Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah is credited with scripting the party’s spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general elections and three years later in the assembly elections. Since being appointed party president in 2014, Shah has travelled to almost every district in the country to extend the BJP’s electoral footprint. After several misses, Mint finally caught up with Shah last week en route to Durgapur; coincidentally just a day after he clocked 1 million km in five years. Ensconced in the 10-seater private jet hired by the BJP, Shah, accompanied by a very limited entourage of personal staff was relaxed even while he fielded questions on the campaign, directed electoral preparations for the day and readied for his own stump speech scheduled in Jharkhand later on Saturday afternoon. Edited excerpts:
What is your assessment now that the sixth phase has all but concluded (the interview was conducted on Saturday)?
I can assure you that we will win more seats with greater margins and the space occupied by the BJP in Parliament will also expand.
So the BJP will win a majority on its own?
It will be more than 282.
But a senior leader of your own party, Ram Madhav, indicated that the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) will fall short of a majority?
Look, I have travelled to more than 300 constituencies in the country and I am meeting party functionaries across the country. So take it from me that BJP will not win anything less than 282.
What are the prospects of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh?
Most of the analysts in the country, including journalists, are living with the mindset of the 1980s. That era where two leaders sitting in an air-conditioned room in Delhi shake hands then all the voters would line up behind them. Voters decide on their own. In Uttar Pradesh you can see for yourself (when the results come) that the BJP is fighting for 50% vote share. So we will return an improved performance in UP too.
So you are saying the challenge of the caste and religion posed by the gathbandhan can be overcome by the BJP?
Yes. If gathbandhans alone can win elections, then do remember that two boys of UP (Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav) had got together in the 2017 poll for the UP assembly and all of you had forecast that they will win 270 seats. What was the final outcome: BJP won 325 seats; if the caste metric had held true, then this was impossible to achieve.
You are making a very important observation here that traditional electoral metrics have changed.
Yes, it has changed. The country has emerged from the politics based on family, caste and appeasement; if I can say it bluntly, minority appeasement. This is because the country has witnessed the politics of performance in the last five years and voters have accepted this new metric. For example in Assam, from the calculation that you are doing in paper, the BJP can never win a majority; yet, we have achieved it. In Tripura we had 1.1% vote share and then we went on to win a two-third majority in the assembly election. The voter now thinks about who will work for the poor; they think as to who will best improve the state of the country’s economy; they think which government will not engage in corruption; they think which party will enhance the country’s prestige globally. This poll will be based on these considerations.
Is this because the country’s demography is much younger and they do not carry any baggage?
No, it is because there is greater awareness among people.
But why is the awareness surfacing now?
It is because they have experienced good governance for the last five years.
How do you compare NYAY with PM-Kisan? Is it a case of empowerment versus entitlement?
I don’t wish to make any comments on NYAY. Whatever schemes we have introduced are not based on vote bank politics. The idea is to enable every citizen in this country to live with honour. There are 50 crore such people for whom it is imperative to lift their standard of living. It is my understanding for so long a scientific strategy was never adopted (to address the problems of this population segment). The government led by PM Narendra Modi has evolved a scientifically designed strategy to improve their standard of living.
For example, by 2022 we will reach cooking gas to every household in the country; at present it has reached 13 crore households in the last five years—of this seven crore are poor households. Once cooking gas reaches a poor household, they save the time devoted to collecting firewood; the health of women and children improve as they are spared the ill effects of pollution on their health. Thereby the household gets a makeover. Similarly, the provision of toilets has improved the health of an average rural household. There is no greater initiative on women empowerment anywhere in the world; women in eight crore households have been spared open defecation—a matter of shame and loss of self respect. Yes there are complaints on the quality of toilets and their usage; it is my belief that once the toilet exists, people will eventually use it, at least the women in the household. For this, we are engaging NGOs to counsel these households too.
Similarly, we have provided 2.5 crore people with a house. It is not acceptable that even 70 years after independence, people do not have a roof over their heads. Before 2022 every citizen will have a house. In addition we have already provided electricity to almost all households in the country.
Our health insurance scheme, Ayushman Bharat, will bring about a fundamental transformation of the entire health sector in the country. Not only will government hospitals become self-sufficient, private hospitals will reach even the tehsil level because the market potential will grow—50 crore people have been provided ₹5 lakh to fund their health care.
So every scheme from our government is not based on vote bank considerations. We haven’t provided any dole; instead it is to raise the standard of living (of these 50 crore people).
What about PM-Kisan?
The objectives of it are like all the other schemes. There are 12 crore farmers in the country who don’t get loans and have to borrow from money lenders at usurious rates. Almost three quarters of the value of his farm output is diverted towards servicing the farmer’s debt obligations to a money lender. According to Nabard, those owning less than 1.5 acres have an input cost of ₹3,000. So we have extended income support to the small farmer; what in the language of your business papers is called viability-gap funding. As a result, they will be free of debts owed to money lenders and can devote their entire farm income for family welfare. This is not a loan waiver. In addition, we have in our poll manifesto promised a waiver on interest owed for all farmers in the country; this zero interest rate is a big relief, even for the big farmers. For farm labour and small farmers we are introducing a pension scheme once they turn 60. So the Modi government has sought to address the farmers problems in a holistic manner.
You mentioned the Ujjwala scheme. One complaint that we are constantly hearing is that households are unable to afford an expensive refill.
This is true. We have got a similar response in our surveys too. This is because the household which depends on daily wages is unable to provide such a large lump sum for a refill. To address this we have introduced the cheaper 5 kilo refills and this will be made available to all the Ujjwala labarthis (beneficiaries) in the next one year. Let me tell you that the cost of alternative fuel like firewood is costlier than cooking gas.
Earlier you mentioned how toilets and Ujjwala are tools of women’s empowerment too. Won’t this return political gains to your party?
Of course, political gains will accrue. But this is not vote bank politics. Instead it is the outcome. After all the benefiting poor household will vote for a government which brought this benefit to them for the first time in 70 years. We will also stake claim to their votes based on this outcome. But the idea of the scheme was to improve their standard of living. Instead, if we had given him a sum of rupees then that would have been tantamount to vote bank politics; we have given him basic goods to improve his lifestyle.
How is the 2019 campaign different from 2014 when the BJP was a challenger?
In 2014, we got votes because people were thoroughly disillusioned with the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and they saw hope in a Narendra Modi-led NDA. This time the work done by Narendra Modi has created positive hope and expectations among the people; that expectation can only be addressed by Narendra Modi. For example, the entire country desires that India’s identity on the global high table gain more prominence and it become a global super power. This is now an expectation among the people; they have seen this in the last five years that India’s place at the global high table has grown whether it be the global environment summit, Davos or the Solar Alliance. Now who can transform India into a super power. It can only be Narendra Modi and the BJP.
What about those who missed out on the various government schemes? Won’t they be angry with the BJP?
No. They believe that if my neighbour got then my turn will also come. Yeh bharosa jam gaya hai (People have developed this faith). After all for 70 years no one got it.
What is your assessment of West Bengal? All our reporters have seen a big momentum for the BJP. Will this translate into votes and seats?
Absolutely. After the panchayat polls, we have emerged as the No. 2 party. We will achieve the half-way mark. The people of Bengal want development, end the entry of terrorists and destruction of Bengal’s culture through the politics of appeasement. For instance, you cannot celebrate Durga Puja; can’t say Jai Shri Ram. Why? This is the big question being posed by the voter in Bengal.
But Mamata Banerjee has denied this charge levelled by you? In fact, this time she even funded Durga Puja festivities.
This was after she suffered a setback in the panchayat elections. Check the record for the last five years; there is even a PIL filed by the BJP pending before the courts. Yadi Mamata Didi aise kah rahi hai to phir woh jhoot bol rahi hai. (If Mamata didi is claiming this, then she is lying.)
What about Odisha?
We will win 13-15 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha.
How many seats are you expecting in UP?
Our position in UP is not weak.
So you will match the performance in 2014?
Yes. And, I have said so several times before.
Don’t you believe the abusive political narrative is burying the original issues like jobs and rural distress?
I believe that this is something limited to the media. The voter will only vote on the basis of issues. A politician gives a 40-minute speech and for two minutes they say something controversial that becomes front page news; for TRP reasons this is played in a loop. And 38 minutes of the speech is ignored.
The exchanges between the Gandhi family and PM Modi have acquired a personal hue.
A senior journalist like you should do your own analysis. We never made any allegations about the Gandhi family. But if you are in government and there is corruption during your tenure as a PM and we can’t bring this up just because you are part of the Gandhi family? What kind of democracy do you desire? And what is this lament being portrayed in the media? Who are these people? Why can’t they be asked questions?
The implementation of GST (goods and services tax) and demonetization has become very controversial. The opposition calls it the Gabbar Singh Tax. But the BJP’s response is subdued. Why?
There is nothing like this. I have responded to it in Parliament and outside it. I will tell you too, especially since you are a business paper. GST is one of the biggest reforms which merged 16 taxes into one. Such a big reform is bound to have teething problems. So we have engaged in dialogue with traders, manufacturers. Further, in all the meetings of GST we have tweaked procedures, amended the laws and progressively reduced the tax rates. None of these decisions were taken without the support of the opposition. The opposition says Gabbar Singh Tax outside and votes for GST inside. I want to ask the Congress party chief (Rahul Gandhi) that if there is a problem with GST what were you FMs doing inside (the GST Council). If there is even one decision then Rahul Gandhi should say so.
The growth of the BJP post 2014 has been partly inorganic. Do you believe this will create a cultural problem for the party in future, given that these new inductions are not familiar with the ideology of the party?
BJP ka hajma bada mazboot hai (BJP has a strong constitution and can assimilate them). This is a process. They cannot change BJP; instead, staying with the BJP they will revisit their own thinking.
I recall that you started touring nationally just weeks after the historic verdict in 2014. In some ways then your campaign for 2019 began five years ago?
Addressing the national convention of the BJP after I became party president on 9 August 2014 I had said that the recent outcome was not the peak for the BJP. We needed to expand to the Coromandel states and North-East. Today I am proud that we have expanded across all of North East; we have expanded our presence in Bengal, Odisha and Kerala; in Tamil Nadu too we have laid a foundation for the BJP. (Though) in Andhra, we suffered a setback. But by and large we have managed to expand in every state; in Jharkhand we formed our own government. For the first time in Haryana, Maharashtra, Tripura and Assam we had our own CM. So I believe that under the leadership of PM Modi we have expanded our footprint substantially.
Nationalism, especially after the air strikes in Balakot, has been the centrepiece of your party’s campaign. How do you balance this with the politics of performance that you espouse?
There is no need to balance. There is no contradiction between the two. Where is the contradiction if a country wants to protect itself and at the same time want to develop. For the first time after independence the country’s defence policy has been laid down separately. Earlier it was subsumed within foreign policy. For the first time, defence policy has been given greater priority than foreign policy. This is a very big change.
So going forward defence will be a big priority?
Without doubt. Not just big, you should take it for granted that the safety and security of the country will be the topmost priority as long as the BJP is in power.
Recently your government witnessed a controversy involving the suppression of a report on jobs; last week a similar thing happened with GDP estimation. How do you feel about this?
These are political allegations. There is no question of suppressing such reports; nobody can do it. But one thing is clear that the country has to revisit its view on jobs creation. In a country of 125 crore people it is not possible to provide a permanent government job; what prevails in European countries with a population of 3-4 crore people cannot be imposed on India. It is my firm belief that the jobs challenge faced by India can only be resolved through what PM Modi keeps saying: self employment.
The opposition has accused your government of being a suit-boot sarkar?
Not anymore. Even Rahul Gandhi has dropped this charge; why are you holding onto it; even his mis-understanding on this is resolved.
You have never lost an election since 1989. Will the record remain intact?
Of course. We are going to win this election with a big mandate under the leadership of Modiji.
I was referring to Gandhinagar.
Gandhinagar too will be won by BJP..