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Man on a mission: The Shah of BJP comes marching in

After charting a victory in Maharashtra and Haryana, the BJP president is now focussed on expanding the party footprint. HT catches up with him in a freewheling chat about mentor Narendra Modi and more.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2014 08:34 IST
Shishir Gupta
Shishir Gupta
Hindustan Times

With the October 19 results relegating the ruling Congress to a humiliating third position in the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections, and the unprecedented electoral victories wrested by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a man with a grey beard is relaxing, the morning after, on a worn black faux-leather sofa with his wife and son in a nondescript apartment in the heavily-congested, post-Partition refugee settlement locality of Jangpura, New Delhi.

The 1,200 square feet, second-floor flat is sparsely furnished with middle-class trappings. A puja room prominently occupies a corner of the main hall. The only distinguishing feature of this home in this not-so-posh locality is the posse of armed CRPF commandos, who guard the entrance and closely screen all those who come to visit the rather retiring inhabitant of this house.

Inside the flat, flanked by a huge golden lotus, the BJP symbol, and surrounded by bottles and boxes containing Gujarati snacks and tidbits to satisfy his diabetic cravings, BJP national president Amit Shah sits with a cup of masala tea. The television is on mute as he surfs the news channels, while listening to his wife Sonal’s plans for his 50th birthday, just two days away.

She also talks of the family’s hopelessly delayed move to Shah’s official residence, a bungalow on Akbar Road. Meanwhile, the couple’s only son, Jai (popularly known as Jai Bhai), a businessman, draws his father’s attention to a joke on BJP’s political rivals which has gone viral on Whatsapp and shares his plans for his upcoming February 2015 wedding.

All family discussions, are, however, punctuated by Shah’s busily-ringing telephone. Used to his never-ending calls, the family goes silent as the BJP party president briefs Prime Minister Narendra Modi on government formation in Maharashtra and Haryana and then immediately acts on the advice shared by his mentor, guide and friend of 32 years.

“In addition to the trust we share, our frequencies have matched ever since I have known Narendra Bhai,” says Amit Shah. While Shah’s loyalty to Narendra Modi is beyond doubt, he is also among the select few who can talk candidly to the Prime Minister. Modi is also known to take Shah’s advice seriously.

The only other person in the national capital that Shah shares a close personal bond with is the defence, finance and corporate affairs minister, Arun Jaitley. An introvert, Shah’s relationships in New Delhi are largely with those who stood by him during the October 2010-September 2012 period he spent in Delhi on the Supreme Court’s order to leave Gujarat in connection with the Sohrabuddin encounter case. Exiled from his home state, Shah would work for the party out of Gujarat Bhawan and was often seen lunching with Jaitley at his Kailash Colony residence.

“That case was a Congress conspiracy to target Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat. The Sangh Parivar and the party came out in my support. Colleagues like J P Nadda, Dharmendra Pradhan and Bhupendra Yadav were in regular touch with me in Delhi and Modi would lift my spirits with his phone calls virtually every day,” recalls Shah.

While the nation-wide slogan of “Congress Mukt Bharat” was given by Narendra Modi during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister and Amit Shah began working on this mission approximately 20 years ago in Gujarat, much before Keshubhai Patel formed the first BJP government in 1995.

“It was Narendra Bhai, who as the state organisation chief, prepared the first register of party members, followed by training camps for brigades of selected youth workers who would become the party’s future leaders. By 1988, the BJP had occupied the main opposition space in Gujarat. I became chairman of the Gujarat State Finance Corporation in 1995 and turned the organisation into a profit-making enterprise in 13 months. After becoming an MLA from Sarkhej in 1997, I took over the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank for the first time and ensured that the loss-making unit declared dividend in just one year. By 2010, the BJP was in control of 16 out of 18 district cooperative banks, nine out of 11 dairy cooperatives and 180 out of 220 Mahila Committees in the state. BJP today controls 27 out of 28 panchayats in the state and 92 per cent of state sports bodies, including Gujarat Cricket Association,” says Shah.

While the BJP president’s record as Gujarat home minister in the past decade has been a subject of controversy, Shah has been single-handedly responsible for linking all state police stations with courts, forensic science laboratories (FSL), prisons and the home minister’s office.

“After becoming the state home and legal affairs minister in 2003, I focused on scientific investigation, creating a strong legal system and skilled police manpower for better conviction rates. Gujarat opened the first forensic science university and a Raksha Shashtra University for developing policing skills in students. Today Gujarat forensic science laboratory (GFSL) has a databank of 47 lakh criminals and it is mandatory for an FSL team to visit the spot where crime, that can lead to seven years or more imprisonment, has taken place,” says Shah.

It was under Shah that the Gujarat police was able to crack the entire Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorist network in Azamgarh, Mumbai, Surat and Delhi within 20 days of the serial bomb blasts in Ahmedabad on July 26, 2008.

The blast had killed 70 people and injured 200. While the BJP national president may now be diplomatic in his replies about the issue, Shah had briefed the then Intelligence Bureau chief, P C Haldar, on August 8, 2008, about the IM network and had been instrumental in getting a dedicated team of policemen on the job, entrusted with the task of investigating the local logistics network of the terrorists operating in Gujarat. Following the governance model of then chief minister Narendra Modi, Shah, as state transport minister, increased the border checkpoint revenue by 37% through penalty on trucks carrying more than the authorised load.

The BJP national president’s organisational skills and political acumen were, however, always a patch above his administrative control of the state. Shah was the quiet force behind Modi’s spectacular fourth electoral victory in Gujarat in 2012. Just like his mentor Modi, Shah is a workaholic.

An 18-hour work day without any breaks is common for Shah. Such is his political bandwidth and communication skill with workers that Shah’s micro-management is always done keeping the bigger political picture in mind. His capability as a team leader was proved beyond doubt when he managed to decimate the Bahujan Samaj Party and virtually wipe out the Congress and the Samajwadi Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh, with the BJP winning 71 (and NDA 73) out of the 80 seats in the state.

Despite state party leaders’ agitation at losing political turf to an outsider, Shah, with the help of Modi and the RSS, swept aside all dissidence of caste leaders and made BJP the face of the Other Backward Castes in UP, with no less than 27 Lok Sabha candidates belonging to backward communities, in order to ensure that the Hindu vote remained undivided.

Shah’s habit of staying and breaking bread with party workers, rather than hold meetings in five-star hotels in big cities, has endeared him to the rank and file. Similarly, the electoral strategy for the Maharashtra assembly elections was crafted by Shah after he quietly toured the state for six days, talking to workers and local leaders of the party.

His conviction that the BJP could go it alone in Maharashtra was triggered by a dialogue with a 65-year-old RSS worker about the working of the Shiv Sena-BJP-led Sholapur municipal corporation.

For Haryana, Shah despite pressures to rope in the Haryana Janhit Congress as an electoral ally, chose to have the party fight it out on its own as he sensed a huge wave against corruption in the state.

He sat down with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and discussed each Haryana seat and candidate for more than four hours before giving out tickets.

While the BJP Parliamentary Board discussed the merits and demerits of prospective Haryana chief ministerial candidates for nearly an hour last week, it was Shah who forcefully prevailed with Manohar Lal Khattar’s nomination. All the leaders supported Devendra Fadnavis’s selection for the post of chief minister in Maharashtra.

Rather than bask in his electoral victories, Shah worked till 3 am at the party office this week, strategising the BJP membership drive and future electoral battles.

“My next targets are the states of Assam (and other north-east states), West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We will fight to form government in the coming elections in Jharkhand, Bihar and UP and bring the BJP to states such as Jammu and Kashmir, so that no government can be formed without our support. My party will increase its footprint in the country through saadgi (simplicity), saralta (easiness) and pardarshita (transparency),” says Shah.

For those who know him, this is step three of mission Congress Mukt Bharat.

First Published: Oct 26, 2014 00:30 IST