Not for nothing is Home Minister Amit Shah called the modern-day Kautilya. Shah is a master strategist known for his political acumen and statecraft which enables him to register bloodless victories over his enemies, pulverize entrenched regional satraps, and prevent the Balkanisation of India through moves such as the abrogation of Article 370.
Niccolo Machiavelli (the purported Kautilya of the western hemisphere) had in his seminal treatise – The Prince – remarked upon the essential qualities of a successful political leader, thus: “… a good leader must combine the qualities of the lion and the fox, striving to be brave as one and as crafty as the other. It is not sufficient to be like the lion only, for lions do not know how to protect themselves from traps, nor like the fox only, for foxes are unable to defend themselves against wolves…”Amit Shah has, time and again, outwitted and outclassed his opponents for he is the living embodiment of Machiavelli’s description of an ideal politician and Kautilya’s exhortations on the essentials of Neeti-Shastra.
However, after securing a massive mandate in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP floundered, unexpectedly and disappointingly, in the formation of government in Maharashtra.
The reliably biased fourth estate has gone ballistic in saying that Shah is no longer the Kautilya (the venerable mantle, apparently, going to the Maratha strongman) and it is hubris that has been his undoing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shah has over the past 5 years, fundamentally, changed the prevailing political mores of India – and this in itself is sufficient for him to be called the worthy successor of Kautilya, an electoral reverse or two, notwithstanding.
It would be instructive to look at the Haryana elections and the abrogation of Article 370 to fully appreciate the contours of Shah’s prodigious genius.
Historically, politics in Haryana has revolved around the issues of identity – caste, not religion – particularly those of Haryana’s chattis biradaris (36 communities). In 1996, Bansi Lal fought the elections on the issue of liquor prohibition (not caste) and won handsomely too. However, soon he reverted to the tried-and-tested template of identity politics realizing that prohibition has very little political mileage left.
Of the 36 biradaris, Jats – constituting a single biradari – have always occupied an outsized presence in the state’s politics as opposed to the non-Jat biradaris (Sainis, Punjabis, Khatris, Banias, etc.) whose constant in-fighting and sniping, also, did not help their cause.
However, in 2014, Shah worked assiduously to unite the 35 non-Jat biradaris into a single, cohesive voting bloc which would put up a united political front to the hegemony of Jats. His social engineering paid off handsomely and for the first time in Haryana’s electoral history, a non-Jat (Punjabi in this case) became the CM with BJP winning a simple majority of 47 in a 90 seat assembly.
In the 2019 assembly elections, however, BJP performed below par, failing to cross the half-way mark, due to 2 major reasons: first, counter-consolidation of Jats behind Hooda and Dushyant Chautala against Khattar’s stridently non-Jat regime; second, cutting of BJP’s non-Jat votes by good JJP candidates. However, in the end, by forming a coalition government with JJP (as the junior partner), Shah played a masterstroke – the optics of a Jat serving as a deputy to a Non-Jat will consolidate BJP’s non-Jat vote bank as non-Jats, generally, view Jats as oppressive. This would not only help stem the attrition in BJP’s core vote bank in the state but would also deal a death knell to Jat politics for some time to come.
Even if tomorrow, say, JJP ditches the coalition, Shah can always expect the tall Jat leaders of Congress to do a Bhajan Lal – that is forming their own splinter group of MLAs who have defected from Congress and supporting BJP on the pretext of a nationalistic issue. Why? Because, these Jat leaders, when they could not get favourable terms from the Congress high command, turned rebels and were quite vocal in their support for PM Modi and Shah over the abrogation of Article 370. This should be indication enough on how things can change overnight owing to political expediencies and fear of court cases.
Clearly, Shah has covered all his bases in Haryana and left everyone else to fend for themselves off the crumbs.
Abrogation of Article 370 and Amit Shah
Ideas sometimes take a long time to fulfil in practice. Even when India was sauntering along the misleading road of Fabian socialism and a misguided hard-separation of religion and state in the name of secularism, some nationalistic Indians, vividly, imagined a time when the Kashmir issue would be resolved and India’s self-esteem redeemed. This idea reached its fruitful consummation when Shah abrogated Article 370 in August – a rare real-life case of poetic justice.
The sharpest thorn in Indo-Pak relations has been Kashmir. Nothing has bedevilled them more than this beautiful mountainous state and the Himalayan blunders committed by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, Nehru’s policies regarding Kashmir were blinkered, muddled, and a vestige of hopeless romanticism; helped in no less measure by (a) his desire to project himself as a statesman diplomat on the global stage, one who believes in conciliation and not hard realist stands, (b) his Kashmiri ancestry – Nehru is said to have confessed to a British officer: “In the same way as Calais was written on Mary’s heart, Kashmir is written on mine”. Calling for plebiscite, giving a long rope to Sheikh Abdullah and allowing him to create a personality cult around himself, going soft on Pakistan’s transgressions, and last but not the least, imposing article 370 in the state to give it an autonomous status within the federation of India – all of them compounded the problem in Kashmir for decades to come.
Kashmir had always been a part of the concept of Pakistan and the letter ‘K’ in its name stood for Kashmir. As the Pakistan minister for Kashmir affairs said in 1951, and this has been Pakistan’s line ever since, “Kashmir is an article of faith with Pakistan and not merely a piece of land or a source of rivers” By giving autonomy to Kashmir, under Article 370, Nehru only helped fan the further alienation of Kashmiris who caught between the cross-fire of India and Pakistan, desired to seek refuge in Pakistan – a state where their religion – Islam – was the state’s religion.
This autonomy had two more disastrous fallouts. First, local regional parties like the NC and PDP became power brokers who would cosy up to Pakistan, to garner a few more votes at the cost of India’s sovereignty and security. Second, it created a fertile ground for a militant insurgency which has vitiated the atmosphere of the valley ever since.
The courageous displayed by Amit Shah in taking the decision to abrogate Article 370 was not merely a masterclass in statesmanship and realpolitik but was righting a historical wrong. Now, finally, after so many years of strife, blood, and violence, Kashmir can move forward on the path of development, maybe slowly, but surely.
Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), Germany’s Chancellor who revenged past humiliations inflicted on the German people by defeating their enemies to create a unified state in 1871, had famously said, “Politics is the art of possible. The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches or consensual decision making in a parliament, but by iron and will. A government must not waiver once it has chosen its course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward, boldly and unerringly. Had he been alive today, his heart would have swelled on seeing Amit Shah and his ingenuity in politics and affairs of state.