Extracted with permission from chapter 2 of Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2019: How Modi Won India (HarperCollins, 2019).
Long before he became national BJP president and was hailed as a modern-day Chanakya, Amit Shah was better known as the political strongman of Sarkhej, a sprawling constituency on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Shah, or Amitbhai as he is often referred to, had represented Sarkhej as an MLA since 1997 and was virtually unbeatable on his home turf. In 2007, when the Congress put up Shashikant Patel, a relatively powerful candidate, against him, Shah reportedly used his clout in the state government as home minister to re-activate old cases that had been filed by the police against Patel. Local real estate dealers were warned not to offer their premises to the Congressman to set up a temporary party office. ‘Shah was going to win in any case since Sarkhej is a BJP bastion but he just wanted to eliminate all competition,’ recalls an Ahmedabad-based journalist. Shah would defeat Patel by more than 2.35 lakh votes.
Senior Gujarat journalist Rajiv Shah tells a story that perhaps best epitomizes the darker aspects of the Amit Shah persona. In mid-March 2002, barely weeks after the communal riots in which more than a thousand people lost their lives, Rajiv bumped into Shah as he was coming out of the chief minister’s office in Gandhinagar. Concerned about the spiraling violence, Rajiv opened up an informal conversation. ‘Why don’t you take the initiative to bring the communities together in Ahmedabad, especially in your Sarkhej constituency?’ he asked Shah.
Sarkhej has a large Muslim population, most of which lives in the ghetto-like suburb of Juhapura. A series of mini-riots over the years had created an informal ‘border’ between the Hindu and Muslim dominated areas in the constituency. ‘Why are you so concerned over the rioting?’ was Shah’s sharp response. Rajiv was surprised by the reaction from the public representative but then explained that he had an apartment in Sarkhej and was anxious as violence still simmered in the region. ‘If you take the initiative and bring Hindu and Muslim leaders on one platform, I am sure the area will become tension-free,’ suggested Rajiv. Shah smiled knowingly and replied: ‘Which side of Sarkhej is your house situated, ours or theirs?’ When a mystified Rajiv gave the location, Shah responded instantly: ‘Don’t worry then, nothing will happen to your home. Whatever incidents take place, they will occur on the other side of the border.’
Rajiv was stunned by the insensitivity of the answer. ‘Here was my legislator, openly referring to the Hindu–Muslim divide in his area as if only one side has to be worried if there is a riot.’ And yet, for his many supporters in Sarkhej, Shah’s blunt answer would probably have been worthy of applause. The Gujarati Hindu middle class in Ahmedabad often refers to the religious divide in the city as one mirroring the ‘Indo-Pak border’; in several localities the two communities co-exist on either side of a mutually respected invisible ‘border’ that neither Hindus nor Muslims venture beyond. With his candid, if tactless reaction, Shah was only reflecting a mindset in which the concerns of only one community really mattered in Ahmedabad’s communally surcharged politics. A politically correct neta might have been more cautious before expressing his controversial views, but Amit Shah has always worn his Hindu majoritarian outlook as a badge of pride.
I recall being seated at a lunch with Shah once. As I took my chair, Shah looked at me and grinned, ‘Ah, toh aaj anti-Hindu, communist log bhee hamare saath baith gaye hai!’ (It looks like anti-Hindu, communist people are also sitting with us.) I contested the description: as a journalist, I am sceptical of the politics of both left and right. For the next few minutes, we engaged in a heated discussion over ‘secularism’, at the end of which Shah looked at me disapprovingly. ‘Thoda aap secular log Hindu dharma pe kitaab padha karo, yeh angrezi kitaab mein kuch rakha nahi hai!’ (You secular people should start reading books on Hindu dharma, instead of English books.) Caricaturing secular, liberal Indians as English-speaking elitists is a commonly held fetish in the Sangh Parivar.
It is this combative, controversial personality who was chosen as the president of the BJP in July 2014, within months of the party’s path-breaking Lok Sabha triumph. Key to that victory had been the BJP’s remarkable sweep in Uttar Pradesh where the party and its allies won as many as 73 of the 80 seats, firmly establishing Shah’s reputation as a masterful election organizer. But he was also, at the time, a suspect out on bail who had spent three months in jail after being charged with directing extra-judicial killings in Gujarat as minister of state for home. Within the BJP and RSS, Shah’s appointment as president sparked off murmurs of a ‘Gujarati takeover’ although no one was willing to challenge it publicly. Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi taken a big gamble then by choosing his fellow-traveller from Gujarat to head the party?
When I first heard of Shah’s appointment as Modi’s right hand my mind went back to an interview I had done with Modi in September 2012 when he was Gujarat chief minister. It was just a few weeks after Shah’s bail conditions had been relaxed by the Supreme Court and he was allowed to return to Gujarat after spending almost two years outside his home state. Earlier, the apex court had barred Shah from residing in the state for fear that he might interfere in the investigations into the role of the Gujarat police in the alleged fake encounters. Among the many questions I posed to Modi was one on Shah’s immediate political future. The Gujarat elections were scheduled for December 2012 and there was uncertainty over whether a leader out on bail would be given a ticket. ‘So, will Amit Shah be contesting the elections? What happens to the case against him?’ I asked Modi. The interview, where I was made to sit on the floor of the bus Modi was travelling in and forced to look up at him sitting above me while we spoke had been a testy encounter and that question was perhaps the last straw. ‘Law will take its own course,’ was Modi’s curt response.
The next day as we were preparing to air the interview, I got a call from the chief minister’s office; Modi himself was on the line. ‘Can you please edit out the portion where I have spoken on Amitbhai’s case?’ was the urgent request. In the many years that I had known and interviewed the BJP leader, this was the first time he was asking me to remove something he had said on camera. I was a little surprised but reluctantly agreed to edit out the remark on Shah in an attempt to ensure our fraught personal relationship did not deteriorate further. When I related this incident to a long-time political-watcher in Gujarat, he offered an explanation for Modi’s seeming defensiveness: ‘Please understand, Modi owes Shah a great deal. When Shah was in jail, the CBI tried to extract a confession out of him to somehow implicate Modi in the murder case in which he was charged. The agency even promised to let him off if he turned approver. Shah refused and from that day onwards, Modi remains obligated to Shah. Now, they are an unshakeable jodi, one soul in two bodies!’
Rajdeep Sardesai is an author and TV news presenter.