BJP President Amit Shah's electoral debut for the Lok Sabha polls was grandly showcased in Ahmedabad on Saturday, possibly as the final step in the changing of the guard within the BJP, which has seen the party wrap itself around the Modi-Shah combine since 2014. The show of strength from his partymen and allies started in Naranpura, a neighbourhood that Shah has had a close association with for decades. According to local police, roughly 15,000 people gathered in the city's streets to witness the start of Shah's roadshow that culminated in him filing his nomination in nearby Gandhinagar, the state capital.
The presence of a galaxy of top political leaders on stage, starting with former four-time Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal, who is 91-years-old, to former BJP presidents and cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray and the Lok Janshakti Party's Ram Vilas Paswan, who was the lone major Dalit leader, made the desired political statement on Amit Shah's behalf. Union minister Piyush Goyal, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Kumar Rupani, nearly every member of the state cabinet and several MLAs were also present.
#BJP President @AmitShah's electoral debut for the #LokSabhaElections2019 was grandly showcased in #Ahmedabad on Saturday, possibly as the final step in the changing of the guard within the #BJP, which has seen the party wrap itself around the #Modi-Shah combine since 2014. pic.twitter.com/kyAN07qJbw— Deccan Herald (@DeccanHerald) March 30, 2019
The absence of Lal Krishna Advani (91) the former deputy PM, former party president and sitting MP from Gandhinagar since 1998 was palpable - although Shah's immense local popularity meant no one was complaining. Murali Manohar Joshi, another former party president, was also absent. However, Shah's choice of allies and partymen at his roadshow was characteristically calculated, signaling to locals that he's a leader of national stature, and to the rest of the country that Gujarat is sending the next Advani to New Delhi.
Shah said in his speech that he's always one to be 'close to the people' and is therefore keen to contest the Lok Sabha polls (he's been a Rajya Sabha MP since 2017). Shah and other leaders' speeches were filled with superlatives, rhetoric, promises and posturing around governance, Hindutva, corruption and the lack of opposition strength. He said the only issue in this election is about who is going to lead India, going on to say that Modi is the only person capable of the job. Shah spoke in Hindi, possibly for the benefit of his alliance partners and non-Gujarati partymen on stage. Uddhav Thackeray, who threw in some Marathi during his speech, asked who from the opposition was the challenger to Modi. Paswan was the only leader who mentioned poverty during his address.
The rally itself covered a four-kilometer stretch in Ahmedabad. It had the makings of an old-fashioned electoral scene, replete with buntings, flags and giant cutouts of political figures, including of alliance partners like Badal, Paswan and Uddhav. There were also loud speakers playing songs from a yet-to-be-released biopic on Modi and men on megaphones leading chants of 'Modi, Modi', 'Jai Sri Ram', 'Phir Ek Baar, Modi Sarkar' and 'Amit Bhai tum age bado, hum thumare saath hai'. The mood was understandably jubilant, given that Gandhinagar has been a BJP bastion since 1989. Large plastic bags filled with rose petals were distributed by workers and thrown by onlookers onto the moving caravan, filling the thick, hot morning air with festive scent. Mini stages with traditional dancers, women dressed in BJP-branded sarees and party workers and supporters clad in saffron lined most of the stretch.
Shah's political statement makes his future role as a member of the union cabinet, should the NDA return to government, a foregone conclusion. It will likely be a prime portfolio, depending on alliance arithmetic. Political observers will call it Modi's reward for Shah's work in building the party organisation and forging alliances across various states. However, a reversal in the polls or even a significant drop from the BJP's current strength is likely to disturb the power equations within the party, which has seen some murmurs about the development of a 'high command' culture - a pejorative reference to the Congress party's dynastic culture built around the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The BJP prides itself on being a democratic party, giving itself the tagline 'party with a difference'. However, this veiled reference to the Modi-Shah combine and discomfort about it within the saffron party is not openly discussed for obvious reasons. 'As long as you're winning, all will be fine,' said a senior party leader recently, on condition of anonymity. Shah's gesture of inviting three alliance members and two former BJP presidents to his Ahmedabad roadshow could be seen in light of this, and with the need to make his accession to Lutyens Delhi smooth, even if the BJP doesn't manage as many seats as it did in 2014.