Demonetisation, the reading down of Article 370 and the early morning revocation of President’s rule in Maharashtra to make way for a hilariously short-lived BJP government—the list is now long enough to illustrate a pattern of stealth, self-aggrandisement and stupidity that marks the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah model of governance. For those of us looking into this rather opaque regime, the pattern is also illustrative of the nature of interaction between Modi and Shah and the dangers they pose to the country.
We now know enough about Modi to glean what matters most to him: his public image. In 2007, while reporting on the election in Gujarat, I spoke to Modi’s then personal photographer, Vivek Desai, who described a photo session that began at 6 am at the then chief minister’s house. The outfits had been pre-selected, Desai told me. “He then stood in the empty room and started giving a lecture to an imaginary crowd,” Desai continued. “It is only when he speaks in this fashion that his expressions come to life. That is why photographers are never allowed to shoot him unless he is giving an emotive interview or speaking in public. On that day, the session lasted four hours.” Worried about his bulging waistline, Desai said that Modi always made sure that he was photographed from the waist up. He added that Modi always ensures that “his hand is always caught mid-gesture, emphasising a point or with his index finger raised.”
Not much has changed after the move to Delhi. As in Gujarat, his focused attention to detail stops beyond the self, and it shows up in the faltering progress of almost all his pet schemes. Once the publicity campaign is completed, Modi’s attention moves elsewhere. For this very reason Amit Shah becomes the foil Modi cannot do without. He may not have been directly involved in running the government in the previous term, but like he did in Gujarat, Shah handled Modi’s electoral machinery. This includes the booth-wise attention to detail, the ability to pick the right set of people to lead a regional campaign, and the effort to build the party structure where it was absent. Modi, after due attention to his self-image, largely prefers to leave such details to Shah.
It is an arrangement that works well. Modi is quick to temper and has difficulty controlling his emotions when he is confronted or challenged, which is the reason he has shied away from interactions with the media that were not pre-arranged to his satisfaction. Amit Shah is at ease in such a setting, and so, he was the one who addressed the media at the end of the BJP’s campaign for the 2019 elections, while Modi sat beside him in silence. Some media commentators, short on information, have chosen to read too much into such public appearances. The fact remains: Modi draws his power from the people—however uncomfortable that reality is—and Shah draws his power from Modi.
The stamp that Shah brings to the government was already evident during demonetisation, in November 2016. He was one of the few who was privy to the decision in advance and could comment on it in public. In fact, the demonetisation model has now become a template. Shrouded in secrecy, demonetisation had caught almost everyone off-guard, it served its immediate political interest handsomely in the Uttar Pradesh elections the following year, and has since proved to be a disaster for the economy. But the main takeaway from the experience, which the duo appears to have adopted as their template, is clear: between benefiting their politics and damaging the republic, they would always choose their politics.