Why you should care
Amit Shah, India’s home minister and protégé to the PM, has a reputation for ruthlessness.
Noise and bedlam come easy for India’s Parliament, but on Monday it reached a new level. Opposition parliamentarians were angry over the bizarre manner in which the central government had shut down the contentious state of Kashmir. A popular pilgrimage — Amarnath Yatra — had been canceled; tourists and pilgrims were ferried out of the state; internet, mobile and landlines were shut down. The opposition parties and the media wanted answers from the government rather than rumors and speculation.
India’s new Home Minister Amit Shah, 54, a bit agitated and nervous, rushed to the Parliament carrying a sheaf of paper. “Give me five minutes and I will answer everything,” the portly Shah said. And he did, to the shock and bewilderment of the parliamentarians and the nation. He said Kashmir’s special status — which gave it more autonomy than other states — had been withdrawn. Shah also announced that the state of Jammu and Kashmir had been diminished to a union territory and it had also been bifurcated from the predominately Buddhist area of Ladakh.
His boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seemed impressed with the eloquence and confidence of his protégé during the debate. Shah declared that his government was compelled to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution, the post-Partition bridge India promised to get Kashmir to join it instead of Muslim-majority Pakistan. India has fought three wars with its neighbor and blames it for terror and violence.
Amit Shah is a man marinated in a narrow ideology, socialized in confrontational politics.
Harish Khare, veteran journalist
Shah — who fancies himself a unifier of the country — blamed this special status for corruption, lack of development, terrorism and all the ills plaguing the state, which has had conquerors, poets and artists swooning over its natural beauty. During his visit to the valley in the 17th century, Mughal emperor Jahangir said: “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here.”
Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), want India to be a Hindu state and perceive Kashmir as a symbol of embarrassment, as its special status allowed it to have its own flag and prevented people from other parts of the country from buying land there. The BJP’s election manifesto pledged to end this status, but the government’s sudden move this week — including jailing hundreds of Kashmiri politicians — still stunned many across India.
Yet to those who know Shah, his dramatic move is in keeping with a do-it-at-any-cost attitude coupled with the skills and guile to pull it off that’s unmatched in the BJP. The combination has made Shah into Modi’s de facto deputy and chief enforcer, whether it’s for getting a law passed against the odds or, according to critics, silencing threatening voices. On Monday, he broke opposition parties to force the Kashmir status change through Parliament, where BJP lacks a majority in the upper house.
His will derives from the Hindu nationalist worldview he shares with Modi. Veteran journalist Harish Khare, who was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s press adviser and saw Shah and Modi go around together on two-wheelers to newspaper offices in the 1990s, says, “Amit Shah is a man marinated in a narrow ideology, socialized in confrontational politics. He brings an extraordinary toxic energy to this ministerial assignment.” Shah did not respond to a request for comment.
Shah comes from a wealthy family in Gujarat. His ancestral house in Mehsana has a library painstakingly put together by his mother — who followed Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and simple living — and businessman father. It was his mother who taught him to wear homespun khadi cloth. As a teenager, Shah joined RSS, known for imparting lessons in Hindu nationalism and about how the motherland has been defiled by Muslim invaders. After studying biochemistry, he acquitted himself as a grassroots organizer in the student wing of the BJP. He met Modi in the late 1980s, and the senior leader in the party took Shah under his wing. He soon gave up his PVC pipe business and plunged fully into politics. An amateur astrologer, he predicted Modi’s rise as early as 1990, when on the sidelines of a political rally, he told him “to start your campaign to become the prime minister.” This was the beginning of a hugely successful partnership that is rewriting India’s history.
An untiring campaigner, Shah networked with his voters so closely that nearly all of them had his mobile number, which he was known to pick up himself. Shah’s margin of victory has increased with every contest, from the Gujarat assembly to Parliament. In the 2019 general elections, he got one of the highest votes in the country.
Shah first became a minister under Modi in 2002 in Gujarat, eventually earning the critical post of home minister. (He replaced Haren Pandya, who had threatened to spill the beans about mass killings of Muslims that had been pinned on the Modi administration; Pandya was later found shot dead in his car.)
Shah turned out to be fairly effective. Ahmedabad-based businessman Sanjay Gupta remembers him as the person “who as the home minister provided a crime-free environment to give meaning to the much-vaunted Gujarat model, which helped him win the national elections of 2014.” Gupta believes Shah has great administrative and commercial acumen. “He is a genius,” Gupta says.
But at the same time, Shah was accused by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of extortion and of orchestrating fake police encounter killings of a smuggler who had turned against him, the smuggler’s wife and a witness. After three months in jail, he received bail. His frugal ways — he does not use soap — and Spartan living allowed him to pass his time in jail, which the astrologer in him blamed on “bad times.” Later, the Supreme Court prevented him from returning to his state during the duration of the trial, lest he tamper with the evidence. Yet since the Modi government came to power in 2014, he has received exonerations from a series of courts.
As BJP president, Shah built the world’s biggest political party with 100 million members, acquiring a mythical aura for his electoral successes. During the recent elections, he visited 312 parliamentary seats, addressed 161 rallies and covered 87,000 miles, while Modi addressed some 142 public meetings. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party could not keep Shah’s pace. All this contributed to BJP winning handsomely, never mind his rough-and-ready methods.
Though he comes across to officials as reasonable, no one really wants to mess with him. After a judge overseeing his case died under mysterious circumstances two years ago, the friendly advice on Twitter for anyone who dares to criticize Shah was: “Do not go for morning walks.”
A checkered past haunts him, but the home minister’s competence in outmaneuvering the opposition on Kashmir indicates a governing acumen to match his political skills. It doesn’t take an astrologer to see a future for Shah in the prime minister’s seat whenever Modi decides to step aside.
Read more: For many Kashmiris, democracy in “the world’s largest democracy” just died.