On 24 January, Amit Shah began his second term as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, following a first stint that began in July 2014, soon after Narendra Modi assumed power. The controversy over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, on 17 January, was engulfing the party. Vemula was a PhD scholar and a member of the Ambedkar Students Association at the University of Hyderabad, whose stipend had been stopped after a fracas with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Reports that the university’s actions may have resulted from interventions by the union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, and the human resources minister, Smriti Irani, were damaging the BJP, which was already vulnerable to criticism that it was anti-Dalit. The party’s reaction—which was to question if Vemula was indeed a Dalit—utterly failed to contain the damage. Modi intervened, briefly and belatedly, to express anguish at the suicide, but the overwhelming tone of the party was to strongly defend Dattatreya and Irani.
Less than a month later, on 12 February, police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, on charges of sedition, after he attended an event where allegedly anti-India slogans had been raised. Once again, the ABVP—whose candidate had been defeated by Kanhaiya in the university’s union elections—was at the forefront of protesting “anti-national” activities. This time, to avoid a repeat of its embarrassment after the Hyderabad episode, the BJP took to branding all opposition to its actions as anti-national. Those leading the charge included the home minister, Rajnath Singh, who tweeted, “If anyone shouts anti India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared.” In the immediate aftermath, Modi did not offer up even a token statement, though the storm of controversy that followed sidelined an extravagant, week-long programme of events in support of the “Make in India” campaign, one of his pet projects.
Superficially, Shah’s reinstatement as the BJP’s head would seem to signal a continuation of the party’s ways during his first term. Back then, the party line was dominated by the combine of Shah, Modi and Arun Jaitley. But as these two incidents demonstrated, this will not be so in Shah’s second turn. The normally vocal Jaitley, who has never enjoyed the confidence of the Sangh, has been conspicuous by his almost complete silence. Meanwhile, the number of people speaking for the BJP has expanded to include leaders such as Singh and Sushma Swaraj, who enjoy the confidence of the Sangh and had lately been reduced to mere ciphers. And the line they echo is not set by Modi and his lieutenants, but by the RSS.