Amit Shah’s position in the pantheon of luminaries of the Hindu nationalist enterprise in India is fully secure.
For the longest time, the Indian public knew little about Amit Shah except, perhaps, that he was alleged to be the then Gujarat chief minister’s hatchet man in the state, and had allegedly presided over the ‘encounter’ killings of the likes of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati.
As a matter of fact, a sting operation conducted by journalist Rana Ayyub of Tehelka magazine had led to the incarceration of the then minister of state (home) of the state. The jury is still out on whether the encounters were indeed ‘fake’ and cases continue to progress slowly through the labyrinthine procedural corridors of our judicial system.
However, what can be stated with certainty is that the allegations of ‘encounters’ of people, who were admittedly hardened criminals, indeed helped Narendra Modi burnish his image in Gujarat as somebody who was unafraid to use strong-arm measures to protect the people. Then as now, the Congress party appeared to be clueless about how to counter the Modi-Shah juggernaut.
After Modi won his third successive election in the state in December 2012, the question was when rather than if he would make his bid for India’s premiership. Finally, in September 2013, when the Gujarat strongman was anointed as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, one of the first steps he took was to appoint Shah as the man in-charge for Uttar Pradesh for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
For many veteran observers from Gujarat, the move was slightly surprising. The impression in journalistic circles in Gujarat was that Modi, while having faith in Shah’s integrity, did not quite trust his experience or competence.
Aakar Patel, writing in his blog, even related an apocryphal story about how on a car ride to the headquarters of the Gujarat Cricket Association, Modi changed his mind about getting Shah elected as the president of the body, preferring to do the job himself.
It is also noteworthy that Shah was never part of Modi’s Cabinet. The former Gujarat cop — D G Vanzara — also in jail for charges of conducting fake encounters — had once described Shah as a malign influence on Modi to whom he continued to swear unswerving loyalty.
Be that as it may, it seems that Shah’s own unswerving loyalty to Modi, whereby he refused to divulge any information or make any statements against his mentor, whom he had known since he was in his teens despite immense pressure put on him, tilted the scales in his favour.
Till about a year ago, Shah was a lonely man living with his family in Gujarat Bhawan as he had been exiled from the state via a questionable exercise of judicial fiat. Colleagues in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) loathed to speak and interact with him fearing reprisal from the still-powerful Gandhi dynasty. The Uttar Pradesh leg of the Lok Sabha polls was his big test.
Shah, contrary to what people may believe, was a legislator much before his mentor Modi ever stood for elective office. He has never been defeated from the Sarkhej constituency in Gujarat since the first time he contested the assembly elections of 1997 from there.
The spectacular success of the BJP in Gujarat under Modi — a state where the party had earlier been rent asunder by internal dissensions — was attributable in part to Shah’s organisational chops apart from Modi’s charismatic star appeal. A major part of the strategy was booth micro-management. Each and every page of the voters’ list was assigned to one panna-pramukh who led a team of five to 10 volunteers.
The idea was to ensure that all those who were committed BJP voters or swing voters likely to vote for the BJP were contacted at least thrice in the run-up to the elections. The same strategy was replicated by Shah in Uttar Pradesh. Of course, he was helped in no small part by the fact that even though the party’s organisation in the state per se was fairly moribund, a lot of new volunteers were attracted to it just by the promise of Modi.
However, like in Gujarat, if Modi was the scythe that cleared the metaphorical weeds, Shah’s calloused electoral battle-hardened hands were the instruments of the said endeavour. Surprising all observers, the BJP won 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh on its own steam, and Modi stormed to power in Delhi with 282 seats under his belt.
Understandably, Shah was promoted as BJP president. It may be noted here that although Shah has been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh since his youth, he was never a trained full-time pracharak.
However, he has turned this seeming deficiency into an asset. The idiom of his public utterances is belligerent, unlike that of conventional pracharaks who are drilled to temper them. This belligerence serves to motivate the cadres into performing feats that even they don’t seem to think themselves capable of.
Over the next five years, the BJP had a stunning run of electoral success winning election after election and at one point it was the party in power in 18 out of 29 states of the Union. The jewel in Shah’s crown was his conquest of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The BJP and its alliance together won an unprecedented 325 out of 403 seats in the Uttar Pradesh assembly in the spring.
More significantly, the BJP president has managed to ensure that the party now has a pan-national footprint that is much larger than that of the Congress. This is going to be his lasting legacy.
Contrast Shah’s hunger to convert greenfield areas like West Bengal, the North East and the deep south into catchment areas for the BJP to Sonia Gandhi’s proclivity to intrigue in Delhi by following the old Roman maxim of divide et impera even with respect to her own party, and the difference between the BJP and the Congress would be apparent.
Today, even if the BJP underperforms in certain regions of the country, it is sure to offset the loss via gains made in other parts.
On the other hand, the Congress needs to sweep its fast-shrinking catchment area to even dream of single largest party status in the future. This renders the BJP ‘anti-fragile’ to ‘black swan’ events.
Shah has made the dreams of every BJP supporter come true. When the ghosts of 2004 were threatening to swamp the party after the three assembly poll defeats last winter, then like a defiant Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, Amit Bhai said "Not today".
As things stand at the time of writing, Shah is the Member of Parliament from Gandhinagar, a seat occupied by the redoubtable Lal Krishna Advani. As the Home Minister of the country and thereby effectively number two in the Cabinet, he occupies a post that was first held by someone who inspired him more than anybody else except Chanakya and Veer Savarkar-Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
There is no doubt that Shah’s position in the pantheon of the luminaries of the Hindu nationalist enterprise in India is fully secure. Life has indeed turned a full circle for the man who was not so long ago treated as a veritable pariah by the Khan Market gang, and to that extent he is an inspiration for many.