By Uday Mahurkar
Two frames hanging on the wall of Amit Shah's office, at his spartan home in Ahmedabad's Naranpura locality, leave no illusion about his Hindu nationalist credentials and his political ambitions. They are of Adi Shankaracharya and Chanakya - one a symbol of Hindu culture, the other a master of statecraft. Shah, 50, recalls how nearly a century ago, Sri Aurobindo, while serving as an officer with legendary Vadodra ruler Sayajirao Gaekwad, visited his grandfather at their mansion in Mansa near Ahmedabad and left a note on what the duties of an ideal king should be.
It is no surprise then that the BJP national general secretary understands state and political craft better than most. It has elevated him to the mantle of the man who holds the key to Narendra Modi's mind. It has also got him his most difficult assignment yet-winning the politically volatile Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 polls for BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
Shah, Gujarat's minister of state (MoS) for home from 2002 to 2010, is an accused in the 2005 Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, and spent three months in Sabarmati jail. BJP accuses Congress of using CBI in fake encounter cases to get back at Modi and Shah. There are suggestions he'll be called for questioning by CBI in the Ishrat Jahan case, but Shah is unruffled.
In his Delhi BJP office, next to that of party chief Rajnath Singh, he tackles dozens of ticket-seekers and other party workers from Uttar Pradesh. Whether his responses are positive or not, he gives reasons for them to all.
Shah's politics is shaped by the grassroots. In his durbar, devoted but small-time party workers get more time than powerful favour-seekers. Swantradev Singh, the general secretary of BJP's Uttar Pradesh unit, says: "In just four months, he's understood state politics better than most. He's already identified the malaise in our unit." Even as he plans Modi's rallies in the state, Shah, who assumed charge of the state on May 19, has toured it for over 50 days and visited 40 of the 80 constituencies.
Shah, who comes from a business family, first met Modi at an RSS shakha in Ahmedabad in 1980. But it was only after the two joined BJP in 1987 that they got closer, impressed by each other's ability to think out of the box, which made them stand out amid regimented RSS guys. He moved to Ahmedabad for his graduation and stayed back to start a business in PVC pipes. Later, he shifted to share trading, which he continues to do till today. His wife Sonal, 47, is a homemaker, and son Jay, 25, an engineer.
What impressed Shah early on was Modi's insistence, against the will of senior leaders, that BJP should register every active member and remove bogus ones. It has since become BJP's biggest strength in Gujarat. Both learnt at the feet of then RSS leader Laxmanrao Inamdar, who is considered Modi's guru. "Narendrabhai's attempt to build a strong party foundation impressed me no end," says Shah. Since 2002, when Modi became chief minister, he has depended on Shah for his political strategy.
However, the task he has been called upon to discharge now is onerous. Modi wants Shah to win the state, but by following Deendayal Upadhyaya's inclusive nationalism. This means he has to woo moderate Muslims while not pushing BJP's core Hindu vote bank away. It would mean desisting from the VHP brand of Hindutva in the party's stance on the Muzaffarnagar riots, selling it instead as appeasement politics of Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress. As Shah puts it: "It is the minority-appeasement of pseudo-secular parties that is hurting Muslims the most. The nation is waiting for a new brand of politics free of appeasement. Its symbol is Narendrabhai."
In an already polarised atmosphere, Shah has to walk a tightrope. But Modi is determined to do the impossible: Win on the appeasement-free but inclusive plank of "development without discrimination". Shah is busy coining slogans explaining to Muslims that job reservations promised by Congress, SP and BSP will be possible only from the 27 per cent cake reserved for OBCs that includes backward Muslims or Pasmandas. OBCs form 36 per cent of voters and BJP hopes to appeal to them as well, after booth-level structural changes that Shah effected.
Since 2007, Mayawati's politics-of clubbing upper castes with BSP's Dalit and OBC vote banks-had thrown BJP in disarray at the village and booth levels, as supporters left the party in droves. Even as they were hijacked by other parties, little attempt was made to fill the vacuum. It had reached a point where there weren't enough workers to drag committed BJP voters to the polling booth. But now Shah has reformed booth committees with precise caste representation to bring back a sense of balance. BJP hopes these committees will be the backbone of its future politics.
Shah claims there is a pro-Modi wave in the state. He says between 35,000 and 75,000 previously undecided voters appear strongly committed to Modi this time in almost every Lok Sabha constituency. This is apart from the traditional BJP vote the party is hoping to bring back. But Shah tones down his optimism when interacting with the state leadership, lest they become complacent. As he addresses the state BJP organisation committee in charge of planning Modi's rallies, he appears cagey: "People won't come to Modiji's rallies on their own, but we are working to a plan. If anyone comes on their own accord, it will be a bonus." But while talking to a national BJP functionary involved in the state, he doesn't hide the fact that this time BJP hopes to put up its best performance since 1989-91, because of Modi's presence.
Says Shah: "The feeling against Mayawati is yet to die. The Akhilesh (Yadav-led SP) government is already facing voter apathy, surpassed only by a feeling of anti-incumbency against the Centre. The answer to all such problems, from corruption to security to strong leadership and development, is Modi alone."
Shah is also trying to root out nepotism in ticket distribution, which is the bane of every party in the state including BJP. Addressing a meeting of party workers in Agra, he said: "This is your battle for survival. If you can't win in spite of Narendra Modi, BJP will be gone from UP forever."
As Gujarat mos for Home, Shah had brought down the crime rate substantially, modernised the state police by linking all police stations online with the DGP's office, helped float the police and security training school Raksha Shakti University, and India's first forensic science university.
However, Shah's alleged involvement in the fake encounter cases soiled his image. He is an accused in the fake encounter deaths of Sohrabuddin (2005) and Tulsi Prajapati (2006). In the first case, CBI arrested him in July 2010 on the charge of planning the staged encounter with police. He managed to get bail after two months.
Many believe Shah's essentially political brain left a legacy of infighting and bitterness in Gujarat Police. The resignation letter of jailed dcp D.G. Vanzara targeted Shah on the same, though he denies the charge. Another negative trait is his style of functioning. Says a source close to Modi: "Had Shah been more communicative, he would have had a greater standing and could have avoided the fake encounter charges." Shah is said to have become more approachable since taking charge of Uttar Pradesh.
It is as an election strategist that he excels. BJP's victory in the Dediapada Assembly seat in Gujarat last December is proof of his skills. With many Christian tribals in the constituency, he chose a Hindu candidate with a Christian wife who had defected from Congress. It brought Hindus and Christians together and won BJP a seat it had never won before. It is the reason why Shah acolytes believe Congress is plotting to keep Modi and Shah apart. It has not worked. They are made for each other.
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