“Who is Amit Shah?” ran the headlines when he was appointed BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh on 19 May 2013. Then-BJP president Rajnath Singh was on the defensive, arguing that it was “not a crime” to appoint Shah, an accused in an alleged fake encounter case at that time.
Two thousand days later – the landmark reached last Sunday – the rise of Amit Shah in Indian politics has been phenomenal, one of the rare instances of a political non-entity (outside the home state) making it so big on the national political scene in such a short time. Not many BJP presidents could claim to have the kind of aura and clout across the country that he has. Union ministers start shivering when they are called for a meeting with Shah ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. In the past, many of them got news of their sacking from him only.
After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the only BJP president who is in so much demand among party candidates for campaigning in their constituencies is Amit Shah.
It’s quite an achievement for a leader who had been in jail for three months – in connection with the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case – and who got out on bail in 2010 only to be told by the Supreme Court to stay out of Gujarat and given time till the next morning to leave the state. Few noticed him when he would get in and out of the Gujarat Bhawan where he stayed in the national capital.
Arun Jaitley, the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha at that time, was chatting with a few journalists in his chamber in Parliament one afternoon in 2013 when a bearded man entered and touched his feet. He had got relief from the apex court in one of the cases. The journalists present there recognised Shah but he wasn’t important enough for them to digress from an interesting conversation with the senior opposition leader.
Shah has come a long way since then. The last 2000 days have been a period of metamorphosis for him: from a reticent, seemingly unambitious state minister whose personal and political life appeared doomed after his incarceration in connection with fake encounter cases into a confident and outspoken BJP president who is now seen as the alter ego of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another Vajpayee-Advani jodi is in the making as Modi makes a conscious attempt to model himself on the former prime minister, an RSS pracharak who rose over divisive ideology and politics to become a darling of the people as a ‘vikas purush’ or development man. Whether by design or default, Amit Shah is also taking after Advani of yore, a ‘loh purush’ who takes the hard line on issues perceived to be dear to Hindus.
When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue in Delhi on 19 September, Shah ignited a debate on the same subject the next day at a book launch in the national capital. The BJP president has described Bangladeshi “infiltrators” as termites and made Assam’s National Register of Citizens a testimony of the party’s stance against illegal immigrants (read Muslims).
Soon, there will be a BJP government in Bengal and no one will dare stop Durga Puja or Saraswati Puja, he roared in West Bengal, referring to the Trinamool Congress government’s restrictions on idol immersion last year. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, he promised to ban slaughterhouses and liberate people “from the fear of Atiq Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari”. There are instances galore of how Shah doesn’t miss an opportunity to project himself as a hardline Hindutva proponent a la L.K. Advani.
Those who knew Shah in his early days in Gujarat say that he always held strong views although he didn’t articulate them publicly. He was a votary of a powerful state. Those old-timers also recall how difficult it was for the Congress to open its election office in Sarkhej assembly constituency from where Shah contested 2007 assembly election. He used to be a soft-spoken leader then, without any tinge of bitterness in his voice.
He is a changed man now. The ruling party he heads has perfected the art of using the instruments of the state while he has become unapologetic about his and his party’s pro-Hindu credentials. Opposition candidates find it more challenging to stay in the electoral game.
Shah is arguably more powerful today than what Advani was during the Vajpayee regime. Much of Advani’s larger public persona could be attributed to his image as a hardline Hindu leader and a Ram Mandir crusader. Shah can’t reach that status now even if he travels down that path. But the times are different now. Shah doesn’t need to.