ON THURSDAY, 2 January, Arun Jaitley, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, hosted a lunch on the sunny grounds of his central Delhi bungalow. While uniformed waiters circulated among gathered politicians, and Jaitley played the convivial host, the BJP éminence grise LK Advani, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, and the party president, Rajnath Singh, sat together quietly at the high table, like figurines encased in glass. Across the lawn, journalists, eager for morsels of information on the country’s upcoming general elections, flocked to the table where the party’s general secretary, Amit Shah, huddled with the few friends he has in Delhi. Out on bail on charges of extortion and conspiracy in connection with three fake encounter cases in his home state of Gujarat—a luxury denied to many of his fellow accused—Shah had been running the BJP’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most electorally significant state, for six months. As he got up to mix with other guests, stopping to speak for a while with even the lowliest party spokesmen, the crowd pursued.
The scene on Jaitley’s lawn was an early indication of what has since become clear: Shah is now the second-most powerful person in the BJP, displacing Jaitley, Singh, Swaraj, and even Advani—leaders who just last year seemed to be maintaining a hold, however tenuous, on their influence. The only person above Shah is the party’s de facto leader and official candidate for prime minister, the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, whose pre-eminence has been largely unquestioned since the BJP’s national executive meeting in Goa last June, where he was elevated to the chairmanship of the party’s campaign committee despite Advani’s protests.
With Modi ascendant, Shah’s rise may have seemed inevitable. Modi has been Shah’s confederate and “saheb” for nearly thirty years—first in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and then in the BJP and the state government as well—and Shah is the only political leader who enjoys the chief minister’s full confidence. Although the two men form a closed circuit whose currents of power are difficult to track, Shah’s influence is evident in the positions and duties that have been assigned to him.
During Modi’s twelve-year reign in Gujarat, Shah has presided over at least as many as ten ministries at a time. In the decade before being entrusted with the politically critical campaign in Uttar Pradesh, he was the junior minister in Gujarat’s home department, which has skilfully overseen Modi’s legal defence in a host of cases relating to fake encounters, illegal surveillance, and the Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Shah is considered so powerful in the state that, from 2010 to 2012, the Supreme Court forcibly exiled him from it, after the Central Bureau of Investigation raised concerns that he would use his clout to pervert the course of justice. Gujarat’s former deputy inspector general of police DG Vanzara, who has been jailed in connection with several fake encounter cases in which Shah has been accused, once called him Modi’s “evil influence.”
But Shah’s strength does not derive solely from his proximity to Modi. He has an immense capacity for party organising and a keen understanding of how to extract political power from public institutions—some of the very qualities that have made him invaluable to the Gujarat chief minister over the years. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP had floundered for a decade and a half, Shah has managed to energise the cadre in less than a year. Unlike many other senior BJP leaders, including Modi, he is always willing to talk to any party member from backwaters like Basti and Faizabad who makes the effort to speak with him.
A week or so after Jaitley’s lunch, I met Shah in a small room towards the rear of Gujarat Bhawan, the state government’s regal offices in Delhi. Shah, who was born in 1964, has been a volunteer in the RSS since at least his twenties, and, in characteristic Sangh fashion, he travels light. Dressed in simple kurta-pyjama, he sipped water, but offered me tea. There were no hangers-on, no posse of attendants; he managed with two phones and a very polite secretary, who kept him updated on various appointments.
Shah is unblinking and inscrutable, but unlike his protector and boss—whose brusque manner can often be offensive—soft-spoken. Although he spends his days grappling with a hundred and one election-related issues, from booth management to candidate selection and overall campaign strategy, at Gujarat Bhawan he seemed fully engaged in our conversation, answering my questions in thoughtful but clipped sentences. He exuded unwavering confidence, even when the conversation turned to the various criminal cases against him, which he referred to collectively as a “Congress witch-hunt.” The only topic that clearly irritated him was the Aam Admi Party and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who throughout January seemed to be bettering Modi in the battle for national headlines. “What is this celebration of simplicity?” Shah said of Kejriwal. “He is going on about not shifting to a government bungalow and the television broadcasts it like a novelty. I lived in my little flat for the ten years that I was a minister in Gujarat. I only shifted to a government bungalow when my mother was seriously ill and we needed more space. Simplicity is a personal virtue, not something you broadcast from rooftops.” Shah now has a dedicated office (Number 20) at BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road in central Delhi—his secretary also has a room, down the corridor—and has reportedly been put up in the Uttar Pradesh capital, Lucknow, in a flat owned by a BJP politician.
Perhaps the greatest truism in Indian elections is that the road to political power in Delhi runs straight through the Hindi heartland, especially Uttar Pradesh, which provides the country with roughly one out every seven members of parliament. When the BJP came to power in 1998, it was largely on the back of an extraordinary performance in the state, where the party garnered fifty-seven of its 181 seats; the following year, when the BJP won fresh elections, it carried a plurality in the state.
The feverish pitch at which Shah has been conducting business in Uttar Pradesh reflects the intensity with which both he and Modi want to win this election. Although Rajnath Singh, the party president, hails from the state and has appointed Ramapati Ram Tripathi as head of its election management committee, there are no doubts about where the real power lies. Shah is the BJP’s single-window clearance for money and muscle in the state. Modi trusts him, and no one else, and the way the two men wield power within Gujarat has now been extrapolated to the national level. It’s also been projected beyond the party to the management and rhetoric of the campaign. In a sense, the past twelve years and more in Gujarat have been a preparation for the national stage.
The party’s state unit vice president and former minister Shiv Pratap Shukla, who is working closely with Shah, told me Shah is a quiet, determined leader. He said Shah’s arrival “breathed new life” into the party’s campaign, and that Shah is the only one who understands that converting a pro-Modi “wave” into votes requires hard work and organisational skills.
“I haven’t experienced such enthusiasm since the days of Ramjanmabhoomi,” Shukla said, comparing the public response to Modi with the 1980s and 1990s movement to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and erect a Ram temple in its place. “But to get the wind to move a turbine, you need a structure in place and it needs to function with clockwork precision. That is what Amitji is trying to do in UP. Hopefully, all will go well and we will send Modiji to the prime minister’s office.” If that happens, Shah could well be the second most powerful person in the country.
SHAH OFFICIALLY TOOK CHARGE of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh campaign on 12 June 2013, four days after the national executive meeting in Goa. That morning, he landed in Lucknow with a team of aides assigned to him by the party. After gathering together BJP stalwarts in the party’s offices near the state assembly building, a stern-faced Shah rattled off figures comparing Uttar Pradesh’s total number of poll booths with the number of active BJP workers in the state. “You have to concentrate on the booths,” he exhorted the meeting. “That is where it will all start and that is where everything will fall into place.” Even the party’s state president, Laxmikant Vajpayee, agreed to adopt a booth by way of setting an example.
Unofficially, Shah started preparing for his role in Uttar Pradesh at least as far back as February 2012, when he travelled through the state during assembly elections, and spent time trying to understand the victory of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party over Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. After taking the reins of the campaign, he began visiting every single district to organise booth workers and soak up information about the electoral landscape, which he filters and analyses himself.
By the time we met this January, Shah had developed a clear sense of how and why the ground had shifted in Uttar Pradesh since early 2012. “The mood in the last elections was to defeat the BSP and SP had provided a fresh face with a number of poll promises,” he said. “The situation is exactly the reverse now. There is massive voter disenchantment with the SP on many counts.” The Samajwadi Party had failed to deliver on several promises it made during the elections—including one to implement the recommendations of the Sachar committee report on the socio-economic condition of Indian Muslims—and there was a “multiplicity of authority” in the state government, he said. Besides the party patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, several others—including Mulayam’s son, the chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav; and the party leaders Shivpal Yadav and Azam Khan—were trying to direct policy formulation and the day-to-day functioning of the government. “This leads to a lot of confusion. The law and order situation has deteriorated” and, after last September’s deadly Muzaffarnagar riots, “anarchy prevails in the state.”
Shah believes that caste polarisation will also favour the BJP. In the broadest terms, upper-caste Hindus, who constitute roughly one-fifth of Uttar Pradesh’s population, are gravitating towards the BJP after years of voting largely for Mayawati. Other backward classes, or OBCs—a category that includes more than two hundred communities in the state—make up about one-third of the population. Although a significant portion of them are Yadavs, who have traditionally voted for the Samajwadi Party, other OBCs account for nearly a quarter of the state population. Shah is targeting them aggressively, invoking the bugbears of “Muslim appeasement” and reservations for minorities in public education and government jobs.
“There is considerable anger among the OBCs for creating the 4.5 percent reservation for the minorities within the 27 percent OBC quota,” Shah said. “The BJP is the only party which has opposed it and we are naturally getting a good response from the OBC communities.” The bonus is Modi’s own humble origins as a tea-seller, and the fact that he belongs to an OBC community of oil-pressers.
Shah’s plan for Uttar Pradesh is unfolding in parallel streams. The primary goal is to boost the BJP’s election machinery by strengthening the seven- to ten-member booth-management committee for each of the 140,000 polling stations in the state’s eighty parliamentary constituencies. According to Swatantra Dev Singh, a state party leader who organised a mega-rally for Modi in Lucknow on 2 March, a targeted approach at the booth level is essential to ensure that the party’s base actually turns out on election days. Local leaders estimated that in recent parliamentary and assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, only 35 percent of the BJP’s traditional supporters actually voted.
For each booth, the party has collated lists of voters and their telephone numbers. Workers will canvass door-to-door in the last two days of electioneering, after the formal campaign has ended. In addition, the committees are supposed to enrol first-time voters, who are, by and large, expected to vote for Modi. “When you request a voter three times for a candidate, you develop a certain recall value,” a senior BJP worker from Varanasi said. “Additionally, people come to recognise you and associate with the candidate. Facilitating their transport to the polling booth is also done, but not officially.”
In Lucknow, Shah told colleagues to leave candidate selection to him. Local clout and winning potential—and not party loyalty or ideology—are said to be the only criteria. In Aonla, for example, Shah has lured the local bigwig Dharmendra Kashyap away from Mulayam Singh Yadav. Fighting on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 2009, Kashyap nearly defeated the BJP’s Maneka Gandhi, who won by just under 8,000 votes—a miniscule margin in Lok Sabha polls. Similarly, SP Singh Baghel, another import from Yadav’s party, is slated to contest the Firozabad seat.
Another part of Shah’s strategy involves political mobilisation through different tactics in different parts of the state. A month after the BJP’s Goa conclave, he arrived in Ayodhya for a meeting of the party’s Awadh district committee. At the disputed religious site where Ram was purportedly born, he prayed, then offered this statement: “Crores of Hindus want to build a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya. We will all work towards construction of a temple of Bhagwan Ram in Ayodhya as early as possible.” This was the first and only explicit reference that he has made to the temple movement during the Uttar Pradesh campaign, but its message seemed clear: even as Modi talks development and good governance at rallies, and the party courts Muslims and lower caste Hindus, a Modi-led BJP won’t forget the central concerns of its upper-caste, Hindu-nationalist base.
In western Uttar Pradesh, where tensions still run high following deadly Hindu–Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts last September, the BJP has fielded three candidates who have been officially accused of fanning the communal violence. The party paraded two of its state assembly members, who also stand accused of inciting the riots, on the stage at a party rally in November. (“BJP is the only party who is not playing vote-bank politics,” Modi later told the crowd.) Other mobilisation tactics included a drive to collect Modi’s weight in blood from party workers ahead of his March rally in Lucknow, and efforts to gather scrap iron from households across the state as part of a nationwide effort to create a giant statue of the Independence-era Congress leader Vallabhai Patel, whom the BJP has attempted to claim as an ideological forebear. (Unlike the collection which it was meant to emulate—of bricks for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, in 1989—the iron campaign has largely been a failure.)
Although volunteers from Gujarat have joined the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Shah relies on local party units and RSS men to carry out most of the campaign’s spadework. The RSS officially never gets involved in electioneering, but its strong organisational structure and emphasis on discipline make it an important tool for him. Each constituency in the state has at least three teams of coordinators including RSS workers, and he has handpicked other RSS karyakartas to supervise the activities of BJP workers, coordinate between the RSS and the BJP, and mobilise different wings of the Sangh for campaigning. “The presence of the RSS is critical because they have their own structure with which they can contrast the claims of the party workers,” a BJP Lok Sabha candidate in Uttar Pradesh told me. “For instance, in a meeting, if Amit Shahji is asking about how many households we have targeted and the local party worker is fudging, he can be caught easily by the RSS overseers who can cross-check his claims from their own parallel information structures.”
The final element of Shah’s strategy is the projection of “brand Modi”—an admixture of hard Hindutva, pro-development rhetoric and strong leadership which Modi and Shah have already deployed successfully in Gujarat. Although the Ram temple movement suffers from the law of diminishing returns when it comes to voter enthusiasm, in Modi’s personality, the idiom has been repackaged.
Some of the most vocal, radical elements of the movement, including Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and the mahant of the Gorakhnath math and member of parliament from Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, have also been roped in to do their bit. Although Kalyan Singh is now largely a spent force, he is still recalled as a powerful Hindutva icon, and is the BJP’s most well-known OBC leader from Uttar Pradesh. Uma Bharti is also from an OBC community, and, like Singh, was indicted by the Liberhan Commission for her role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. When I spoke to him in January, Adityanath, a match for Modi in vitriol and rhetoric, was busy organising a rally in Gorakhpur. He predicted that seven hundred thousand “Modi fans” would attend to watch their “hero.”
So far, the atmosphere at Modi’s rallies has been electric. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, the events have caused traffic jams for hours afterwards. Modi laces acerbic attacks on state leaders—especially Mulayam Singh Yadav, or “Netaji”—with grand promises. “How many hours do you get electricity?” Modi asked the Gorakhpur rally on 23 January. “We don’t get power,” the crowd chanted back. Modi thundered, “In Gujarat, we get 24-hour electricity. Netaji, you cannot turn UP into Gujarat. You need a fifty-six-inch chest to do that.”
MODI’S TOWERING IMAGE MAY OVERSHADOW his deputy, but Shah is by no means a mere foil for his master. In December 2002, when Modi won his first election, in the aftermath of that year’s anti-Muslim riots, Shah was re-elected in his own assembly seat—by a staggering margin of 158,000 votes, more than double Modi’s. Shah bettered this performance in 2007, winning by 235,000 votes. He has been elected from his constituency, Sarkhej in Ahmedabad, four consecutive times.
The popular assumption that Shah is just a lowly lieutenant to the conquering general, that he harbours no ambitions of his own, is also misleading. For the last eleven years, he has been the second-most important man in Gujarat with more privileges and power than anyone else in the ruling party. When Modi invited Shah to join the government after he became chief minister in the 2002 elections, Shah was given an unprecedented number of portfolios to run—Home, Law and Justice, Prison, Border Security, Civil Defence, Excise, Transport, Prohibition, Home Guards, Gram Rakshak Dal, Police Housing, and Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs. With the possible exception of Revenue Minister Anandiben Patel, who is known to enjoy Modi’s confidence—in the past, Patel’s estranged husband, Mafatlal Patel, has written letters to the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee complaining about Modi’s influence over his wife—Shah is the only member of the council of ministers with any real authority. Since 2002, in Modi’s largely puppet cabinet in Gujarat, Shah has been the only minister to speak in meetings, sometimes even conducting them, according to a former member of the state government.
In December last year, The Economist published a “briefing” on Modi pegged to the elections. “As for keeping government clean and effective, Mr Modi likes to boast that with no family to favour he must be honest,” the article said, before pointing to Modi’s “unwillingness to let political colleagues take charge of state-run companies.” Shah, however, took over the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, and ensured that eleven more of the bank’s twenty-two directors were his loyalists in the BJP. The state Congress party has cried hoarse over the years about “manipulations” of the bank’s agenda, but Shah has nevertheless managed to retain control of the institution. In 2009, Shah also wrested the cash-rich Gujarat Cricket Association from Narhari Amin, who was then loyal to the Congress. Modi became president of the association, and Shah appointed himself vice president. During the last assembly elections, in 2012, Amin switched his loyalties to the BJP, and he is now back in the association, representing Surat district. Shah’s son, Jay, was elected the body’s joint secretary in September 2013.
Although Shah now shares in Modi’s extraordinary power in Gujarat, his relationship with the chief minister goes back to the 1980s, when Modi was a minor RSS pracharak working full-time for the organisation. Shah was then an ordinary RSS swayamsevak. “People have no idea what it means to be in the RSS,” Shah said. “You don’t join it like you join a company.” He and his friends “would play and participate in the neighbourhood shakhas as boys. It was home for us.” He added that he soon moved on to the RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
Unlike Modi, for whom the RSS provided an escape from a life of relative poverty, Amitbhai Anilchandra Shah grew up in a well-to-do family that resisted his becoming a pracharak, which entails shunning family and a vow of celibacy. He is the only son of the late businessman Anilchandra Shah from Mansa, Punjab, who owned a successful PVC pipe business for which Shah worked after graduating with a degree in biochemistry. Shah joined the BJP in 1986, one year before Modi was deputed to the party by the RSS. According to the former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, who helped build the BJP but is now the Congress leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Modi and Shah were “birds of the same feather.”
“They flocked together,” Vaghela said. “I was introduced to Shah by Modi a long time ago. They have the same secretive, ambitious streak. He was Modi’s eyes and ears and perhaps the man who plotted most of his moves.”
By 1988, Modi had become a general secretary in the BJP’s state unit. In 1995, when the party formed its first government in Gujarat with Keshubhai Patel as chief minister, Modi positioned himself as Patel’s adviser, and used his influence to carry Shah along. According to the former member of the state government who told me about Shah’s power within the cabinet, Modi convinced Patel to appoint Shah as chairman of the Gujarat State Financial Corporation, a public sector bank that makes loans to local industries.
As Modi and Shah’s clout steadily grew within the party, Vaghela constantly complained to the central leadership about Modi “calling the shots” while simultaneously plotting to topple the government. Vaghela staged a revolt in the ranks, running away with forty-six legislative assembly members to the temple town of Khajuraho, in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The situation was resolved when Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened, removing Patel and appointing Suresh Mehta as a consensus chief minister. At Vaghela’s behest, Modi was plucked out of Gujarat, and deposited in BJP headquarters in Delhi.
But Shah was still firmly ensconced in the state. The former Gujarat minister and BJP leader Gordhan Zadaphia also said that Shah was Modi’s “eyes and ears” between 1995 and 2001, the period of Modi’s exile. Modi rose to the rank of general secretary in the central BJP, while Shah kept his head down in the Gujarat unit. “Shah was the informer,” Zadaphia said. “He leaked everything to Modi. We were not aware of it at the time and shared information like you do, with colleagues. But they plot together and will stop at nothing.”
“I had warned them about Modi and Shah at the time,” Vaghela said of the BJP leadership. “But they have allowed these two to become larger than life at the cost of the party. I can guarantee that the BJP will suffer in the long term.”
Vaghela soon left the party, toppling Suresh Mehta’s government and becoming chief minister with support from the Congress. In the 1998 elections, the BJP returned to power, and Keshubhai Patel was re-installed in Gandhinagar, but he was ousted in 2001 following allegations of inefficiency and ineptitude. Ironically, Zadaphia and the charismatic BJP leader Haren Pandya, who both later fell out with Modi, were then the loudest advocates for removing Patel and bringing Modi back to Gujarat.
Modi was appointed the chief minister that October. Over the course of the following years, he and Shah worked to sideline their political rivals. Any leader with the slightest potential to challenge Modi was either shunted or otherwise fell out of Modi’s way.
“Shah is the only one Modi has relied on and, together, they may have retained power, but they destroyed the BJP in Gujarat organisationally and ideologically,” Vaghela said. He added that the authoritarian manner in which the government and the party are run “is not what we aspired for when I was in the RSS. I knew Shah’s character, conspiring and destroying opponents by any means possible from the time he joined the party.”
Sanjay Joshi, an RSS pracharak who had orchestrated Patel’s 1998 election victory, was booted out of the state and sent to Delhi, just as Modi had been five years before. Patel, Vaghela and Suresh Mehta all left the party at various points. Haren Pandya, at one time a plausible political rival to Modi, was shot dead in his car in 2003; the crime remains unsolved.
IN JUNE 2010, a tearful Shah performed his mother’s last rites. He later told a friend in Delhi that he was grateful his mother did not live to witness his subsequent incarceration on murder charges. Shah’s ailing mother died on 8 June; he was arrested on 25 July.
For almost twelve years, Modi and Shah have ruled Gujarat in perfect coordination; almost no conflict has ever been reported between them. Behind the public projection of Modi’s claims to be the source of unprecedented development in the state, it is believed that the two men dominated through intimidation and force. During this period, thirty-two officers of the Gujarat police have been jailed for their involvement in fake encounter killings that were allegedly carried out at the behest of Shah. The Supreme Court has set up a special monitoring committee to probe twenty-two fake encounter deaths in Gujarat from 2002 to 2006; in four of these years, Shah was Gujarat’s home minister, and in charge of the state police. This includes the three cases in which Shah himself has been arrested and formally accused: the killings of the gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife, and the subsequent murder of a witness.
It also includes the case of Ishrat Jehan and three of her acquaintances, who were killed by Gujarat state police early on the morning of 15 June 2004. Shah has not been charged in this case, which is being tried by a special CBI court in Ahmedabad. On Wednesday, 26 March 2014, the Gujarat high court advocate Mukul Sinha filed a petition on behalf of one victim’s father, requesting that the court arraign Shah and senior Gujarat police officer, KR Kaushik. According to the petition, Shah and Kaushik were “directly involved in the conspiracy, planning, directing and execution of the heinous crime of committing murder.” Despite “strong and sufficient credible evidence” from two chargesheets, the petition reads, they “have not been arraigned as accused in order to help them to escape being tried and prosecuted.”
The petition cites the statements of two accused police officers who claim that DG Vanzara, the now incarcerated deputy director general of police who has admitted to carrying out the attack (as well as many similar killings), said in their hearing that the murders had the approval of the “safed dadi” and the “kali dadi” (the white beard and the black beard)—well-known code names for Modi and Shah within Gujarat’s Crime Branch. According to the statement of a third accused police officer, Vanzara said that “he had the approval of the Chief Minister and the MOS (Home).” The petition then goes on to detail call records that show Vanzara and Shah spoke on five dates relevant to the planning and execution of the attack. One call took place just before 11 pm on the eve of the killing; another occurred forty minutes after the murders. According to a resignation letter written by Vanzara from jail, Modi was his “god,” and he and his fellow officers “simply implemented the conscious policy of this government which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions from the very close quarters.”
In addition to police officers such as Vanzara who say they are in jail for carrying out orders, there are a considerable number of public officials who have suffered for not toeing the Gujarat government’s line. While Modi has reaped political rewards from both the encounters and the 2002 pogrom, officers who were willing to testify against the government have been punished by the state. (For their part, members of the RSS’s radical offshoots the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal also feel betrayed by Modi; thousands of their activists have been charged in the riots after his government was forced by the Supreme Court to reopen investigations, and their leaders have been denied tickets to contest elections for the BJP.)
For example, the additional director general of police RB Sreekumar—who in the face of intimidation by the state gave evidence to the Nanavati-Shah Commission, which is investigating the riots—was denied promotion on spurious grounds and superseded by KR Kaushik. The IPS officer Rahul Sharma has been chargesheeted on four counts of violating the Official Secrets Act for handing over call records to the Nanavati-Shah Commission. Phone records collected by Sharma between 27 February and 4 March 2002 purportedly show that during the violence, rioters were in touch with policemen and politicians.
Then there is the case of the brothers Kuldeep and Pradeep Sharma, who once occupied prime positions in the Gujarat government. The brothers have been out in the cold since Kuldeep, in his capacity as additional director general of police, submitted a report to the Gujarat chief secretary Sudhir Mankad alleging that Shah took a bribe of Rs 2.5 crore to bail out a conman who fraudulently withdrew Rs 1,600 crore from the Madhavpura Mercantile Cooperative Bank. Kuldeep collected call records and flight details that supported the allegations and recommended that an enquiry be launched against Shah, who was also a director of the bank.
Soon after, Kuldeep was relieved of his police duties and relegated to the Gujarat State Sheep and Wool Development Corporation, an entirely inappropriate job for a police officer. He has since become an adviser to the central home ministry and lives in a state of perennial outrage, accusing the media of pandering to the Gujarat government, especially Modi and Shah. Pradeep was imprisoned from January 2010 to December 2011 on corruption charges that he claims are trumped up, and has been fighting in court to get his trial shifted out of Gujarat, where he believes he cannot get a fair hearing. (He was also recently in the public eye because of his proximity to the family of a young woman who was being illegally tracked by the Gujarat police.) As he recently put it to his brother, “We have been dumped by the state, the people and even by god.”
When I spoke to him this January, Shah dismissed the various accusations against him with the same clinical detachment he used to analyse the political situation in Uttar Pradesh. “If the CBI had anything on me, charges would have been framed by now,” he said of the fake encounter killings. “Why hasn’t it happened? I will tell you why—because they have nothing against me. I will be discharged.”
“My family is not affected by this vicious propaganda,” Shah added. “My wife trusts me. Who knows me better than her? I have done nothing.” (The friend of Shah’s in Delhi told me that Shah, his wife, Sonal, and his son, Jay, form a tight unit. “He is a family man with simple habits. The only link his wife Sonal has with what he does outside is a daily perusal of the newspapers to tell him, ‘There is nothing in the papers about us today.’”) He was also supremely confident that his constituency, Sarkhej, would elect him again, regardless of the murder charges: “You could call it arrogance. I would call it confidence in my people. They love me and know the truth. The CBI and the Central Government can do what they like—my people would still have faith in me.”
Shah went on: “All this”—accusations of fake encounter killings, illegal surveillance, and strong-arming detractors—“is part of a political conspiracy. Truth is my only shield.” He added that the “propaganda” was being spread by his opponents. (Kuldeep Sharma has joined the AAP, and Pradeep Sharma’s lawyer is the AAP national executive member Prashant Bhushan.) But despite Shah’s claims about a political witch-hunt, the CBI has not exactly pursued his prosecution zealously; instead, it has fallen to the victims’ families to plead with the courts to arraign Shah on the basis of evidence that is already in the agency’s possession.
“So far as Gujarat is concerned, there is a conspiracy of silence,” Kuldeep Sharma said. “So many of us have been targeted for doing what we thought was our job—and the media, the IAS and IPS officers’ associations, and the so-called civil society has kept silent. You have a man accused of murder supervising an election and no one seems to think it is objectionable.”
AS VOTING NEARS, an unofficial omertà with respect to Modi and Shah seems to have settled upon the BJP, and even otherwise candid members of the party leadership refused to speak about them to any meaningful extent. The duo’s record of isolating and punishing political rivals in Gujarat may have served as a warning to the national party, and they have since been extraordinarily successful in forcing even their most powerful rivals toward the margins of the BJP. The treatment of the Zadaphias and Vaghelas in Gujarat now looks like a precursor to the handling of party leaders at the national level. It does not matter if these people were useful to Modi in the past—Shah has forced them aside.
As early as last May, rumours began circulating that Modi would put himself on the ballot in Uttar Pradesh, in order to galvanise support in the state. Because of their respective political and religious significance, Lucknow and Varanasi were bruited about as possible constituencies, even though they were held, respectively, by Lalji Tandon and Murli Manohar Joshi—two of the party’s grand old men. Pressure on the party to give Modi one of the seats slowly mounted, and, by early this year, Shah was publicly promoting the idea. In late February, at an official meeting of the RSS, the pracharak in charge of Varanasi reportedly asked the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, to let Modi contest the parliamentary seat there.
Joshi was unwilling to let go of the seat easily. He even set up a campaign office and started distributing publicity material in the city. But not only did Modi and Shah control proceedings in closed door meetings in Delhi, where the ticket was to be decided, Shah also ensured workers in the city demonstrated on the streets in favour of Modi’s candidature. Outmanoeuvred, Joshi made the best of a bad situation by quietly agreeing to move to Kanpur.
Getting Joshi to give up his seat for Modi sent a clear signal to any dissenters about the party’s new balance of power. For much of its recent history, the BJP was defined by the triumvirate of leaders—Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi—who headed the party in the coalition era. These were followed by a second rung that included Sushma Swaraj, Jaswant Singh and Arun Jaitley, even while other party notables, such as Uma Bharti, Nitin Gadkari and Venkaiah Naidu, rose and fell. With the exception of Jaitley, who has always had close links with Modi, the ascendance of Modi and Shah has—through a combination of luck and political calculation—defanged every one of them.
Ill health has forced Vajpayee into retirement and Advani’s influence has been on the wane since 2005, when he earned the ire of the RSS after praising Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Although he was projected as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister in 2009, Advani was never able to regain his pre-eminence; Modi’s triumph at the June 2013 Goa executive meeting in the face of Advani’s warnings about the dangers of a personality cult was the final nail in his political coffin. With Advani’s decline, the RSS tightened its grip over the party; the first to suffer were leaders like Jaswant Singh, who had little sympathy with the RSS but enjoyed Vajapyee’s confidence. Singh, too, was expelled from the party after airing views about Jinnah that the RSS found unpalatable. Though he was allowed back, like Advani, he was never again able to enjoy the clout he had during the Vajpayee era.
This was the background against which Shah took charge of the campaign in Uttar Pradesh. In recent weeks, the BJP’s ticket distribution has not only reinforced a sense of the danger that Modi and Shah pose to other power centres in the party, it has also further consolidated Shah’s hold over the BJP’s national campaign. Advani—perhaps because he wanted to continue to register a protest against Modi or was afraid that Modi’s supporters would undermine his campaign—sought to move from Gandhinagar to Bhopal to contest the elections. But Modi and Shah ensured he would stay put, fighting an election where they can determine the extent of his success.
Much the same scenario was repeated with Jaswant Singh, who left the party after he was denied the opportunity to contest from Barmer, Rajasthan. Even Sushma Swaraj, who until now has retained her stature, has found herself isolated after her recent protests against the induction of candidates charged with corruption in Karnataka were ignored. She also claimed that the decision to deny Jaswant Singh a seat was not taken, as it should have been, by the party’s Central Election Committee—suggesting that the party’s formal processes had been undermined—but she was publicly contradicted by the party chief, Rajnath Singh.
For his part, Rajnath has submitted totally to Modi. Because he cannot ensure his own victory from Ghaziabad, he has moved to Lucknow. Handing the Uttar Pradesh campaign over to Shah may have become inevitable when Modi was projected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, but Rajnath accepted the new power dynamic more willingly than perhaps any other party leader. He has relieved himself of the responsibility for possible loss in the state, and, by not creating any troubles for Shah, he endeared himself to Modi.
Swaraj has been publicly snubbed by Modi’s supporters, including Jaitley and Rajnath, who, along with Shah, are the only ones in the present BJP hierarchy with any significance. Advani has not even been able to secure a seat for his loyalist Harin Pathak in Ahmedabad East. The Central Election Committee comprises Rajnath, Swaraj, Jaitley, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Modi, among others. Now, most of the senior members of the committee, and of the BJP’s highest decision-making body, the parliamentary board, are out of the loop in these elections.
Though the BJP may have succumbed to Modi and Shah, there are still many obstacles between the Gujarat chief minister and the premiership. But if the BJP does form the next government, and Modi is chosen to lead it, Shah will no doubt retain his unrivalled influence. If, at the same time, the cases against Shah go forward, the country could have a sitting cabinet minister on trial for murders he allegedly ordered when he was the home minister in his own state.
For the time being, none of this seems to matter much in Uttar Pradesh, where the mood among party leaders has been high. “BJP is getting sixty seats in UP,” Yogi Adityanath told me. “With Bhagwan Ram’s blessings, the Hindus will get their due in UP this time.” Shah, too, was sanguine. “You need a political vehicle to ensure the air breathes life into a campaign,” he said. “Only the BJP has that vehicle and only Modi is the leader who can ride it to victory.”
Poornima Joshi is a former Caravan staff writer, and now the political editor of the Hindu Business Line.