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.