Indian Home Minister Amit Shah gestures as he arrives at Parliament House in New Delhi in February 2020. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Kingship knows no kinship.” This old Indian saying is attributed to Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor who murdered his own three brothers to take the throne. It is a sad fact, even in the competitive Indian politics of today. Politicians use any strategy to gain control.

The present ruling party in India is a classic example. It is a well-known fact after their 2019 election victory, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah sidelined or retired various senior leaders such as L K Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, and Yashwant Sinha, who had played a critical role in taking the Bharatiya Janata Party from three seats in Parliament in 1952 to the ruling party in 1999.

Lal Krishna Advani, the man who scripted the rise of the BJP and who was a major political force in India, is now virtually irrelevant to the party. In today’s BJP nobody talks about his contribution apart from the Modi-Shah duo. But the story doesn’t end here.

On August 17 in a major organizational reshuffle, BJP party chief J P Nadda removed cabinet minister and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan from the Parliamentary Board, the apex decision-making body of the party.

Two birds with one stone 

The omission of Gadkari, widely seen as the best-performing minister in the Modi government, came as a shock to many, as the BJP has traditionally kept former party chiefs in the decision-making process. Gadkari had steered the party from 2009 to 2013.

In his decades-long career, he has left his imprint across cities in the form of highways, flyovers, and other infrastructure initiatives. His work earned him the title of “Flyover Man.” He has friends across party lines and also is in the good books of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.

With all these qualities, it is no wonder that he has often been spoken of as a potential prime-ministerial candidate and emerged as a challenger. 

The decision to drop Chauhan is being seen as an indication of a process of gradually sidelining the four-term Madhya Pradesh chief minister. But what is astonishing for political analysts is the missing name of Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand BJP leader who recently won a state election. He is the only leader to hold back-to-back tenures in the last 36 years in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

He is also undoubtedly the most popular face of the BJP after Modi. But giving priority to unfamiliar names over such popular and experienced faces ahead of the crucial 2024 general election in the apex body raises serious eyebrows.

Ironically, the last Parliamentary Board list was drawn eight years ago when then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was inducted into the board. The induction hinted at Modi’s upcoming bigger role in the organization.

The rest is history. But currently, Narendra Modi is firmly in the saddle and there is no threat to his authority and influence from anyone within the ruling dispensation. So what led to such unexpected moves?

According to a recent survey conducted by India’s top media channel Aaj Tak on the subject of who could be the likely potential successor of Modi within the BJP, the respondents named Amit Shah at 25%, Yogi 24% and Nitin Gadkari 15%. There is a neck-and-neck fight between Yogi and Amit Shah for the leadership of the party. With the 2024 general election ahead, the race to become Modi’s “No 2” has intensified in earnest.

It is no wonder that the current changes in the Parliamentary Board are a reflection of the internal power struggle within the party. With one move, Amit Shah has crippled all his opponents’ wings and become the undisputed second in command.

The last time such changes happened in the Parliamentary Board, Modi became the sole face of the party. But today’s Modi has nothing to prove, neither to the party nor to the country. So there is certainly no threat to his prime-ministerial candidature.

More so, the current changes in the Parliamentary Board could not have happened without his approval. So how come he ignores Yogi Aditaynath, the popular firebrand leader whom he adores in every election rally – or has Modi unofficially chosen Amit Shah as his successor?

Unshakable bond

In a ruling party that derives its electoral prowess from Modi as a cult leader, there are broadly two camps emerging – those who enjoy the blessings of the high command and those who don’t.

Even though Yogi’s hardline Hindutva would seem to make him the natural successor to Modi, Amit Shah shares a great bond with the prime minister, a friendship of more than two and a half decades.

There are many examples of this unshakable bond. One such incident was in 2016, when Amit Shah wanted to become Gujarat chief minister after Anandiben Patel resigned. But Modi was not inclined to let him go. Shah was indispensable in his scheme of things in New Delhi. At the Parliamentary Board meeting, Modi made his views clear: Pick anyone but Amit Shah.

Now Modi is returning the favors to Shah, who accompanied him on the journey from the days of a common worker of the party to prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.

Therefore, Modi is preparing for the general election of 2024 on behalf of Amit Shah, his only trusted lieutenant. In 2019, the BJP made a policy of having its leaders retire at the age of 75. Modi will be 73 years old in 2024.

Modi is known for unpredictable policy decisions at the last moment, such as demonetization. There’s a strong chance that he will step down voluntarily and hand the reins to Amit Shah. Even now, Modi is hardly involved in the day-to-day party operations such as selecting candidates and developing election strategies.

Currently, many of the decisions in the party are made by Amit Shah and close associates. The current restructuring of the party is a reflection of the fact that there should be no challenge to the status quo in party decision-making. So what will happen to Yogi, Chauhan and Gadkari? 

Gadkari’s days in the Modi government are numbered. He could be denied a ticket to contest the next election in 2024. Similarly, Chauhan may not be projected as the chief-ministerial face in the Madhya Pradesh polls next year. While Yogi will be relevant, he will hardly find much of a voice within the party, just like Advani.

Advani has stature in the party but not enough support from fellow party members. The exponential rise of Hemant Biswa Sharma, Assam chief minister, and J P Nadda, party president, considered to be the yes man of Shah, is a clever ploy to stifle Yogi’s future aspirations for national prominence.

So even though Yogi and Gadkari have people’s support, they will hardly be able to challenge Amit Shah’s stature within the party as de facto prime minister of India.

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.