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The enigma called Amit Shah

Those were turbulent days. It was, I remember, second half of March 2002. The post-Godhra riots in Ahmedabad, as elsewhere in Gujarat, may have lost their intensity, but rioting had still not stopped. It was my first meeting with Amit Shah, Gujarat’s former minister of state for home, who has shot into prominence after the CBI arrested him in 2010 allegedly for being an accomplice in a triple murder case, involving the fake encounter of a gangster, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi, and aide Tulsiram Prajapati. At that time, he was MLA from what then was one of the largest state assembly constituencies, Sarkhej, in Ahmedabad, with a voters’ strength of 10 lakh. All that I knew of him was, he was “very popular” in his constituency, almost invincible. He had just met chief minister Narendra Modi, and I had a very vague idea on his proximity to Modi, who had taken over reins in Gujarat.
Shah was coming out of the chief minister’s office (CMO), situated on the fifth floor of Block No 1 in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, and I was about to enter in. Zealously wanting the riots to stop, I decided to have an informal chat with Shah, to which he agreed. I asked him: “Why don’t you take an initiative in Ahmedabad, especially in your constituency Sarkhej?” My question to Shah was relevant. The Sarkhej constituency had Gujarat’s biggest Muslim ghetto, shaped as a result of frequent riots, starting with 1969, where above 2.5 lakh Muslims lived. Even today, Shah is seen by many, including some of my near and dear ones in Ahmedabad, as a “great defender” from “unruly” Muslims of Sarkhej. One of them told me, “We would have been wiped out but for Shah.” Indeed, ruling on the Hindu majoritarian sentiment, Shah would win hands down, leaving his weak Congress counterpart far, far behind. Riddled with frequent, though small, incidents and rumours on both sides, the riots saw unprecedented tension in Sarkhej. Prohibitive orders would be clamped now and on.
My first shock was when Shah wondered why I was showing so much concern about stopping the riots. Unable to understand why as a public representative he was posing to me such a question, I decided to tell him what I did not want to – that, though staying in Gandhinagar, I had a flat in his constituency, and the Sarkhej area was constantly under stress. “Why don’t you take an initiative? Why don’t you call influential Muslim and Hindu leaders across the table and talk over, so that the area becomes tension free? It would raise your prestige”, I quietly told Shah. To this, Shah asked, smiling, “Which side your house is situated? Ours or theirs?” I told him the location, and he replied instantly, “Don’t bother. Nothing will happen to you. Your side has nothing to worry. Whatever incidents happen, they will take place on the other side of the border.” His reference was clear – the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Sarkhej region is loosely referred to as “Indo-Pak border” by sections of middle classes in Ahmedabad. I wondered: How could a public representative be so insensitive? The conversation ended. We parted, only to meet a year later, when he was handed over home department.
A decade has passed by since then. I interacted with him frequently as a newsperson till he was arrested in 2010. I found him a person full of contradictions. Initially, I noted, his worldview was extremely narrow. Once we were discussing out higher education, and I told him how Gujarat lagged behind in the sector. He was indifferent, “Our higher education is good enough, we need no improvement, we are producing good students, what more do you want?” However, as years passed by, he began to show up. Ahead of his arrest, Modi would ensure that he attended meetings of departments which were not under him. Shah would intervene in hot state assembly debates on issues other than law and order, whether it was Narmada, energy or industry. Many began calling him the next chief minister, in case Modi moved to Delhi. I would find him extremely intelligent and incisive, but at the same time very arrogant and very sarcastic. Most babus who worked with him would complain that Shah wouldn’t ever take their phone. A former home secretary told me once how he tried to contact Shah for an urgent matter. On failing to get Shah despite frequent calls, the disgusted babu had to leave a message!
In 2007, Modi began finding that Shah was trying to act independently of him. A senior bureaucrat told me then how Modi, during an internal meeting, fired Shah for “failing to manage” the top police establishment, especially the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, leading to the arrest of IPS official DG Vanzara and others. This bureaucrat, who claimed to be in the meeting, told me, “Modi holds Amit Shah solely responsible for the current indiscipline in the police force. He believes Shah has failed to understand the state's top cops' behaviour, placing wrong cops at key positions. He told Shah that this has affected the case adversely and brought bad name to him.” Modi was particularly displeased with Shah handing over the investigation of the false encounter case to then IG CID (crime) Rajneesh Rai “without verifying the antecedents of the top cop’s no-nonsense approach during his previous posting in CBI”. Rai, it is well known, arrested Vanzara in a high drama, which took place at the Police Bhawan in Gandhinagar in 2007. As a consequence of Modi’s reprimand, I was told, Shah would remain absent from weekly Cabinet meetings. He also stopped going to top-notch functions. His visit to his office in Sachivalaya became infrequent. He would operate from his residence.
Yet, to Modi, Shah remained a political necessity who would manage polls. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, all know how Shah ensured the defeat of powerful Congress candidate Shankarsinh Vaghela from Godhra at the hands of a political non-entity Prabhatsinh Chauhan. It is said, Shah managed to put up two independent Muslim candidates, who snatched away 32,000 votes which led to Vaghela’s defeat. During the same polls, LK Advani, fighting from Gandhinagar, felt extremely jittery after he took a round of the Kalol town. Finding popular response extremely lukewarm, it is said, Advani called Shah and another Modi minister Anandiben Patel and told them angrily: “This has happened for the first time in my life. I had to go with a begging bowl asking for votes. I am surprised how you have managed.” Amidst reports that the numerically strong Patel voters were turning way, Shah acted fast. On the day of the polls, a Patel community leader told me, “A word has spread out in our community. We have got specific message to vote for Advani. We will act accordingly.”
Shah had other managerial capabilities as well. A former home secretary told me how he was privy to the demonstration of an Israeli machine shown to Shah, in the presence of some senior police and home department officials. The device was meant for mobile phone tapping. “You just enter in certain mobile numbers, and you could hear, at random, whichever phones you wanted”, this bureaucrat said, adding, “I don’t know whether, after seeing the demonstration from the Israeli firm, Shah decided to buy it up and where it was installed, but it has left a lurking suspicion among us all – that our phones are being tapped.” This bureaucrat added, “Phone tapping fear, real or imaginary, has left us all with the option of keeping two mobile phones, one official and another personal. Not only us, IPS officials also do not talk anything personal on their official mobiles. They use their private numbers, revealed to a small group.”
Eagerly waiting for a Supreme Court order on a plea to allow him to enter Gujarat from his forced exile, Shah right now stays in Gujarat Bhawan in Delhi. Those who have met Shah have found him under stress – often extremely critical of the way things are happening in Gujarat. A senior bureaucrat told me how Shah told him that much of the statistics dished out on Gujarat’s development were “fake”. Shah was quoted as saying: “They speak of high Gross State Domestic Product growth in agriculture, which is eyewash. One must actually see the real production figures instead of GSDP. Just leave aside cotton, and you will see that agricultural production in Gujarat hasn’t gone up.” Amidst rumours of “differences” between Modi and Shah, there are indications that Modi actually needs him badly in the upcoming assembly elections to manage out things. Though state revenue minister Anandiben Patel, Modi’s closest ally, has long been suspicious of Shah’s ways, Modi wants Shah. “Whenever Modi is in Delhi, he meets Shah at least for an hour”, one official told me. In fact, a top Modi aide is always in Delhi every time a Supreme Court hearing on Shah takes place!


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