief brand ambassador of the Gujarat model. It’s a relationship of mutual trust which worked very effectively in Gujarat for almost a decade till Shah was forced to resign in 2010 when he was jailed over charges of having orchestrated fake encounters.

The Modi-Shah ‘jodi number one’ is sui generis: even the BJP’s original fellow travelers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani who were prime minister and home minister during the two NDA governments between 1998 and 2004 cannot be compared to the new power couple. The vikas purush (development man) and loh purush (iron man) pairing were projected as co-mascots by the BJP at the time, a signaling that was built on the party’s desire to create an effective division of labour: Vajpayee as the more consensual, acceptable leader of a coalition government and Advani as the hard-nosed ideological symbol of political Hindutva. The duo had sharp differences in their style and approach to politics which at times led to friction within the government.

With Modi-Shah, on the other hand, this is a match made in a similar political crucible of Gujarat with no element of personal competition inter se. Unlike Vajpayee and Advani, Modi and Shah belong to different generations: Shah is fifteen years younger than the prime minister. Shah, in a sense, owes his political rise to Modi and has always acknowledged that theirs is a guru-shishya relationship where the younger man is acting under the tutelage of his senior. At no stage has Shah demonstrated any sense of one-upmanship over his ‘Saheb’. Even when the Article 370 resolution was passed in both houses of parliament and Modi reached out to congratulate Shah, the home minister dutifully bowed in gratitude before the prime minister. Even when the duo shared the frame after the 2019 election triumph, Shah was careful to walk a step behind the prime minister. The home minister maybe a parallel power centre but it is a role he plays without undermining Modi’s Supreme Leader status.

But the ascent of Shah goes beyond just a mutually convenient duopolistic power arrangement. It reflects a near-total ideological shift in the core task of governance in Modi 2.0. In particular, the nationalist fervor in governmental decision-making has now been taken to a new pitch. Witness Shah’s claim in Assam that he would like to extend the National Register for Citizens across the country. Or indeed his justification of the clampdown in Kashmir in unapologetic terms. Or his pushing for a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the earliest. In each instance, there is a visible religio-nationalist zeal that marks his pronouncements which suggests a push towards a majoritarian worldview which has little mindspace for constitutional morality.

Moreover, this unique power-sharing arrangement runs the same risk as Modi 1.0 did: an excessive centralization of power to the point where the rest of the cabinet and even the parliamentary system is rendered ineffectual. In the process, it faces the same potential pitfalls as the first Modi government did while taking arbitrary decisions like demonetisation. As 24 x 7 strong-willed politicians with a fierce risk-taking appetite, Modi and Shah are ready to push government policy-making into uncharted waters without any compunctions. A certain unilateralism in approach has meant that there is little attempt at consultation and consensus-building with stakeholders before major decisions are taken. So overwhelming is the self-belief that any expression of dissent or mild criticism is viewed as a challenge to authority. This can only accentuate authoritarian tendencies and lead to a shrinking space for dialogue that is so crucial for democratic decision-making.

In a relatively small state like Gujarat, the Modi-Shah duo could work effectively because the entire political-bureaucratic order was beholden to them. In a more diverse polity with competing interests at different levels, any attempt to impose a two man show can slowly begin to unravel if there are no checks and balances. A pushback is unlikely for now given the complete dominance of the BJP over electoral politics –with Modi as the charioteer and Shah as the executioner – but there may come a time when the quality of governance will have to be separated from poll success. Which is when, as at the moment on Kashmir and the economy, the Modi-Shah model will be tested beyond just being an election winning machine.

Post-script: As the Modi government ‘celebrated’ its 100 days, the prime minister was in Haryana invoking the ‘ISRO’ spirit of positivity. Shah, on the other hand, was in Assam and talking tough on the NRC and Citizenship Act. While Modi seeks to reach out to the moon, Shah is driving the ideological agenda on the ground. Fast bowlers hunt in pairs, so it would seem do politicians!

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