By Anumeha Yadav
ASK A question about Amit Shah and you rarely get an answer that shows the man’s character — every conversation invariably ends up being about Narendra Modi instead. A few words spent on describing Shah, even with those who have known and worked with him, quickly lapse into the plural and begin describing Narendrabhai and Amitbhai. How Gujarat’s chief minister and his lieutenant have run an autocracy, how they have ruled with an iron grip since 2003 when Modi inducted Shah as the youngest minister in his cabinet, and handed him 10 portfolios — Home, Prison, Transport, Police Housing, Border Security, Civil Defence, Home Guards, Prohibition, Gram Rakshak Dal, Excise Law & Justice and Legislative & Parliamentary Affairs (independent charge).
Shah’s arrest seemed imminent since the CBI on 29 April nabbed Ahmedabad Crime Branch officer Abhay Chudasama, an accused in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. Shah stopped attending office, cabinet meetings and was conspicuous by his absence at the state’s 50th anniversary celebrations in May. When the CBI made no move to summon Shah for over two months after Chudasama’s arrest, BJP workers thought nothing could happen to Modi’s right-hand man. The bluster evaporated when the CBI summoned him last Thursday. As CBI staff went about plastering summons outside his offices, his official residence in Gandhinagar and his house in Naranpura, the opposition ridiculed a state administration whose minister responsible for law and order had absconded. With Shah finally in judicial custody in Sabarmati jail since he presented himself to the CBI on Sunday, all eyes are now on the CM. Can Modi save his lieutenant or is this the beginning of the end for the duo?
Modi and Shah have quite a few things in common: their beginnings in the RSS, tactical mindset and highhanded working style. Together, they practised a politics perceived as antagonistic to Paatidaars, or the Patels, whose support to the BJP was crucial in Keshubhai Patel becoming CM in 1995 and his staying in power till Modi replaced him in 2002. Shah was active in the RSS even before he had finished high school. Modi, already a pracharak in the 1980s, was one of the first in the RSS to spot Shah’s organisational talents. “Like Modi, Shah wished to become a pracharak but the sangh did not allow him because there was opposition from his parents,” reveals a senior RSS leader.
Shah, 47, is the youngest of six siblings and the only son of a business family from Mansa in Gandhinagar district. At a time when he was finding his feet within the BJP, Modi started introducing him to party leaders. Shah was then dabbling in the plastics business. “Modi brought Shah to me and said he is a small businessman but will be useful. Shah seemed introverted, he kept a low profile,” recalls former BJP leader Shankarsinh Vaghela.
Modi pushed Shah’s candidature for BJP treasurer in Gujarat, for the party secretary role in Ahmedabad, and later its vice-president in the state. When then CM Keshubhai Patel inducted Haren Pandya, Bharat Bharot and Ashok Bhatt as ministers in 1995, Modi is believed to have been instrumental in getting Shah appointed chairman of the Gujarat State Financial Corporation. Shah reciprocated with his loyalty.
Seeing Modi’s growing dominance as a threat, Keshubhai had insisted to the party high command that Modi be shifted to Delhi. Modi continued to influence party politics from the capital in his position as party general secretary. When Modi returned to Gujarat with the BJP central leadership backing to replace Keshubhai as CM, Shah offered to vacate his seat in Sarkhej. “Modi wanted to contest from Ellisbridge instead, a definite seat for anyone from the BJP, but Haren Pandya, the sitting MLA who had been a friend of Modi in the late 1990s but was also close to Keshubhai, refused to vacate this seat,” recounts a senior BJP leader. Modi eventually contested from Rajkot and won. After he became CM, Pandya was dropped from the cabinet and denied a ticket in the December 2002 polls. Pandya was killed in March 2003. Haren’s father Vithalbhai Pandya has since blamed Modi for the murder.
Before his political hibernation beginning this May, Shah was seen as one of the four ministers who are allowed to take some independent decisions in an otherwise puppet cabinet of 18. “Whether the task relates to Shah’s 10 portfolios or not, Modi appoints Shah in over 90 percent of all cabinet committees. He uses Shah to keep an eye on his own ministers,” says former BJP MLA Sunil Oza, who has since joined the Mahagujarat Janta Party, a regional outfit floated by BJP dissidents.
‘I have never seen two people as alike as Shah and Modi. Shah reminds me of Modi before he became chief minister,’ says former MLA Yatin Oza
Despite having won Assembly polls thrice from Sarkhej, the largest constituency in Gujarat with more than 10 lakh voters, Shah’s image is not that of a mass leader. He began his political career by losing an election to the university senate as a BSc student of SC College, Ahmedabad. However, his ability to plan, organise and inspire awe among friends and foes was considerable. “I have never seen two people as alike as Shah and Modi. Shah reminds me of how Modi was before he became CM,” says Yatin Oza, who was elected MLA from Sabarmati twice, in 1995 and 1998, with Shah as his campaign manager.
Shah not only built on those tactical skills but also gained control over institutions such as the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank (ADCB) and the Gujarat Cricket Association, both conduits to money and power, by using all means, fair and foul.
With more than Rs 2,000 crore of funds in its kitty, ADCB is at the core of the state’s cooperative sector. Shah is believed to have strategised for three years before he dislodged Congress strongmen Ghanshyam Amin and Dashrath Patel from their positions in ADCB by 1999. After three years as chairman, Shah handed over control to Ajay Patel and Yashpal Chudasama — Abhay Chudasama’s cousin — who allegedly parked the money that Chudasama and Sohrabuddin extorted. Shah also got control of the Gujarat State Cooperative Bank.
THEY ASKED Sohrabuddin to fire at Popular Construction’s office in Ahmedabad because the owners Raman and Dashrath Patel, who had taken a loan from Visnagar Cooperative Bank, refused to give in when Shah and his gang tried to extort crores and grab their land. These people would resort to any threat and manipulation,” alleges Congress leader Narhari Amin. Amin would know. Shah dislodged him as GCA president. He got Modi elected as president and himself as vice-president in 2009, posts associated with power and prestige.
These qualities invoke awe in some and fear in others. A quiet arrogance, a few sharp words and zero tolerance for those who do not see eye to eye with him characterise his interactions. “Shah has a poisonous tongue that alienates most people. He has a hundred enemies. Among those in the middle ranks who did not toe his line, he liquidated the careers of at least a thousand,” says one of Shah’s colleagues. Another BJP member, who did not wish to be named, said that there is relief and even jubilation among some cabinet members at Shah’s arrest, given the power he exercised over his colleagues.
Now, as Shah cools his heels in the Sabarmati jail, his mentor may have got his first real shock.