|Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the BJP meeting in New Delhi on Saturday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Aug. 9: Mentor and pupil leant sideways, putting their heads together and whispering. Narendra Modi giggled; Amit Shah giggled back.
Rarely has the Prime Minister looked so relaxed at a national party gathering as today; seldom has he chatted so much on the dais. Few have seen the poker-faced Shah break into a smile so often.
But the occasion was no ordinary one: a BJP national council had been called to ratify “the only man Modi trusts 100 per cent” as party president. It would mark the last step in a three-decade-old partnership’s journey from a Sangh office in Gujarat to the peak of national politics, placing the Prime Minister’s right-hand man exactly where he wanted him.
All that was left for them now was to heap praise on each other. Modi described Shah as the “Man of the Match” of the summer general election, where the lieutenant had delivered 73 of the 80 seats in India’s heartland state despite being an outsider.
The choice of a cricketing idiom appeared apt — Modi recently stepped down as Gujarat Cricket Association president to be replaced by Shah.
“Rajnath Singh (Shah’s predecessor) was the captain of the team and Amitbhai Shah the Man of the Match,” the Prime Minister said.
“If Amitbhai were not in the national team to deliver the spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh, the country would never have known about his strengths.”
He added: “I have seen him from up close; I understand him. I’m confident he will deliver on the responsibility the party has handed him.”
Shah returned the compliment in his acceptance speech: “The jodi (partnership) of Rajnathji and Modiji oversaw the last elections. They faced many challenges but overcame them all in just seven or eight months.”
He prodded the delegates to give them a standing ovation. “This jodi fulfilled the hopes of lakhs of our workers. This election has created history not only in the BJP but in India, and will be enshrined in golden letters,” Shah claimed.
Modi-watchers know he has never been totally comfortable at large BJP assemblies.
At a national council in Delhi last year, shortly after Modi had won a third term in Gujarat but before his confirmation as candidate for Prime Minister, L.K. Advani had downplayed his role and talked up Sushma Swaraj and Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Chouhan, seated two places from Modi today, came up to the Prime Minister several times to catch his attention. Foreign minister Sushma was in Myanmar, leaving Advani forlorn. The show belonged to the Big Twosome.
While Advani greeted Shah perfunctorily with a shawl and a coconut, Modi enacted the same ritual with a degree of warmth that BJP insiders confessed they had rarely glimpsed in him.
The duo’s association goes back to 1982 when Shah was a Sangh activist and Modi a pracharak (whole-timer) in charge of youth activities in Ahmedabad’s Maninagar area. When then Sangh chief Balasaheb Deoras asked Modi to join the BJP, Shah was among the few to whom Modi had confided his fears about the change in his role.
After the BJP came to power in Gujarat in 1995, the two of them toiled together to wrest from the Congress the panchayats, municipalities, sports bodies and cooperatives.
Modi had backed his protégé to the hilt when, as his junior home minister, Shah was accused in fake encounter cases. Modi forced the BJP’s central leaders to speak up for Shah in Parliament, often against the wishes of Advani and Sushma.
“Ever since Modiji became Prime Minister, he had wanted Shah to take over the party reins and stay by his side in Delhi,” an insider said.
“Nobody else enjoys Modiji’s 100 per cent confidence. Now Modiji will sleep in peace, knowing the party will be safe in Shah’s hands.”