Amit Shah is the most intriguing and interesting character in the Narendra Modi dispensation

From a master strategist to a cold-blooded creature, I heard all kinds of epithets about the subject of this article. Interestingly, the negative comments came not from the BJP’s political rivals but from within the party. And this was not following the drubbing the party received at the Delhi Assembly election. Even during the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which resulted in a government getting formed with an absolute majority in Parliament for the first time in 30 years, volunteers who had come forward to ensure Narendra Modi-led BJP’s victory were sore about some nominations. Not impressed by 282 seats, party workers as well as RSS swayamsevaks said anything between five and 10 seats more could have been won from each state from the north to the south, from the east to the west.

The Opposition, on the other hand, is in awe of him, their sound-bytes for public consumption notwithstanding. “Somehow we must stop the Modi-Shah duo from forming the government. If they come now, forget being able to remove them for another 15 years,” worried psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav had said during an appraisal meet of the Aam Aadmi Party before the Lok Sabha election, according to an insider.

The RSS had been anti-Modi for quite a few years due to his feud with Sanjay Joshi, former BJP General Secretary (Modi made sure that he was exiled from the BJP). But in April last year, Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, quoted Shiv Pratap Shukla, vice-president of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit and former minister saying that Shah was a quiet, determined leader who “breathed new life” into the party’s campaign, and that he was the only one who understood that converting a “Modi wave” into votes required hard work and organisational skills.

“To get the wind to move a turbine, you need a structure in place and it needs to function with clockwork precision. That is what Amitji is trying to do in UP,” said Shukla. “Hopefully, all will go well and we will send Modiji to the Prime Minister’s office.” “If that happens,” Organiser predicted, “Shah could well be the second most powerful person in the country.” The RSS paper read the scenario right.

Amitbhai Anilchandra Shah’s habit of winning is old, beginning with impressive victories of his own. After Narendra Modi lobbied to get Shah—who is, in fact, a year older than the former in the organisation—a BJP ticket for the Gujarat Assembly by-election in Sarkhej in 1997, he became an MLA. He retained his seat in the 1998 Assembly elections. In 2002, he won by the highest margin among all candidates: 1,58,036 votes. In the 2007 election, he won again, improving his margin of victory.

The partners mobilized a force of 8,000 village leaders who had lost gram pradhan elections and decimated the Congress from its rural stronghold by defeating most of its candidates in the subsequent round of elections for village chiefs. But not only did Shah win the elections; he ended the Patel-Gaderia-Kshatriya stranglehold over the biggest cooperative bank in India, Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, and turned it from a venture that had made losses of Rs 36 crore to one that registered a profit of Rs 27 crore within one year of Shah taking over as its president. He also planted 11 BJP loyalists on the bank’s 22-member board of directors.

Then Shah replaced the Congress in all local sports bodies, first as the president of the Gujarat State Chess Association, then in 2009, becoming the vice-president of the cash-rich Gujarat Cricket Association, and finally in 2014, becoming its president after Modi relinquished the seat on being elected the Prime Minister.

Shah’s affairs within the party fold are, in fact, more interesting than his victories over archrival Congress. In October 2001, after the BJP replaced Keshubhai Patel with Modi as Chief Minister, it was with Shah’s advice and help that Modi was able to gradually sideline all his political rivals. During my travels across Gujarat, I found Muslims not perturbed as much by Modi as they were some years ago by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia. Now nobody cares for him, said party spokesperson Asifa Khan, recalling that there was a time when Togadia would move about the entire state with an entourage of fierce-looking, trident-wielding, tilak-sporting Bajrang Dal activists, intimidating the local Muslim populations. “Now when he comes back to Gujarat from his tours, not even five activists are seen receiving him at the airport,” Khan said, betraying immense relief.

Togadia used to nurse the ambition of becoming Gujarat chief minister some day, and he felt short-changed when then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee appointed Modi, Dashrathbhai Laxmandas Patel, a VHP veteran, informed me. Many in the state agree Togadia’s firebrand Hindutva campaign during the first half of the last decade was driven less by conviction and more by an urge to embarrass Modi and, by implication, Vajpayee.

In November 2002, the VHP’s much-touted Vijay Yatra for establishment of a “Hindu rashtra” was thwarted by the much-criticised state government. No one was allowed to take out processions. In Godhra, where Hindu pilgrims had been burnt to death in February that year, the BJP ensured that Togadia’s event turned into a damp squib.

During the 2007 state election campaign, for example, the Modi camp led by Shah in the Sangh Parivar created confusion in the ranks of the VHP by claiming the latter had endorsed Modi’s candidacy. When the Hindutva outfit challenged the claim, Shah put in place a Rashtriya Nagrik Manch, weaning away many supporters from the hardliner faction.

The Modi-Shah friendship developed as they scouted the state when the former was a pracharak and Shah a swayamsevak in the 1980s. Later, in the stretch of about 13 years of Modi’s chief ministry, Shah was rewarded with promotions time and again. After winning the 2002 elections, he became the youngest minister in the Modi government, and was given multiple portfolios. At a certain point, he held 12 of them: Home, Law and Justice, Prison, Border Security, Civil Defence, Excise, Transport, Prohibition, Home Guards, Gram Rakshak Dal, Police Housing, and Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs.

And “he was rewarded finally when he beat others in competition for the party presidency”, said a leader of the BJP’s National Executive. On being asked how he rated Shah, the source said, “Cold-blooded!” Too good or too bad, his performance would swing to the extremes. Their grand posturing in the media apart, many party leaders feel that Shah has only made the BJP lose after being made President, with Haryana being the only exception. This is surprising, given that the party leaped from being junior partner to Shiv Sena in Maharashtra to win 123 Assembly seats that included many constituencies where there was no on-ground presence of the organisation.

“Did we have ground presence in all the 282 Lok Sabha constituencies that we won?” another party leader retorted, adding, “When you are fighting with the mascot of Modi on the forefront, it’s his charisma at work; party workers turn secondary.” From that position of advantage, Shah has only dragged the party down, according to election analysts in the BJP. “We could have won at least 10 seats more in Jharkhand,” said a party leader from that state. Non-volunteers in Haryana had a similar complaint during the Lok Sabha elections.

So, what made Shah click in Gujarat and lose the plot in the rest of India? “His arrogance,” said a leader from the BJP’s Delhi unit where there was widespread animus against the candidature of Kiran Bedi. He treats veterans in the party with contempt, opined several members of the National Executive. An Uttar Pradesh-based leader, who happens to be an industrialist, told me in the course of an informal chat in the guest room of a television studio that when he had invited Shah as the chief guest in a programme sponsored by him, the party president bluntly told him he was doing it for “self-promotion”. The irritated leader refused to give Shah credit for the success in Uttar Pradesh and attributed the BJP’s unprecedented victory in 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats to the “Modi wave”.
But this, I think, is being  unfair to Shah.

Since 2012, he had been studying the switch of rule in UP from the Bahujan Samaj Party to the Samajwadi Party. He sensed the Other Backward Classes’ displeasure with the Akhilesh Yadav government’s decision to carve out reservations for Muslims out of the OBC quota, and exploited the sentiment. Having figured out that only 35 per cent of the BJP’s traditional supporters had actually voted in the last state elections, he focused on door-to-door campaigning at the booth level. He set up a 7-to-10 member management committee for each of the 140,000 voting booths in the state, and deployed 450 GPS-enabled mobile vans to carry the message to remote areas, where media reach was negligible. He personally covered 76 out of 80 constituencies. Most significantly, he insisted on Modi contesting from Varanasi so that the people of Uttar Pradesh get a sense that the prime ministerial candidate was from their state and would, in case he was elected, be close to them.

Then what explains the mutually contradictory assertions about Shah in the cadre? A journalist with a soft corner for the party told me that he wanted to join politics using the BJP platform, but changed his mind when he found out that the only way of surviving and succeeding in the organisation was to get reduced to being a groveller. Indeed, the BJP is known among political observers as a party filled with self-seekers, each of whom—from the level of a municipal councillor to an MP—nurses monumental ambitions. While the sycophancy is certainly not of the Congress level, backscratchers are rampant, which may explain Shah’s attitude towards the old timers. When one approaches you with a fake smile, you know the next thing he will ask for is an out-of-turn favour.

But this attitude may not always help in politics, Shah may have learnt a lot of lessons from the Delhi elections where most regular booth managers had no clue about their election duty and, in the starkest manner, the BJP leaders themselves ensured Bedi’s defeat in their bastion of Krishna Nagar.

Now let’s study the cases against Shah. Top among them is the alleged staged encounter of marble-dealing criminal Sohrabuddin Sheikh. Then DIG D.G. Vanzara was accused of murdering Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi and accomplice Tulsiram Prajapati, also a police informer, facilitated by the top cop’s transfers ordered by Shah. But in the laggard law enforcement scenario in India, the elimination of criminals, even when it is extra-judicial, is not seen as politically incorrect. Rather (if I may say so without being stoned to death), the extreme Hindutvaites love it!

When the Congress-led central government in June 2004 announced its intention to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, calling it regressive, Shah piloted the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime (Amendment) Bill through the Gujarat assembly amid an Opposition walk-out. Shah also played an important role in convincing the Modi government to pass the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, making religious conversions difficult in the Hindu-majority state. His efforts in getting the Bill passed impressed the senior RSS leadership.

Years later, as Shah cried “witch-hunt” by the Congress-led UPA dispensation, saying that it was odd that the CBI was after him for one encounter whereas other states had 1,500 such cases where there had been no investigation, people found it plausible. Shah’s defence was also stronger because the deponents against him were builder mafia kingpins Raman Patel and Dashrath Patel, in whose office Vanzara had allegedly pressured Sheikh and Prajapati to open fire. Finally, in 2010, Police Commissioner Geeta Johri, who first investigated the case, claimed that the CBI was coercing her to falsely implicate Shah.

The special court discharged him as an accused, saying there was no evidence against him. “There is substance in the contention of Shah’s counsel…that the charges against him were politically framed,” said special judge M.B. Gosavi. “There is no prosecutable material against Shah which requires a trial.”

Then in May 2014, the CBI gave a clean chit to Shah in the alleged fake encounter case of Ishrat Jahan and three others in 2004, citing insufficient evidence. It so transpired during questioning by the court that Shah was not even named in the FIR. The central investigating agency, then under the UPA government, had not named him in the charge-sheet either.

Making Shah’s profile complex is the fact that it was not only the officers who were sidelined who testified against him at different points, but his alleged associates in the police force sulked for being neglected, too.

On the one hand, then additional DGP R.B. Sreekumar, who gave evidence to the Nanavati-Shah Commission, was allegedly denied promotion; Rahul Sharma, who handed over phone records of police officers and politicians to the Commission, was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, and additional DGP Kuldeep Sharma alleged that he had been moved from the police department to Gujarat State Sheep and Wool Development Corporation, after he accused Shah of taking a bribe of Rs 2.5 crore to bail out a conman who fraudulently withdrew Rs 1,600 crore from the Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank. On the other hand, Vanzara accused the state government, particularly Shah, of betraying him and 32 other officers in jail in encounter cases being probed by the CBI. The imprisoned officer accused Shah of transferring the Sheikh ambush case outside Gujarat; but the fact is that the CBI had requested moving of the trial outside the state.

If Shah is supposed to have “punished” officers who went against him, why did he not reward those who allegedly carried out his orders? Because that would have embarrassed the state government? If so, why would the CBI, which was at that time supposed to be the Congress’s “caged parrot”—a coinage of the Supreme Court—help him on that front?

The case that later caught up with Shah was one of alleged snooping. Cobrapost and Gulail’s tapes, with the purported voice of Shah instructing some policemen to follow a woman, were incriminating, but the woman herself approached the Supreme Court with her father, pleading that the surveillance was carried out at their insistence.

If true, is it not illegal to involve the State machinery, without notifying the same officially, in the exercise of ensuring a private citizen’s safety? It is, but the hullabaloo subsided after peaking during the Lok Sabha election.

Thus, in all these roller-coaster rides, it appears that the Congress was interested, not in justice, but in cashing in on controversies that can damage the BJP electorally. The former ruling party screamed about the cases in public fora—television studios and election rallies, but its government’s agencies went soft on the charges when in court. Furthermore, on 6 May last year, days before the UPA government was sent off by the people, then Law Minister Kapil Sibal confirmed that his government had aborted its plans to select a judge to inquest “Snoopgate”. Subsequently, in October, the Gujarat High Court quashed the probe panel set up by the state government to look into the reports of stalking of a young architect by Anti-Terrorist Squad sleuths at the instance of Shah.

As for the merits of the last case, my sources in Gujarat Police opined that such things happen “in good faith”. When Pranlal Soni, the father of the woman, approached Modi, the Chief Minister must have asked his trusted lieutenant to look into the matter. The Bhuj-based Sonis had worked for the Gujarat government. Their company, registered in 2008, with the lady allegedly snooped at and her brother Harit as directors—later joined by elder brother Chintan—set up a power microgrid at the Sachivalaya, the state secretariat, then under Modi’s general administration department.

When Soni Sr’s request was passed on to Shah via Modi, the then Gujarat Home Minister proved more loyal than the king, as is the wont of a deputy, deploying part of the state’s law enforcement machinery to keep track of the woman’s whereabouts. And since cops lack political finesse, officers like G.L. Singhal turned the exercise that was supposed to be one of ensuring the subject’s security into one of following a crime suspect. In the process, bureaucrat Pradeep Sharma, who had some special interest in the woman in question, got irked and took on the state administration, only to find himself arrested for allegedly causing a loss of Rs 1.2 crore to the state exchequer by allotting government land to a Kutch-based industrial unit, Welspun, at throwaway prices during his tenure as the area collector in 2003-04. In September, the Supreme Court rejected his plea seeking a CBI probe in five cases filed against him by the Gujarat government. His allegation that he was targeted because he happened to be the younger brother of Kuldeep Sharma, the ADGP who claimed he was harassed for not obeying directions from Modi’s office to go slow against rioters after the Godhra carnage, did not wash.

Call him lucky in courts, cunning in manoeuvring, smart in strategizing or brilliant in business, the loner Shah, a man with a cold stare, who reportedly had only one soft spot that is no more—his mother who passed away on June 8, 2010—as a subject is a political non-fiction writer’s delight. Not socializing is a trait he shares with Modi, bringing the two closer, and the confidentiality of the affairs they handle is difficult to breach. Shah, in fact, is more impregnable than his friend and mentor.

Unlike Modi, Amit Shah religiously avoids talking about himself.

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