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.