How Amit Shah helped Modi sideline his political rivals in Gujarat

01 June, 2019

On 1 June, the Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah took charge as the union home minister of India. Shah, who is also a member of the Lok Sabha from Gujarat’s Gandhinagar constituency, has been the prime minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted lieutenant for decades now. Between 2002 and 2010, Shah held various ministerial portfolios in the Gujarat state government—including home, law and justice, and civil defence—under Modi’s chief ministership.

In the following excerpt from “The Organiser,” The Caravan’s April 2014 cover story, the journalist Poornima Joshi traces Modi and Shah’s association from the 1980s. “They have the same secretive, ambitious streak. He was Modi’s eyes and ears and perhaps the man who plotted most of his moves,” the former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, who was earlier a part of the BJP, told Joshi. “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.”

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, AmitbhaiAnilchandra 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.

This is an extract from “The Organiser,” the journalist Poornima Joshi’s April 2014 cover story for The Caravan. It has been edited and condensed.