The ace in Modi’s pack

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As the Narendra Modi juggernaut rolls towards Delhi, his right-hand man Amit Shah is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the caravan reaches its destination with plenty of fuel to spare. If the BJP wants to end its decade-long exile from power at the Centre, the party has to win big in Uttar Pradesh. The state has provided eight of India’s 14 prime ministers and also sends the largest number of members — 80 — to Parliament. So why is the BJP banking on its national general secretary Shah for its poll campaign in UP, overstepping many veteran leaders? Why does Modi believe that Shah is capable of breathing new life into the party and reversing its political fortunes in the state?

If there is one man who Modi trusts with his life, it is 50-year-old Amit Anilchandra Shah. Modi first met Shah at a young age while attending an RSS camp in Ahmedabad. While Modi hailed from a middle-class family, Shah came from a rather affluent background. In his youth, Modi left his family and apparently wandered to the Himalayas. Shah, on the other hand, stayed with the Sangh Parivar and became primarily involved with his family business.

In the 1980s, Modi returned from his sojourn and became actively involved with the RSS, steadily climbing up the ladder. Shah, still an RSS volunteer, expressed his wish to join the BJP. Soon, Modi introduced his friend to the then Gujarat state unit president Shankersinh Vaghela.

“I was sitting in the party office,” recalls Vaghela, who went on to become the chief minister before quitting the BJP and joining the Congress. “Modi came to me along with a boy and introduced him as Amit Shah, an able businessman who was into plastic pipe manufacturing. He requested me to find him some work in the party.”

After joining the BJP, Shah was identified as a small-time politician for a long time, but gradually his closeness to Modi grew. In the 1990s, the BJP began finding its feet in Gujarat and Shah’s career took off.

In 1991, when LK Advani decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Gandhinagar, Shah expressed his wish to take charge of his poll campaign. He assured Modi that he could shoulder the responsibility and guarantee a victory, even if Advani did not attend a single rally. This confidence impressed Modi and he obliged Shah. Advani won by a landslide as accolades mounted for Modi and his election machine. Both Modi and Advani were quick to acknowledge Shah’s genius.

History repeated itself in 1996 when senior BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to contest from the same constituency. On Modi’s request, the campaign was once again handed over to Shah. At the time, Vajpayee was busy campaigning across the country and spent very little time in his own constituency. The BJP completely relied on Shah for its campaign and he proved himself once again.

According to BJP insiders, these two accomplishments changed Shah’s political fortunes by a long mile. He was no longer considered a small-time politician but a tall political figure, expert at managing poll campaigns.

Finally, and most importantly, Modi’s confidence in him grew. Modi saw a spark in Shah that could brighten up his own political prospects. “Amit Shah has mastery over political strategising and poll campaigning,” says BK Singh, a senior journalist with ABP News, who has been keeping track of Gujarat politics for long. “He can ascertain a candidate’s victory or loss with his political instinct. Shah’s prowess impressed Modi a lot.”

Initially, Shah restricted himself to Ahmedabad and its surrounding areas. But Modi’s patronage and the seal of approval from Advani and Vajpayee gave his political career a momentum. His next mission was to take control of Gujarat’s co-operative sector, including banks and milk production, which had so far been under the thumb of the Congress. “It was his biggest achievement,” says Singh. “If the BJP controls the co-operative sector in Gujarat now, it is because of Amit Shah, who managed to overthrow the decades-old monopoly of the Congress.”

Political analysts attribute the Congress’ decline in Gujarat to its weakening control over the co-operative sector. “The co-operatives exerted a considerable amount of influence over Gujarat’s rural sector,” points out Singh. “As the Congress lost control of it, its political well-being within the state also suffered a decline.”

After conquering the co-operative sector, Shah turned his eyes on the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA). For years, Congress leader Narhari Amin had controlled the GCA. But Shah managed to end his decade- and-a-half reign. Later, Shah got Modi a position in the GCA. In return, Modi made him the association’s vice-president.

The hunger with which Modi is chasing the prime minister’s post is the same with which he eyed the chief minister’s post when Keshubhai Patel was at the helm. The duo of Modi and Shah worked at strengthening Modi’s political position in the state. “When Modi introduced me to Shah and asked me to find him some work, I agreed,” recalls Vaghela. “But soon I realised that he was spying on me. Modi had placed him with me to act as his informant. Modi and Shah are accused of snooping now, but they have been doing it for decades.”

Meanwhile, the political equations in the state began shifting. Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel ganged up with state BJP leader Sanjay Joshi to send Modi out of Gujarat. In 1986, Modi was transferred to Delhi as national general secretary and was put in charge of several states. But Modi was not ready to part with Gujarat and kept track of the political developments back home. In the meantime, Shah lodged himself in Patel’s close circle.

Under Patel, the BJP’s command over Gujarat began to wane. The party lost the local body elections as well as the bypolls. In 2001, a massive earthquake hit Gujarat. The BJP government faced severe criticism for the delay in relief work and lobbying began against Patel in Delhi. Both local and national media bashed the Patel regime, publishing reports provided from within the BJP.

“Amit Shah had carried out the plan of creating a wave of opposition against Keshubhai Patel on the orders of Narendra Modi,” says political analyst Devendra Patel.

Keshubhai Patel was eventually dethroned and Modi was anointed the chief minister. The event marked the beginning of a new era in the friendship of Modi and Shah, which gave birth to the person Shah is today.

In 2002, the BJP gave Shah an Assembly ticket from Sarkhej. The master strategist won by a landslide margin of 1.6 lakh votes, which was even more than Modi’s margin. By 2007, this figure had reached 2.35 lakh.

When Modi came to power in 2002, he appointed Shah as the MoS (Home). In fact, he was given charge of 10 portfolios, the most for a minister. Modi also made him a member of 90 percent of the committees, even those that had no connection with the ministries he was handling. Political experts allege that this was Modi’s tactic to keep an eye over his Cabinet. Others claim that he was returning the favour for the role Shah had played in toppling over the Patel government. Shah’s influence surged manifold and he became the second-most influential leader in Gujarat after Modi.

However, the relationship between Modi and Shah has had its share of ups and downs. It was not easy for Shah to gain Modi’s confidence. His chief adversary in Gujarat remains Education Minister Anandiben Patel, a person Modi has been close to besides Shah. For a long time, a cold war has been simmering between Shah and Anandiben. “Amit Shah is like a shadow for Modi but Anandiben is equally close to him,” says a party leader. “They have been with Modi since his RSS days. There may be differences between Shah and Anandi, but Modi would never have Shah competing against her.” Adds Vaghela, who has been a colleague of both leaders, “They are absolutely different people. While Shah is an expert strategist, Anandi is deft in management.”

There is much antipathy against Shah within Modi’s Cabinet. But no one dares to voice it due to Shah’s closeness to Modi. “Under Modi, Amit Shah was everywhere,” says journalist Singh. “He ran the government alongside Modi. Naturally, senior leaders, who are more experienced than him, felt offended.”

Adds political analyst Patel, “Whatever political stratagem Modi has employed in Gujarat was masterminded by Amit Shah. Shah has emerged as a shrewd expert in social and political engineering.”

Agrees Congress leader Vaghela, “This man has excellent management skills. He is loyal to his master. He was the one who knocked down the Congress in Gujarat and weakened its authority over the co-operatives. He is busy planning political stratagems round the clock. That’s why he has been posted in UP.”

Shah claims to have contested major and minor elections 42 times without losing on a single occasion. But he also faces several cases of fake encounters as well as murder, ransom and kidnapping. Recently, he made headlines for his alleged involvement in the snoopgate controversy for illegally snooping on a young woman at Modi’s behest.

In 2010, Shah was arrested in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. The strongest attack against Shah came from his former aide and suspended DIG, DG Vanzara. The former top cop had been jailed for his involvement in fake encounters. While he was lodged at the Sabarmati Central Jail, he wrote his resignation letter in which he accused Modi and Shah of ordering fake encounters. He alleged that both Modi and Shah were equally guilty of the encounters in which he and 31 other officers were implicated. Vanzara accused Shah of ditching the police officers. He also wrote that he has “supreme faith and the highest respect for Narendra Modi, whom I used to adore like a god. I am sorry to state that my god could not rise to the occasion under the evil influence of Amitbhai Shah”.

Shah maintains a low profile, keeping away from the media just like Modi. He chooses his words carefully and has often been accused of being a tyrant and arrogant. Refuting the charges, Gujarat BJP leader Kanji S Thakur says, “It’s not true. He takes everybody along. There’s no arrogance in him. It’s just that he speaks the truth even if it bites.” When asked why Shah was sent to Uttar Pradesh, he replies, “Why wouldn’t the party promote someone who has done wonders in Gujarat? We believe that he will repeat the miracle of Gujarat in Uttar Pradesh. Modi knows very well whom to assign which work.”

After being handed the charge of Uttar Pradesh, Shah has been extensively working to win the state for the BJP. According to local party leaders, Shah has brought along a team from Gujarat that has been assisting him in formulating party policies. In addition, Shah has also recruited IIT and IIM youth for the poll campaign.

The poll machine is working overtime and Shah is busy stirring up the long-dormant BJP in the state. “The first step they have taken under the leadership of Amit Shah is to mobilise the workers,” says party spokesman Manoj Mishra. “He is quickly building up public relations. He personally visited all 80 constituencies in the state. Booth committees are being scientifically designed across UP.”

Commenting on the changes introduced by Shah in UP, state BJP chief Laxmikant Bajpai says, “Today, we have set up booth committees in 80 percent of the areas. It was not so before. Earlier, if someone did not get the ticket, they would begin working against the standing candidate of the party. But this time the party is contesting the election as a single entity.”

In addition, Shah has embraced technology on the lines of the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. This is the first time technology has been so extensively used for campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, says a party leader. Recently, 400 ultra-modern Modi raths were flagged off in the state.

Party leaders claim that Shah’s arrival has put a stop to infighting. “Earlier they were constantly at loggerheads, but with Amit Shah here, their issues are being heard out. They know that Shah is Modi’s close aide and Modi holds the BJP’s future. So, anyone who cares about his prospects must get in the ‘yes, sir’ mode,” says a leader.

Rakeshchandra Tripathi, a BJP worker closely working with Shah, shares his experience: “Amit Shah has a practical approach towards things. He is not like one of those conventional UP politicians who deliver long, pointless speeches. He speaks precisely and to the point.” A district party president says, “He has made one thing clear. He only cares about the party’s victory. Nothing else matters to him and all sorts of people are being roped in. He wants us to ensure Modi’s win at any cost.”

Adds Bajpai, “This time, we are opening bank accounts for Lok Sabha candidates. The monetary aid offered by the party will be credited into this account. For withdrawal of money from these accounts, approval of three people will be needed. Later, the candidate will be required to submit the expenditure details. There is no scope for black money. It is part of Shahji’s policy.”

However, there is disquiet among senior party leaders regarding the policy. “In UP, Shah is working with two kinds of people,” says senior journalist Sharat Pradhan. “A team of Sangh Parivar members as well as the team Shah brought from Gujarat. He is not paying much attention to the state leaders. This is why senior leaders are offended. But they are afraid of speaking up.”

When asked about Shah’s methods and his unpopularity among senior BJP leaders in the state, Bajpai says, “The leaders who presided over the party’s downward spiral are struggling for survival. That’s why they are creating such an atmosphere. Shahji talks to them and seeks their advice, but they don’t have much of a say in policy implementation. If the same old decisions are followed, what’s the point of forming a new team? These leaders have neither extended monetary help nor mobilised cadres for rallies. They can only deliver speeches.”

On the other hand, district-level leaders and cadres are happy with Shah’s methods. “Amit Shah is keen on taking the party to every household in every ward; that wasn’t the case earlier,” says the BJP’s Varanasi district unit president Tulsi Joshi. “He personally calls up the party workers. We can contact him any time we want. If the party has a few more people like Shah, the lotus will bloom across the whole country.”

If Modi makes it, Shah will undoubtedly be one of the most influential leaders in the BJP as well as Indian politics. On his part, Shah is doing everything to get Modi the top post. Time will decide the rest.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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