The return of Amit Shah to the national stage, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
While his return marks the return of politics, as HM, Shah must provide a healing touch to the citizenryUpdated: Jul 02, 2020 20:12 IST
In the nasty and cruel world of social media, even the second most powerful man in the country is not spared. When Union home minister Amit Shah was conspicuous by his absence in the first two months of the Covid-19 lockdown, there were even distressing questions raised about his health, eventually forcing the home minister to issue a clarification that all was well. In the last month, as the country slowly unlocks, all doubts have been put to rest: Shah is well and truly back.
He has given a slew of well-choreographed interviews on the first anniversary of Modi 2.0. He has addressed virtual rallies in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. He has closely monitored the Rajya Sabha elections, especially in his home state of Gujarat and staved off a crisis in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Manipur. Most significantly, he has virtually taken over as the Big Boss of the Covid-19-hit national capital.
In a sense, the return of Shah marks the unlocking of politics. For almost three months during the lockdown, it wasn’t just the country’s economy that was in a lockdown; it was also its politics. With the mostly-timid Opposition reduced to expressing its angst on Twitter, there seemed little space for raising issues of vital public interest. Neither Parliament nor scarcely a select or standing committee has met to address urgent matters. Yes, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has held half-a-dozen meetings over video-conference with chief ministers but these cyber-engagements cannot be a substitute for the cut-and-thrust of public debate. Where other coronavirus-affected democracies, most notably the United Kingdom, have ensured that open parliamentary debate is encouraged, India has chosen to impose a moratorium on its politics.
This willful disregard for any form of democratic dissent and discussion is dangerous. It allows a dominant party government to impose its will on the people, behind a veil of non-transparency and non-accountability. A serious national security challenge on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh has been wrapped up in secrecy and disingenuous wordplay. The tragedy of the dislocation of millions of migrant workers is blamed on state governments. The failure to prepare for a pandemic by boosting health infrastructure is again blamed on states. A faltering economy is put on pause mode but no industrialists (with one or two notable exceptions) can raise their voice. No details are provided to a Right to Information petition filed seeking information about the PM Cares Fund. Petrol and diesel prices are hiked 22 times in two months with no explanation. A 27-year-old Jamia Millia Islamia student activist is named as a prime conspirator in the Delhi riots but local political leaders linked to the ruling party are given a clean chit. A police officer arrested for allegedly helping terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir is granted bail because no charge-sheet is filed, but bail to human rights activists is furiously opposed.
In this ominous scenario of unbridled State power, re-enters Amit Shah. No other minister in Modi 2.0 has invested as much time and equity in keeping the political pot boiling as the home minister. From nullifying Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, pushing ahead with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, driving the Ram Mandir agenda forward, Shah has provided the ideological muscle to the BJP’s Hindutva juggernaut. Not to forget his sharp and ruthless political instincts that have seen the BJP displace the Janata Dal-Secular-Congress government in Karnataka, engineer mass defections in Goa, topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, and now gradually break the Congress in Gujarat.
With Shah’s return to centre-stage, it would seem that the Modi government is preparing to shift gears once again and focus on the political management of a Covid-19-struck nation. There is, for example, an election to be won in Bihar at the year-end and Shah’s poll organisation skills will be required to ensure what seems a near-inevitable triumph. There is an even bigger prize that awaits in West Bengal next year, the conquest of which Shah has made a personal mission of sorts. That in the midst of the pandemic and in a cyclone-ravaged state, Shah chose to launch a scathing attack on his great rival, Mamata Banerjee, is a sign that the gloves are now off once again.
Ironically, the home minister is expected to work closely with state governments during a national disaster, provide support and guidance to them, and ensure harmonious Centre-state relations. Shah’s personality trait is instinctively combative but a pandemic calls for a change in style, for co-operation and not confrontation. This is not a moment for further dividing a hyper-polarised society or seeking to rule by fear and intimidation. Whether a leader like Shah can reinvent himself is uncertain. The rules for good governance are very different from those for winning elections.
Already, in Delhi, there are suggestions that Shah is overseeing the Covid-19 fight by diktat with little consultation with the state government. Which might partly explain why so many unilateral decisions taken one day are hastily abandoned the very next. The home minister may have no love lost for Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal but this is a moment to set aside personal differences and work as a team. So far, in his political career, Shah has been a divisive figure; now he needs to become a unifying force by providing a healing touch to a traumatised citizenry.
Post-script: The only thing certain about Indian politics is that the future is uncertain. At the beginning of 2020, Shah and Kejriwal were engaged in one of the most acrimonious and polarised election campaigns the country has seen. Now, a virus has forced them to jointly inaugurate Covid-19 care centres as grim-faced, masked men!