On Saturday, 17th October, India’s Home Minister and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, Amit Shah, re-appeared on national television in an interview with Rahul Joshi of Network 18. After a gap of over four months, this widely televised interview, is significant because it shows that Shah still remains India’s second most powerful leader after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
First of all, the broadcast put paid to long-circulating rumours of his ill-health. Fifty-five-year-old Shah had tested positive for COVID-19 on 2nd August and announced it via Twitter: “I have undergone a coronavirus test after showing initial symptoms and have tested positive.” He was admitted to a private hospital in Gurugram in the National Capital Region. But subsequent to returning home, he was readmitted on 18th August, after complaining of fatigue and body ache, to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. He remained there for nearly another fortnight before being discharged on 31st August having been declared fully recovered.
Earlier in the year there had been rumours that Shah was suffering from a major ailment. On 9th May, the Home Minister released a statement: “I want to clearly state that I am completely healthy and I have no sickness.” He even mentioned how the disinformation campaign about his ill-health had included wishes for his death and added a sarcastic quip about those wishing his death: “Hindu belief is that such rumours make a person more healthy and make him strong. Hence I hope that such people will abandon such useless talk and let me work as well as do their own work.” Appearing in full form in his interview with Joshi, Shah was not only mentally sharp and focussed, but appeared fighting fit physically. What is more, he also emerged as quite moderate in his remarks on several fronts in a stark contrast to his image as BJP’s hard-line strongman.
For example, on the controversial Tanishq advertisement showing the marriage of a Hindu woman into a Muslim family, he said that such minor incidents should be not be blown out of proportion. “The roots of social harmony are very strong,” he said, “There have been many such attacks on it. The British tried to break this harmony, later the Congress also tried the same.” But we should ignore such issues. Similarly, on the death of Bollywood star, Sushant Singh Rajput, now made into a poll issue in Bihar, Shah was, once again, statesmanlike. “I’m clear that there shouldn’t be any media trial,” he said, “If there is any lack in the investigation or an attempt to sabotage the case then you can raise questions. It’s the media’s right and duty. But to prolong an issue for the sake for TRPs is not right.” With regard to Maharashtra Governor Koshyari’s letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asking the latter if he had suddenly turned “secular,” Shah hinted that Koshyari ought to have chosen his words “more carefully.”
On the more pressing political matter of the Assembly elections in India’s second most populous state, Bihar, he declared that Janata Dal United (JDU) leader, Nitish Kumar, would be the next Chief Minister. The BJP is in an alliance with JDU, but its former National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition partner, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), is fighting it out alone, fielding 143 candidates mostly against JDU. By asserting that Nitish Kumar would be the chief minister even if the BJP won more seats, Shah was projecting the BJP as the more generous and loyal of the coalition partners. On the Bengal polls upcoming next year, Shah, once again, exuded confidence. Parivartan (change) was inevitable, he said, “BJP will form the government in West Bengal next year.” Shah also lashed out against the deteriorating law and order situation in the Eastern border state, as well as corruption charges, including the alleged scam in the misuse of funds received for Cyclone Amphan relief and restoration. On the anti-Farm Bills protests, Shah was more predictable, blaming the Opposition for instigating farmers against the ruling party. He repeated that the bills would give farmers more options rather than forcing them to sell their produce in the state controlled mandis (markets).
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It was on India’s border dispute with China that Shah came out at his blistering and belligerent best. “India would not cede an inch of its territory to anybody,” he avowed. “The purpose of raising and maintaining armies is so that you can repel any form of aggression. … India’s defence forces are always ready,” Shah added. Despite gossip about Shah’s declining importance, the interview proves that he is not only firmly in the saddle of power, but continues to be his party’s and the country’s second most important leader. Ripened with experience, he has also become more moderate and statesmanlike befitting a complex and diverse nation such as India.