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Sunday 12 May 2019

india’s elections

Modi’s smiling Svengali

  • The second most powerful man in India is Amit Shah, mastermind of huge election victories for the ruling BJP
  • He is Narendra Modi’s fixer, a cheerleader for Hindu nationalism – and for four years was a suspect in a still-unsolved murder
  • As India votes again, Shah is poised to return to Delhi for five more years in power

By Hartosh Singh Bal

As India was embroiled in one of its periodic political dramas after a close election last year in the state of Karnataka, a senior Hindu nationalist leader was asked why he was so sure his party would form the government. He responded with a play on a line that has passed into Bollywood history: “Hamare paas Amit Shah hai.” (We have Amit Shah.)

The dialogue dates back to a 1970s movie called Deewaar (The Wall). Two brothers end up on opposing sides of the law. Ravi is an honest, penurious cop looking after their mother. Vijay is head of the underworld. As they face off Vijay taunts his brother: “I have lots of money, a bungalow, a car, a servant, a bank balance… What do you have?” Ravi replies: “Mere paas maa hai.” (I have my mother.)

In a land of unsurpassed mother love, there could be no higher compliment. For the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Amit Shah is that overarching figure in the background who takes care of everything. He is the foil to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Svengali. He is the power behind the throne.

Shah has a past darkened by allegations of conspiracy to murder, but in his present role he is shepherding Modi into a second five-year term as leader of the most populous democracy on Earth.

As India’s seven-week election season enters its final days, Modi leads the campaign. Typically for him, it is long on rhetoric and short on substance. He seeks to be a leader who can stand up to terror, is firm on national security. Unstated but always implied in the campaign is that he is someone who will guard the country against the threat from Islam, both external and internal. And while Modi is thundering away in different parts of the country, Amit Shah keeps the party’s house in order.

An Indian election campaign is many campaigns rolled into one. Apart from the individual battle of personalities between the main candidates for prime minister, there is the pull and tug of communities. These are formed out of identification with religion, caste, region or combinations of all three – Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs; high-caste Brahmins or the former untouchables now termed Dalits; Bengalis, Assamese and Tamils. In turn each of these categories is endlessly sub-divided, a reflection of the hierarchical but fractal nature of Indian society.

The selection of candidates is crucial. Each Indian parliamentary constituency comprises over a million voters and mirrors the diversity of caste and religion. The choice of a candidate from one community can and does end up affronting people from another. A fundamental electoral challenge is to balance these communities to your advantage, and Shah is a master of this balance. Given that the BJP starts off knowing that no more than a handful of India’s 200 million Muslims will vote for it, this exercise becomes a matter of political survival.

Before Shah took over the BJP in 2015, membership stood at 35 million. Within a year this had touched 100 million and it has continued to expand. He has used this membership effectively to monitor voter turnout and get BJP voters to actually come out and vote. The key to the Indian election is the local polling booth, and Shah has managed to ensure that volunteers from this growing number devote over a fortnight around election time to identifying and persuading voters. A journalist close to Shah has described his mode of continuous engagement with election planning: “Shah… brainstorms with key state office-bearers and breaks each state down region by region. A key leader from each state makes a detailed analysis based on queries Shah sends. At the end of this 90-minute meeting, Shah assesses what changes need to be introduced.”

Other parties have now followed suit and many of his innovations have become normal practice, but the BJP’s micro-management of elections down to the level of the voting booth was unknown in India before Shah.

This attention to detail marks him out, but it is not immediately obvious on meeting him. He is an unprepossessing figure, a short, portly man with a cropped beard, always smiling in his photographs. His hands are neatly manicured. He dresses carefully, almost always a Nehru jacket worn over traditional Indian kurta pyjamas. Two gemstones, a diamond and an emerald, adorn his right hand, their astrological effectiveness evident only to a man who doesn’t believe in chance.

Narendra Modi at an RSS ceremony in Gujarat

Perhaps his meeting with Modi was fated. As teenagers, both were drawn to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu volunteer organisation which is the parent body of the BJP. The RSS was founded in 1925 on a belief in the idea of a Hindu nation with a 5,000-year history spanning that of India. The RSS further insisted that only those who believed India was their sacred motherland could truly be Hindu, and hence part of this nation. It was the RSS’s way of stating that Muslims and Christians could not be equal citizens in their nation.

Within 15 years of its foundation, senior RSS leaders were in Europe to meet up with the Italian fascists, and the most influential head of the organisation even found merit in Hitler’s Final Solution.

The RSS sought to implement these ideas by reaching out to the young. Central to the organisation is the idea of the shakha (branch), where young men dressed in khaki shorts, white shirts and boots are drilled, trained in unarmed combat and lectured on the basic precepts of the RSS. In many small towns and villages of India these still remain among the few opportunities for social interaction among teenage boys.

Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation RSS perform yoga in Jammu

Amit Shah belongs to the trading Baniya community, third in the trio of Hindu upper castes, the other two being Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors). While these castes make up less than 15 per cent of the Indian population, they control much of India’s financial and intellectual life. In 2011, eight of India’s ten richest billionaires were Baniyas drawn from less than 1 per cent of the population. It is only in politics that the strength of numbers has finally, several decades after independence, ensured some representation for India’s middle castes and Dalits.

The RSS has always been firmly under the grip of the upper castes. Its version of Hinduism takes little note of the inequity of the caste system. It aims instead to consolidate the castes against Muslims. In doing so, it undoes the logic of emancipation that has been driving politics in modern India since independence.

In the early 1980s, Shah, who had been a visitor to a shakha through much of his childhood, became an RSS volunteer as a college student in the state of Gujarat. There he met a noted RSS preacher named Narendra Modi. The different choices they made in their personal lives would be reflected in their subsequent political careers. A preacher, or pracharak, is required to be unmarried, and though Modi had married when he was 18, he left his wife soon after – a fact he did not make public until 2014; his career in the RSS would probably never have taken off if he had done so earlier. Shah, on the other hand, got married in 1987 and stayed married. Not having opted to be a pracharak, Shah could never have made much of a mark in the RSS. He moved over to the political youth wing of the BJP, rising to become the state general secretary.

In 1985 the RSS began working aggressively in Gujarat to bring Dalits and tribals into the fold of their Hinduism while keeping the Muslims out. That year it was decided that Modi would work in the party – a decision that emphasised the fact, lost on most political observers, that the RSS has complete control over the BJP. As Modi rose through its ranks, he pulled Shah up with him.

Dalits, people at the bottom of the Indian caste system, wait for medical treatment in Mumbai

In 1997 Modi was moved to Delhi, in part because the BJP state leadership in Gujarat distrusted his ambition. Before his departure he set Shah up to contest an election to the state legislature, which Shah won. As Modi developed access to the central BJP leadership and began networking with the Delhi media, Shah was the man who kept him informed of developments in the state.

From Delhi, Modi began working against the Gujarat state leadership. The former Indian editor of the weekly Outlook, Vinod Mehta, recounted in his memoir: “When he was working at the party office in Delhi, Narendra Modi came to see me in the office. He brought along some documents which indicated the chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel, was up to no good. The next thing I heard was that he had become the chief minister in place of Keshubhai.”

Modi took over as chief minister of Gujarat a year before the election in 2002. What happened after that delivered a seismic jolt to Indian politics whose aftershocks are still being felt. As I wrote in The New York Times: “In February 2002, soon after he took over as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, a train carrying Hindu religious volunteers was allegedly set on fire in the town of Godhra by a group of Muslims. Fifty-nine people died.”

A mob of Hindus wielding swords and sticks are prevented by police from attacking a small group of Muslims in Ahmadabad in 2002

Mr Modi ensured the bodies of the dead were taken to Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state, and paraded through the city. Violence broke out soon after. Hindu mobs fuelled by incendiary rhetoric from leaders of organisations affiliated with the BJP, targeted homes and businesses owned by Muslims. Over a thousand people were killed, over 700 of them Muslims.”

In the run-up to elections held months later, Modi’s rhetoric was full of vitriol. Speaking of relief camps for the victims he asked: “Should I start child-breeding centres there? Can’t Gujarat implement family planning?  Which religious sect is coming our way?” He swept the elections.

Amit Shah won his constituency by a record margin and was appointed minister in the regional government. He was the only cabinet member Modi really trusted and for much of Modi’s tenure he was in charge of law and order in the state. Whether he upheld the law or violated it with impunity is a question that still haunts him for, by 2010, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had moved to arrest Shah for murder and extortion.

The details of the case were complex but the substance was simple. Shah was accused of arranging the murder by police of key witnesses to the cover-up of a trail pointing to Modi’s deliberate failure to act to stop the violence in 2002. Shah rejects all the allegations, but his predecessor, Haren Pandya, the minister in charge of law enforcement during the tragedy, took issue with Modi’s handling of it. Having fallen out of favour he seemed willing to testify in court about the government’s inaction.

Pandya had already spoken to a citizen’s tribunal comprising eminent retired judges. Based on his testimony the tribunal noted it had received “direct information… from a highly placed source of a meeting (on 27 February 2002) where the CM [the then chief minister Narendra Modi], two or three senior cabinet colleagues, the local police commissioner and an inspector general of police were present”. The meeting had a singular purpose, the tribunal concluded. Senior police officials were told to expect a “Hindu reaction” after Godhra. “They were also told they should not do anything to contain this reaction.”

In 2003 Pandya was found assassinated in his car outside a park where he would normally go for his morning walk. The police investigation defied logic. A few Muslim men were arrested and charged with shooting him through the open window of the car. The forensics, however, indicated that while Pandya was found sitting upright in the car, one of the entry wounds was through the scrotum and there was no blood on the car seat. The men were eventually let off and the crime has never been solved. Pandya’s wife claimed it was a political assassination.

The wife of murdered politician Haren Pandya at the family home in Ahmedabad in June 2007

In 2018, towards the end of a long and convoluted trial, a witness testified that the assassination of Haren Pandya was planned by a man named Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who had been given the task by a police officer considered close to Modi and Shah. In turn, the witness said, Sheikh had sub-contracted the job to a hired killer named Tulsiram Prajapati. These names are important because in 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh was killed by Gujarat police and accused of being an operative in a Pakistan-backed terror group on a mission to kill Modi.

Two policemen accused of political murder are summoned before a magistrate in Ahmedabad

A year later, a police officer revealed what appears to be the truth of the affair in a drunken conversation with a reporter: Sheikh and his wife were taken off a bus by the Gujarat police and kept in a farmhouse. The police not only murdered Sheikh in a staged killing; his wife was subsequently raped and killed as well. Tulsiram Prajapati was also arrested by Gujarat police and had told the court that he feared for his life. Shortly after, Prajapati was killed by the police while “attempting to escape”.

Phone records showed that Shah was in regular touch with Gujarat police during the period when Sheikh was in their custody. Other recordings also explicitly pointed to Shah’s involvement. He was finally arrested in 2010. He denied any wrongdoing and was able to obtain bail but the courts ordered his exile from Gujarat. It was two years before he was allowed to return. Despite the charges, and the exile, the antipathy to Muslims that Modi and Shah had brought to the fore in Gujarat were enough to ensure that even such serious charges were brushed aside by the electorate.

In 2013 Modi was chosen as the face of the BJP’s campaign for the national elections of 2014. Shah returned to Delhi with him, not in exile now but in triumph. Modi’s advent was contested by the party’s old guard who had worked to see the party rise from insignificance to national prominence. In a culture where elders command great respect, it was a challenge that was not easy to brush aside, but in less than a year Modi and Shah were in complete command of the party.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and BJP President Amit Shah in Delhi in April 2008

Shah was put in charge of the BJP’s state campaign in Uttar Pradesh, a key electoral battleground with a population of 200 million and 80 legislators out of a total of 543 in India’s lower house of parliament. He arranged for Modi to campaign in the sacred city of Benares, where enormous Hindu crowds along the River Ganges were a foretaste of the rising nationalist tide. He took personally matched candidates to constituencies and masterminded the party’s ground war. The BJP won 73 of those 80 seats. It was Shah’s personal triumph, and it formed Modi’s power base for his ascent to the post of prime minister in May 2014.

Shah was, astonishingly, still technically on trial. Yet over the next six months the air went out of his prosecution. On 6 June 2014, JT Utpat, the judge in the case, took exception to Shah’s repeated absences. He failed to appear again on 20 June and Utpat set 26 June as the next date with an order that the defendant appear in person. On 25 June the judge was taken off the case and in July 2014 Shah became president of India’s ruling party.

Utpat was replaced by Judge BH Loya, who was initially willing to tolerate Shah’s absence but finally took umbrage. On 31 October, despite being in Mumbai for a political rally, Shah did not appear in court in the same city. Loya demanded his appearance on 15 December. On the night of 30 November the 47-year-old judge, who was in Nagpur on a short trip, died of a heart attack. The judge who replaced him began hearing the case on 15 December. He went through 10,000 pages of evidence in two days and later discharged Shah, stating that the CBI had political motives for pursuing the case.

The official explanation for Loya’s death was riddled with inconsistencies and members of his family raised serious questions about it which were pursued by The Caravan, the magazine I work for. The matter went up to the Supreme Court which turned down the demand for an inquiry into the death.

Now as a man free of criminal charges, and as BJP president, Amit Shah continues to keeps the party’s house in order through another election. His decisions remain unchallenged. The party has complete faith in his abilities but despite his smiling demeanour I know no senior politician from his own party, with the possible exception of Modi, who speaks of him with any sense of fondness.

Perhaps we need to go to Salman Rushdie, who has often written of the Indian male’s obsessive relationship with his mother. In his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, he writes of the “image of an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mother who haunts the fantasy life of Indian males”.

Hartosh Singh Bal is an author and political editor of The Caravan, a Delhi-based investigative magazine

All photographs Getty Images

what’s next?

Another five years of Modi’s rule in India could pose a real danger to Indian democracy. Established norms of seniority and competence have already been violated in the appointment of the army chief and heads of the major investigating agencies, compromising their supposedly non-partisan role.

The independence of the judiciary has been called into question. Candidates who have shown greater devotion to the RSS than to academic rigour are being given appointments at the most prestigious universities. Modi’s critics say the mass media, through a carefully calibrated policy of inducements and pressure, is being subverted to serve as a tool of propaganda rather than news.

Will these trends continue? On the experience of the past five years, few would bet against it. Add to them a steady erosion of the rights, representation and security of India’s large Muslim minority and the country may seem to be moving towards a de facto one-party Hindu state. Which may be just what Amit Shah has in mind.

Further reading