Amit Shah, the most powerful Home Minister in recent times and undoubtedly the face of the BJP's campaign in Delhi, has ceded that the dark, divisive and communal exercise to win Delhi may have led to the party's monumental defeat.
At the Times Now summit yesterday, Shah said the comments made by his acolytes such as Anurag Thakur, Junior Finance Minister, "may have hurt the BJP." Thakur was the lead player at a rally where he led the crowd in chanting, "Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko." The league of hate-spinners included Yogi Adityanath who at election rallies peddled the notion that "biryani" was being provided to the protestors at Shaheen Bagh who are holding a mass stand-in against the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA.
Shah, who had exhorted voters to hit the button in favour of BJP with such force "that the current will be felt at Shaheen Bagh", has introspected to conclude that this particular remark was not offensive, a revelation made at the same TV summit yesterday.
But the bigger statement he made was on the precursor to the CAA, the compilation of a National Register of Citizens or NRC. The comment appeared to confuse even his party, which first tweeted that he had said the NRC would in fact happen. "No decision has been made on the NRC. It is in our party's manifesto and it will happen. Even the PM has publicly said that no decision has been taken on the NRC," the BJP quoted Amit Shah as saying. Within minutes emerged a re-write sans "the NRC will happen" part.
Since the fear of the NRC is what is driving the countrywide protests, the consecutive tweets should be seen as a heavy-handed attempt to please both the BJP voter, which supports the CAA, and allies like Nitish Kumar, who have said the NRC is not permissible in their states.
Nitish Kumar, who is up for re-election later this year and whose signature move is political road-crossing, is closely evaluating the Delhi result to determine if voter resistance to the CAA and NPR is in forward motion. Commentators have been saying that Kumar, spurred by Delhi's wholesale rejection of the BJP, may somersault back to the "secular camp". This seems unlikely - Nitish is aware that the PM remains unchallenged in popularity and together, their parties stand the best chance of winning Bihar.
But election strategist Prashant Kishor, who was expelled by Nitish just weeks ago from their party, the Janata Dal United or JDU, claims that Kumar was sick of being insulted by Modi and Shah and has been in touch with opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee and the Gandhis to evaluate his options.
Kishor, who managed the Delhi campaign for Arvind Kejriwal, and whose enmity with Amit Shah is the stuff of political legend, tweeted that the BJP's loss in Delhi has "saved the soul of India". In 2014, Kishor was a backroom manager for Modi and through his Bihar role, was a part of the BJP-Nitish alliance, so the irony should not be lost on anyone.
Nitish is known to do "loud thinking" via his pet columnists in the media and they are all unanimous that the Delhi result will embolden him to demand a better deal from Shah for the Bihar election. Certainly, Shah's remarks yesterday will serve as a valentine. Nitish Kumar can now claim that hate speech has been disowned by the BJP - never mind that no action was taken by the party against the campaigners who made disgraceful remarks - so he has no reason to disentangle himself with the BJP. The deletion of the threat of NRC was also a public sop to him and his Muslim voters.
The recent Supreme Court judgement on promotions for scheduled castes in government jobs not being a right is also being used astutely by Nitish to attack the BJP. He wants a public assurance that the government will get the ruling overturned in parliament.
On the NRC, Shah will attempt to carefully walk a tightrope till the Bengal elections next year. The Delhi campaign was Shah's laboratory for Bengal where he will uncork a far larger and less subtle attempt to consolidate Hindu voters by depicting Muslims as the enemy.
Shah is now desperate to win Bihar and then West Bengal. Sources tell me that ahead of Bihar, the plan is to dial down on the CAA/NRC, even speak to the women in Shaheen Bagh (Shah offered an outreach yesterday) and showcase normality in Kashmir. Then, a sea change for Bengal with vintage Shah - the NRC will make its way back on the menu and the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) will be announced early next year to take away the autonomy of religious communities on matters like marriage.
Significantly, Shah has also decided to cut back on his public profile for now; then, Bihar will see less of Shah but Bengal will be a Shah showcase.
Modi-2 had so far unfolded as Modi and Shah hyphenated. That is going to be tamped down. Modi will again occupy all public space. But, as a senior BJP minister says, "Shah-ji is very strategic. He knows when and how to give a electric current to the opposition".
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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