The ‘Shah’ of BJP’s game plan who wants to alter India’s political culture
It is not often you get to spend a Saturday evening with Amit Shah. Although he lives in an imposing Lutyens bungalow at the heart of the national capital, the BJP president has no affection for the networks of political, bureaucratic and cultural power that thread their way through the city. Does he feel like an outsider in New Delhi? “Why would I? It’s in India.” His residence is functional and lightly decorated: statues of Ganesha, a metal figurine of a cow suckling a calf. Shah sits cross-legged on an orthotic armchair, its arms draped with navy blue towels, matching portraits of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Chanakya hanging behind him. Are they his heroes? “I admire Savarkar because he was a staunch follower of the ideology of Hindutva. Chanakya because he was, matlab, knowledgeable. His sutras are eternal. Economics, politics, the problem of governance are all there.”
Since the general election victory of 2014, neither he nor his long-time boss and associate Narendra Modi have shown much inclination to co-opt or be co-opted by India’s old establishment. Why ignore it, rather than engaging it? “We are there to change it, why should we engage it?” Shah likes to answer a question with a question. “Patrick, I’m not surprised at what you’re saying. The old culture in Delhi cannot dominate me. A lot of things have been distorted since 1947: I want to change the political culture of the whole country, the entire system,” he continues, massaging his legs. How do you want to change it? “Your readers are Indian: they know how we will change it. We need a values-based and performance-based politics. There are so many things to change, 67 years of things to change.”
Shah is regarded as the prime minister’s most trusted lieutenant. In 2014, a CBI court discharged him in a conspiracy case over police encounter killings in Gujarat, but he is still viewed by many with suspicion. “I was in gaol because of the vindictive politics of the Congress,” he says. “The court was honourable and quashed the charge.” One conspiracy theory attached to Amit Shah is that he is less Indian than he seems and, like Augie March, was born in Chicago. He knows the rumour. “I have never been to Chicago! Two of my sisters have been living there for 35 years, but not me. I have never in my life been to America!” He is a privileged son of the soil. “I was born in Mumbai into a prosperous family that came from the town of Mansa, which is around 50 km from Ahmedabad. My grandfather wanted my initial upbringing to be in the village.”
His great-grandfather had been the nagarsheth of the small princely state of Mansa, advising the ruler on matters of business and once playing host to Sri Aurobindo. Shah grew up in the family haveli and says he was “not keen on formal studies,” preferring to go to the RSS shakha “to play games. Most of the games were designed to give us physical strength. I was taught deshbhakhti, I was taught sanskar.” How would he translate sanskar? “You cannot translate a word like ‘sanskar’. I imbibed patriotism. In 1978 when I was around 15, I moved with my parents and sisters to Ahmedabad. At that time my father was a share broker in the stock exchange. By default, I studied bio-chemistry at college, but I liked itihaas and preferred non-formal reading about the freedom struggle.” A friend from Ahmedabad says he exaggerates his lack of academic ability: “He is a master of Adi Shankara. I don’t know anyone who knows Hindu philosophy like him. His brain works differently to others.”
By the age of 18, Amit Shah was trading plastics and PVC pipes, and manufacturing them in Mansa. “I didn’t want to take money from my father. I did businesses of different kinds up until 1995.” This was the year the BJP came to power for the first time in Gujarat, in large part thanks to Shah and Modi’s structured mass recruitment of rural supporters across the state. Can he describe their first meeting? “I was 16 or 17 years old at that time. This was at the shakha in Naranpura in Ahmedabad. Modi [who had just turned 30] was the in-charge of three RSS districts in Gujarat, including the city of Ahmedabad. He had trained thousands of workers.” Did he seem unusual? “So many pracharaks are there, not only Modi. I am not going to speak about my personal relationship with Narendrabhai.”
Before he shifted to Delhi in 2011 after becoming general secretary of the party, Amit Shah had been active for three decades in the ABVP and the BJP. He learned how to deploy symbols to win votes, when to antagonise and when to row back. He ran election campaigns for LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Gujarat, became a MLA in 1996 and controlled multiple ministries while Modi was chief minister. He claims that since the general election, the number of national members of the BJP has risen from three crores to a whopping 11 crores, making it the largest political party in the world. “I have my own way of functioning. I had from 1978 to 1995 to learn politics and organisation. I can’t explain it. It’s a system.” Shah is a very private person, notorious for saying little and working hard. While we are speaking, he leans back in his white kurta pajama and taupe waistcoat, rubs his cranium and receives nuggets of information by phone. Whatever else he may be, he is a formidable political opponent.
Has he brought a Gujarati playbook to national politics: was it a mistake to put Modi and himself on posters in the Bihar assembly elections and tell people what food they should eat? “As a student of electoral politics, I believe nobody knows the real reason for the loss of an election. The media think they know, but they don’t know. The BJP fought six state elections under me: we won four and lost two, so we have succeeded. In Maharashtra and Haryana, myself and Modi were there! In Jharkhand, myself and Modi were there! In Jammu and Kashmir, myself and Modi were there!” He leans forward and gesticulates, his fist and wrist a blur of rings and strings. “We have a federal structure in India, so everywhere you have a person who is not from that state. Ahmed Patel, he’s from Gujarat, but he can still go to another place! Everyone was born in some part of India! The president of Congress is not from this country, so she was not!” Amit Shah lets out a burst of laughter.
Is he concerned that Muslim representation in Parliament is falling and there are no Muslim BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha? “The NDA got 73 out of 80 seats in UP at the general election, and UP has a lot of Muslim voters. I don’t think Muslim representation is something any party can decide. The Congress does the same thing. The BJP cannot decide who will win. The people of India decide who wins.” Is secularism at an end in India? “Secularism and appeasement have been confused by the Congress. Secularism is not bad, but appeasement creates reactions. Secularism as equal treatment [of communities] is a good thing. Bharat has been secular for centuries. We’re the only country where five religions have been born. The Parsis are the smallest religious community in the world, and they came to India so they could prosper and contribute to our prosperity. India is a liberal country, by all means. By all means.” What about the law on homosexuality, an illiberal colonial law? “India has a well-established family system that has existed for centuries. It’s the oldest on earth. This issue should be discussed in the public discourse, and in time a solution on Section 377 [of the Penal Code] will evolve within the Indian system.”
Shah spends his rare spare moments with his wife Sonal and son Jai. “I have not seen a politician who is as big a family man as Amit Shah,” says an old friend. The couple celebrate their thirtieth anniversary next year, but he will not be taking a break. “No, no! Many times I forgot my anniversary and my wife had to call to remind me. I have never had a holiday. I am continuously travelling for my work. If my wife wants a holiday, she goes with her sisters to Madhya Pradesh to visit religious places.”
Rumours that Shah is returning to Gujarat as chief minister seem implausible. He is well settled. In accordance with BJP practice, he is scrupulously loyal to Narendra Modi and avoids saying anything that deviates from the discipline of the party. How did he cope with three months in gaol? “I read the Bhagavat Puran to other prisoners. The person who died was a hard-core anti-national. If he fired on the police, what can the police do? He had 156 AK47s and hundreds of hand grenades in his residence. All China and Pakistan made. What you will tell him? The police intercepted him.” Every day since 1980, Amit Shah has written a diary. What does it say? “It examines my experience on that day and my analysis of that experience. No, it will never be published.”
It is 10 pm. He has things to do. The night is yet young.