In the long run, Amit Shah’s focus will not just be the development agenda of the Modi government. He will turn to identity politics of the BJP — Hindutva will drive its politics. Shah is not going to be flexible on this issue. Modi has already indicated that the fundamentals of the RSS-BJP remain unchanged. And the RSS believes that the BJP has to clearly align itself in the battle between nationalists and the “pseudo-secularists”.
Fourteen years younger to the Prime Minister, the 51-year-old is Modi’s “bad cop”. Both speak the same language of power, their survival instincts are similar, and they have “perfected a transactional relationship into an art”. Their old association — although Arun Jaitley, Anandiben Patel, Shankersinh Vaghela, even L K Advani understand Modi quite well — has led to clear division of work. One heads the government, the other the party. In the public sphere, Shah repeatedly underlines that his boss is “Narendrabhai”.
‘He aims at Himalayas, gets to Sahyadri’
With trust in short supply, Modi and Shah stay in constant touch. Those who know them say there is a major difference between the two: Modi is always more interested in winning an issue while Shah always tries to find a resolution. “When it comes to Modi, there is clarity on what he wants to do while Shah’s agenda is always complicated. Modi is more successful in putting into practice all that he learnt at the RSS pathshala while Shah tends to aim at the Himalayas, gets only to the Sahyadri.”
Between them, Modi and Shah have three decades of experience in creating “politics of symbols, signs, concealed meaning and political narratives” to connect with the masses. That’s why Gujarat topped when it came to dispatching shilas (bricks) for the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya. It was Shah who received the bodies of kar sevaks in Ahmedabad when they arrived from Godhra in 2002. He and Modi usually come to a consensus on their respective response to issues of national importance.
Shah comes from an affluent family and the ancestral house in Mansa is a heritage building. Interested in national politics since the early 1980s, he gave up his PVC pipes business to join politics full-time. National issues interested him even when he was a VHP worker. He maintains a daily diary and records his thoughts.
During an election in the 1990s, Shah, while sitting in a small restaurant near the Ahmedabad railway station, told Modi: “Narendrabhai, get ready to become Prime Minister of India.” This was long before Modi even became Chief Minister of Gujarat.
‘Everyone in his constituency had his mobile number’
Shah’s journey to the top has not been easy. Leaders who have established themselves in the party but lack mass support resent his “born-to-rule attitude”. During the Advani-Vajpayee days, access to the top was easy but that’s not the case now. Backbiting has increased, especially after the party’s rout in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections. Shah’s critics never fail to complain that he has chosen “average talent” as deputies to run the party.
He is too stubborn to tweak his methodology of “planning and winning an election”. He has never lost an election he has contested. He is known to be in direct touch with cadres and district leaders — critics say he gets to know who criticises him. Until he became party president, he used to take calls on his mobile phone: “Haa, Amit”. Most people in Ahmedabad’s Sarkhej and Narainpura, from where he used to contest, had his mobile number.
Shah believes if he had not been “sent to jail by the Congress” in 2010 in an alleged fake encounter case, he would not have been at the centrestage of his party’s politics in 2014. He says the jail term changed his life. Reciting the Bhagvad Gita before jail inmates, he took a vow to defeat the Congress. And he chose Uttar Pradesh to keep his promise. He is considered a good “organiser” — one reason why he was Advani’s election agent in Gandhinagar in election after election.
‘My stars were adverse when I went to jail’
He calls himself a “chipku” and that explains why he is so determined to achieve a goal he sets himself. A qualified share broker, he is a hard bargainer, quite stingy in frittering away a political advantage. But he has a weakness — a tendency to exaggerate facts and figures he wants to highlight. He frequently uses terms like “.0001%”. And he will often ask “Hu shun kahu chu te tamne samjay che? (did you follow what I am saying)”.
So did the jail term and court cases create a negative image? “My stars were adverse then.” An astrologer, he takes his kundli very seriously. He believes his rough phase will end after June 2016. “I know when I die, you people will mention these encounter cases without fail in my obituary. Nothing is going to change that. Then, why make an effort to improve my image? My work for my party matters to me. It will speak one day.”
Chose daughter-in-law with ‘middle class values’
In personal life, Shah is totally dependent on wife Sonal and son Jai. He looks after his six sisters and their children. Often, in the middle of serious political talk, he takes calls from his sisters. Sonal and he are deeply religious, devout followers of Somnath dada (Lord Shiva at Somnath). This month, Shah became a trustee of the Somnath temple and he values this appointment “more than anything else in life”.
His mother Kusumba was a Gandhian and a voracious reader. It was she who encouraged him to wear khadi, a habit he hasn’t given up. His parents left behind huge assets in Mansa, shares of blue chip companies and a library with hundreds of books, including books on religion and the Quran and Bible.
When Shah won Uttar Pradesh for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the rich and famous of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata queued up, hoping to strike a matrimonial alliance with the man they realised was going to wield considerable power in the new dispensation. But he decided that his son Jai was going to marry the daughter of a Gujarati businessman who had been “brought up with middle class values”.
Not many know that one of Ahmedabad’s most influential Maulanas is a family friend. Shah and he have shared many a vegetarian meal. He has several Muslim friends but he does not talk about it in public. He was most vocal in opposing Advani’s remarks on Jinnah in Pakistan.
‘India should be rebuilt on foundations of our heritage’
He is clear that the BJP’s main competition is with the Congress. Explaining to the cadres why Jan Sangh, and later the BJP, had to be established, he said: “The policies that run India and people’s life must be based on Bharatiya sanskriti not on Western thoughts. After independence, Congress believed that the old Indian system and values brought miseries to India, that a new India had to be created with new systems. BJP believes ancient Indian thinking is best, new India should be rebuilt on the foundations of our heritage.” In one meeting, he said the policies of the Congress lacked “desh ki sanskriti… desh ki mitti ki sugandh”.
He has asked party offices across India to maintain written records of their protests, activities, street fights, mass communication. The coming generation, he says, will not believe oral history. He plans to collect anecdotes, essays, documents, pictures, videos and books on BJP’s history.
He says the coming generation will read what is documented. He cites the example of Sundersinh Bhandari, the late RSS veteran: “When he was deputed to Rajasthan, he used to travel to desert towns. He would make rotis and pack them in clean cloth. In the desert heat, he would eat the rotis after soaking them in water. He used to cycle for days and nights to spread RSS ideals. His legs remained swollen for years… Who in the coming generation will believe such stories of sacrifice by BJP leaders if these are not documented?”
‘Let BJP workers read Marx, read socialism’
To spread its views, the BJP will publish five books every year. Shah has asked party offices to merge trusts — eight trusts at the BJP headquarters have been merged into three — and register accounts quickly with the office of the charity commissioner.
He has told party offices not to bring out publications “in different voices” in state capitals. The party magazine’s editorial work will be centralised. Activities and news of all state units will be featured in five extra pages each week. Since more than eight lakh copies of the party mouthpiece are printed, Shah wants uniformity in editorial stance.
He wants the BJP to “prepare well-educated workers” for public debates. Those who have no grip on national issues will be reduced to the sidelines. “We want to do politics, we need writers, well-read young minds… Let BJP workers read Marx, read socialism. Let them read about Islam and Christianity. Only if they have read others can they have faith in our ideology.”
He rarely interacted with the media in Gujarat. He considers all journalists opinionated and thinks it’s a waste of time communicating with them when they have already made up their mind. “Mein saaf dekh sakta hun ki 25 saal baad is desh ka chunav media nahin chalayegi (I can clearly foresee that 25 years from now, the media will not be driving elections in India),” he once said at a meeting. He believes that the “television media is controlling elections”.
His dream: Hindu Rashtra.