DAYS AFTER the BJP came out in defence of former Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria, an accused in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case of 2005, the party decided to appoint Amit Shah, Narendra Modi’s close associate and another accused in the case, as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh. Shah was the first serving state home minister to be sent behind bars on charges of murder and conspiracy. Now out on bail, he had been arrested on the basis of evidence provided by TEHELKA in the form of call records and secret internal notes of the Gujarat Police.
While Shah had become a major source of embarrassment for the Gujarat government, it was no secret that his organisational abilities had helped Modi consolidate his position in the state. Even as Shah prepares to take on a bigger role in the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election as in charge of a state with 80 Lok Sabha seats, he also faces the challenge of an imminent arrest if his bail in the fake encounter case is cancelled. “Shah might face arrest in at least two of the three other cases of fake encounter in Gujarat,” says Mukul Sinha, a petitioner in the Sohrabuddin case. “Modi thought it wise to get Shah elevated to a national- level role so that in case the latter is arrested, it would become a national issue, and not a Gujarat-centric one that could dent Modi’s image.”
A senior BJP leader in Delhi agrees with Sinha’s view and adds that in case Shah is arrested while he is in charge of Uttar Pradesh, it would give the party fodder to charge the Congress with manipulating the CBI for partisan ends. BJP President Rajnath Singh, however, maintains that there is no ulterior motive behind appointing Shah as in charge of UP — a crucial state for the BJP in the 2014 General Election. In the past, five successive state BJP chiefs, including former Bajrang Dal chief Vinay Katiyar, could not work their magic with the electorate in UP, and that got reflected in the part’s poor condition in the state. Shah is expected to bring his organisational skills into play in an effort to change that. In the current Lok Sabha, the BJP has only 10 seats from UP, while the SP has 22, the BSP 20 and the Congress 21.
Senior BJP leaders who see themselves as Modi’s rivals say this is Modi’s chance to project himself in the league of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had a strong base in north India. They suggest Modi wants Shah to use his aggressive tactics to counter vote mobilisers of the Samajwadi Party like Raja Bhaiyya.
Singh, however, dismisses all such insinuations. “Why do you assume that we appointed Shah to please Modi, or at his behest?” he asks. “We did it purely because of Shah’s ability to mobilise voters and help them vote for change. He did good work in Gujarat and hopefully will replicate it in Uttar Pradesh.”
Shah, who was responsible for managing party funds for the BJP in Gujarat, had later been given charge of 10 ministries in the Modi dispensation. He had played a significant role in wresting control of the milk cooperatives in the state, which had earlier been the monopoly of the Congress.
The newly anointed general secretary is all set to begin his campaign in Uttar Pradesh with a ‘Jail Bharo Andolan’ on 29 May along with Rajnath Singh as part of the BJP’s agitation against price rise and corruption and on the issue of national security. The campaign is slated to begin from Rampur district, which has a sizeable Muslim population, and is also the constituency of Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan.
While his new post may also be an opportunity in disguise for Shah, who finally has a chance to step out of Modi’s shadow in Gujarat and carve his own identity in Uttar Pradesh, the task seems tough. BJP’s revival in Uttar Pradesh will depend on how it takes on the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in consolidating the votes of the OBCs and Dalits. Shah will also have to deal with Modi’s rivals in the state who will use him as a bait to counter Modi. With other senior leaders like Kalyan Singh all set to make a return and Shah’s own fake encounter troubles, the road ahead for this Modi acolyte looks bumpy.