For a man widely credited with helping script one of India’s most spectacular election victories, Amit Anilchandra Shah’s political career was almost stillborn.
Back in 1980, when Shah went to his father to seek permission to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the young man got told off because the family didn’t want its only son to choose the hardscrabble, celibate life of a Hindu nationalist cadre.
Nonetheless, in between studying for a biochemistry degree, the teenager involved himself in volunteering for the RSS, seeking the life of a dedicated Hindu political activist instead of being shoehorned into the family’s flourishing PVC pipes business.
That opportunity came two years later when he was introduced to Narendra Modi, then just an RSS ‘pracharak’. The two struck a bond that was to stand them in good stead in their meteoric rise on the political firmament of India.
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"Without Amitbhai, Modi would not have been there where he is today and without Modi, Amitbhai would not have been there where he stands today," says a BJP legislator from Gujarat who has known the two politicians closely.
With guidance from Modi, the eager young man enrolled as a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and formally joined the latter in 1986.
Shah, 50, is widely seen as the architect of the BJP's thumping win in northern India, especially in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP bagged 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, ensuring that it emerged as the single largest party in Parliament.
But Shah’s astute political mind and skills as an organiser were evident right back from 1997 when he was picked by Modi for the Sarkhej assembly seat which had fallen vacant after the death of BJP MLA Harishchandra Patel.
He won handsomely, becoming one of the youngest MLAs in the state at the time. He retained the seat four consecutive times until 2007.
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Between 1995 and 2001 when Modi was virtually exiled from Gujarat by his party, Shah remained his “eyes and ears” in the state, a favour he was to return to his protégé a few years later.
In December 2002, Modi won his first election as Gujarat chief minister. He made Shah his junior home minister.
"Officially, he was a junior minister but actually he used to run the home department,” says an IPS officer, who worked closely with Shah, on condition of anonymity.
Shah resigned from the post and spent three months in jail in 2010 on charges of sanctioning the police killing of alleged Islamist militant Sohrabuddin, his wife and later a witness in the case. He denies the accusations and was released on bail pending trial.
The portly, white-bearded Shah is soft spoken and is known to keep a low profile. Like Modi, he is known to be a workaholic, who kept 16-18 hour days during the campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
The father of a son, Shah is usually dressed in simple, white kurtas and is known to shun the usual trappings of power.
To many political observers, Shah is the trusted backroom boy of Modi. In reality, he is by no means a mere foil to his mentor.
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From devising the campaign strategy and selecting candidates to booth management, Shah’s mobilisation tactics for Uttar Pradesh has set new standards in political campaigning in India.
He is credited with building the brand Modi and leveraging information technology to win the youth.
"In BJP today, he is perhaps the only leader who can tell even Modi on his face that he is not right on so and so issue," says a decades-old Shah loyalist and BJP leader said.