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Amit Shah wins his next gamble

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: July 09, 2014 12:58 IST
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Amit Shah is the man of the moment. The architect of the BJP’s stunning transformation in the Hindi heartland during the Lok Sabha elections has emerged as the CEO of Modi’s political dreams and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s cultural passion, says Sheela Bhatt.

Amit Shah has created history for the second time in less than two months.

On the eve of the completion of an eventful first month by the Modi sarkar, an extraordinary meeting took place in Chittor, Rajasthan. 

A few “wise old men” in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh debated threadbare -- in the historical city known for its valour and wars -- a suitable new chief for the Bharatiya Janata Party to take its saffron surge ahead.

And they gave their nod to Amit Shah, the architect of the party’s victory in Uttar Pradesh. The debate in Chittor was followed up in New Delhi with a few closed-door consultations in the BJP to anoint Shah as the president. The BJP decision was firmed up by current president Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, minister for transport.    

Amitbhai, as he is addressed by friends and foes, is one of the accused in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case and is out on bail in the same case. 

Gangster Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausarbi were killed in a fake encounter by the Gujarat police in 2005, when Shah was the minister of state for home and Narendra Modi was the then state chief minister and home minister.

The charge-sheet has been filed in the case, but the court has not framed the charges yet. The judge was expected to deliver the judgment on Shah’s “application of discharge” on June 25 but he was transferred on his own request from the city on the morning of the same day.  

Amitbhai’s great leap forward is based on the high expectation of Sangh Parivar. Not just Amitbhai but the party is expecting an “honourable acquittal” from the case.

He wants to perform his duty as party president without the “burden of the case” bothering him or the party, says a senior leader, who is part of the decision-making process.   

Shah, 50, has gambled incredibly after May 16 (the day the Lok Sabha election results were announced).

Daring to dream sky high, he is keen to head India’s fastest expanding party at such a young age.

In politics, it’s always jo jeeta wohi sikander (one who wins is the king). 

And Shah has won handsomely. Out of the 336 Lok Sabha seats the National Democratic Alliance won, Shah’s political touch was present till the booth level in 130 seats. 

A little less than 50 per cent of the BJP victory came courtesy Shah’s humongous efforts. 

The NDA won 73 seats in UP, 31 in Bihar and all 26 in Gujarat where Shah has been actively strengthening the party infrastructure since the last three elections. 

The statistic is awesome and enviable for a politician who is relatively junior in the party hierarchy and one who has never been made a cabinet minister of crucial portfolio of home in the state government.

Then why is Shah, an accused in a criminal case, in the race and set to win his next gamble? There is a hand of destiny, says a senior minister in absence of any convincing explanation. The politician who, in July 2010, was sent to jail by the court is in July 2014 getting into one of the most coveted jobs in his party.   

If Shah becomes BJP president, it will be only due to the TINA (there is no alternative) factor existing within his party. It’s the perception that Shah has been able to build for himself, successfully.

Of course, let’s not have any doubt, he will be the nominee and candidate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi without whose nod nothing can move in the Sangh Parivar today. 

But, it will not be incorrect to say that Shah will be elevated not out of love for him but because Modi, the RSS and the BJP all perceive that he can best execute the party’s expansive agenda for the future. Within the party there are voices, albeit in a minority, against him.

With just one huge win in UP, Shah has established his presence in the Indian electoral scene in a thunderous manner. The election result of May 16 has brought dramatic success for Modi. In Shah’s case, it was quite melodramatic.

In fact, the most intriguing, complex and tricky part of Shah’s current great gamble are a few questions: 1. Does Modi really want Shah to be party president when he can very well do with a faceless and weak personality to head the party? 2. Will Shah play Modi’s game or will he tilt towards the RSS eventually?

These are difficult judgements to make.

What is on record is Modi’s acknowledgement of Shah’s stupendous success. After the election results of May 16, Modi -- before he was sworn-in as prime minister -- talked about Shah’s role in two functions in Gujarat. 

Modi said, ‘In these elections the party achieved many gains, and one of the benefits was that the country got a party worker called Amit Shah. Very few people tend to have any idea about the capacity of a small worker, and the best results he can bring. I recently went to Ganga Aarti, and when in the car, people out there were wanted to know who Amit Shah is.’

Modi was liberal in his praise when he said, ‘Post elections, as many as 20 states and Union territories are now Congress-free. What the Congress could not achieve in 28 states, Amitbhai achieved it in a single state, Uttar Pradesh. You can imagine the scale (of Amitbhai’s success).’

Shah’s reward was very much round the corner just as Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley had got their due in the form of plum ministries. There was a guessing game going on about Modi’s options -- what he would offer Shah and how will he make use of his talent, was under watch.

The Sohrabuddin fake encounter case is an issue for sure. Shah has already got a clean chit in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case, but the Sohrabuddin case is far from over.

Shah was arrested on July 25, 2010, after the Central Bureau of Investigation filed the charge-sheet in the case.

His party has always supported him in the matter. All senior party leaders visited him when he was incarcerated at Sabarmati jail.

Last year, Jaitley had written to then prime minister Manmohan Singh that the cases against Shah were "legally unsustainable" and that "the Gujarat high court while granting Shah bail (in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case) observed that there was no prima facie case against him."

In Sabarmati jail, Shah was not ruffled. Instead, he vowed to ensure that he not only gets “justice” but also that he will work relentlessly for Modi’s victory in the Lok Sabha poll. Actually, the criminal case has had a big impact on his psyche. While giving discourses on the Gita and Ramayan to fellow prisoners, he made determined efforts to prove his “innocence” in the case.  

Believe it or not, people who know Shah claim that he would not have had this level of killer instinct, which he displayed in Uttar Pradesh, had he not been made an accused in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. 

Like most of his party leaders, Shah deeply believes in the might of destiny. In his political career the Sohrabuddin case has become a tipping point that helped him cross the boundaries of Gujarat and position himself as a national-level player in his party, he thinks. The allegations against him are serious and his defence is stout. He seriously believes, not unexpectedly of course, that the case was politically motivated. 

Recently, when asked about Shah’s court case by, minister Nitin Gadkari dismissed the question saying, “There are no cases against him, it's not true. Many cases were meaningless and he has been freed of all allegations in some cases.”

In jail and during his subsequent stay in New Delhi after being externed from Gujarat on court orders, Shah dreamt big and backed “Saheb” Modi at every forum within and outside the party.

Having secured bail on October 29, 2010, he arrived in New Delhi’s Gujarat Bhavan and started his march to take Brand Modi into every village of the Ganga belt.

In 2012-13 and till the elections of April-May 2014, Modi and Shah synchronised every little political step and used every minute to build the party in the Hindi belt.

In spite of the mega victory in UP, Shah is realistic enough to know that every time his profile is written he will be mentioned as an accused in a fake encounter case, something that hurts him.

So, with the burden of the case on his shoulder, Shah carved out a different plan for himself. After the victory, in an unheard move in competitive politics, Shah showed political maturity. 

He refused to become a Cabinet minister because he wanted a clean chit in the legal case against him first. Since the court has not taken cognisance of the charges against him yet, legally, leave alone talk of ethics, he could have become a Cabinet minister. 

He took a stand because if as minister he were to become vulnerable in the courtroom, then it could create embarrassment for PM Modi. While refusing to join the Cabinet, Shah had his eyes fixed firmly on the party position.

Shah and his party repeatedly claim that the case against him is “politically motivated” and that it was done to fix Modi eventually. He and his party have been vociferously saying that there is no case against him; it is not legally sustainable and is all part of the erstwhile UPA government’s political vendetta. The CBI chargesheet heavily targets policemen and alleges that they acted on Shah's instructions. His argument is that the CBI has not provided any proof of his involvement except the frequent calls made to the policemen.

Lately, even the CBI has not been showing consistency inside the courtroom with regard to the case. On June 16, the CBI was to produce some more material, but failed to do so. 

A legal expert involved with the case told, “The case against Shah could never build up due to lack of evidence. The CBI has nothing much beyond the call log details obtained from the telecom company.”

The court judgment was awaited on Shah’s application for discharge but the surprise transfer of the judge has delayed the case. Normally, the new judge hears the case again.

Besides the legal hurdle, Shah faces other hurdles too.

Within the RSS and the BJP, some have been fretting over how two Gujaratis could monopolise the government and the party. Those defending Shah's nomination argue that even in the Congress there were instances when the prime minister and president both have been Hindi-speaking. Also, when P V Narasimha Rao was PM he headed the party as well. 

Others suspect that it suits Shah very much to remain Modi’s proxy and follow the latter’s diktat alone, ignoring other BJP leaders. But, the counter-point raised by many detractors is that Shah is so sharp and shrewd that he may create a “power centre” in any position given to him. However, it’s apparent in the last 40 days of the new government that not just Shah, there is nobody in the party who can match or come close to the status and charisma that Modi enjoys in the public space. 

Another debating point is about how prudent and ethical it would be for the RSS, BJP and Modi to make Shah, who is facing a criminal trial, the party chief. But, the counter-argument goes that if Shah is not made party chief for the same reason, it will be an indirect endorsement of the charges the Congress and “secular” lobby have been making since the case surfaced. 

Also, his critics talk of Shah's inexperience factor. He has not served at the national level long enough. Most importantly, particularly for Modi, Shah’s massive promotion as party president means a high dose of Hindutva in Indian public life. After winning so handsomely, will Modi want to inject deep saffron shades in his government’s DNA?

The answers to these questions will depend on Modi's intention behind handing over the party's reins to Shah.  

The party has shown urgency to find Rajnath Singh’s replacement. Important assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, and Haryana are just a few months away and the party needs to repeat its historic victory to sustain its nationwide rhythm. In the absence of local leadership, the task is not as easy as it’s claimed by the party. In the long run, the BJP needs a strong president to establish a link between the government and party; the sooner the better for both. The way Modi’s PMO functions as a closed shop, it is certain that after his government’s honeymoon period is over the BJP will need a link between the government and party. 

Another factor is to keep a watch on the Congress party’s revival. 

The BJP needs a strong president to ensure that the party consolidates on the gains of the Lok Sabha election in states like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, UP and Bihar. The BJP’s infrastructure is as hopeless as that of the Congress and Left parties in many states.

Besides Shah, the party’s general secretary and leader from Himachal Pradesh Jagat Prakash Nadda and Om Mathur’s name are also being considered for the top post. Some sources claim that Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar too had been requested to become party president, but he refused to leave his state.

What is certain is that the RSS-BJP and Modi do not have many choices before them. Shah has shown that he can deliver. 

The Sangh Parivar needs somebody who can repeat its victory spell in the forthcoming assembly elections. 

Can Nadda play that crucial role? Hardly! 

A strong perception has developed that Amit Shah can. That’s the formidable brand image that he has been able to create for himself in the shortest possible time.

Amitbhai’s politics of the last two decades has proved to the RSS that in certain Hindutva issues that concern them, Shah has shown that he is his own man. 

Today, Shah has shown that he is better than the best in the management of organisational matters. He can construct the party like never before. In terms of logistics, he can give the Congress a run for its history and money. 

If Shah is made the BJP president it will be nothing short of a trend-setting decision by Modi and the RSS. Shah has plans to reach out to the national RSS population and keep open a line of communication with them. Modi's government is hyperactive about planning the modernisation of the three defence services and planning and funding of big ticket projects like the Indian version of the Disneyland-scale massive project displaying arts and culture in Varanasi.

Modi will have to ensure that everything he and his government do on the development front has a political selling point. Amit Shah is needed to raise the political quotient in the running of the government.

Shah's appointment will have a far-reaching impact on Indian politics too. 

Shah will emerge as the CEO of Modi’s political dreams and the RSS’s cultural passion. 

Less compromising than Modi on ideological issues, he is more loyal to the RSS DNA and its agenda, including Article 370, Uniform Civil Code and the Ram temple. Unlike Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, he is not an integral part of the political set-up of New Delhi.

For Shah all that goes with cultural nationalism, the concept of Indian family values, village traditions, religious scriptures and uplift of Varanasi is as important as signing MoUs for infrastructure development. 

Amitbhai, a bania (trader) who was once manufacturing plastic pipes and who had been an ace stockbroker among many other things, is now set to become a hyperactive player in contemporary politics. 

Soon, whether he becomes party president or not, he will be inducted into the BJP parliamentary board, its most powerful body, as its convenor. That will also be no mean achievement.

His life reminds one of the saying, duniya jhukti hai, jhukaanewala chaahiye (the world will bend, needs audacious man).

Image: BJP leader Amit Shah striking an unusually exuberant pose after the May 16, 2014, election results. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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