How is Amit Shah? This was the most frequently asked -- not-so-innocent - political question circulating in New Delhi during the lockdown in India. In last three months, hundreds of people including senior editors of the country have dialed Shah’s office, his family and confidantes to know the actual health situation of the Home Minister, who is considered the most powerful man in the government after Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Political opponents of Shah, who make a formidable crowd, have been keeping a discreet watch on his health.
On September 17, believing rumours swirling around Shah’s health, a London-based broadcaster called a reporter in New Delhi to ask for inputs to add in Shah’s obituary which the news desk wanted to keep ready. A Mumbai-based tabloid decided to assign someone in Delhi to write the obituary of Shah if and when needed. The curiosity around Shah is not new. Shah has, without any hesitation, owned up positive and negative perceptions that go with the implementation of the government’s security agenda.
The political trajectory of the government has been so provocative that Shah simply can’t escape the wrath of its critics. The government under the leadership of Modi is dead against the leftist ideology, doesn’t give an inch of the democratically-elected legislature space to the judiciary and comes down severely on people whom it perceives as a threat to its plan to integrate, fully and finally, Jammu and Kashmir in India. Shah stands for all such issues.
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Being a “bad cop” of the government, he is constantly the sole target of the political opponents of the government. The intellectuals of the secular-liberal world are unable to reconcile with his presence on Raisina Hill. Due to Shah’s role as the influencer, his health became a hotly debated political news, which compelled Shah to tweet saying he is doing fine. But, it didn’t help. The wild speculation about Shah’s health evidently shows not just the importance of being Amit Shah but speaks volumes on his capabilities.
The doctors in Delhi who have been treating him were more cautious than the patient. As a result, Amit bhai has ended up doing numerous tests including one for cancer, dengue, malaria, TB etc. These tests seem to have contributed to spreading rumours, too.
'Amit bhai will have a long life'
A Gujarat-based professional astrologer, who has studied Shah’s horoscope told me, he was surprised to get so many calls inquiring about Shah’s health since June. His reply to all of them was, “in Shah’s horoscope Saturn is too powerful and it protects him. As per astrology, Amit bhai will have a long life.” The fact is that Shah has been feverishly working since the lockdown began. On most days his Ministry’s officers works in two shifts. Under the powerful Disaster Management act, he had become the nodal point to take quick decisions pertaining to many ministries.
When Modi took lead in announcing the lockdown, Shah worked round the clock but behind the scenes. It is well-known that Modi and Shah have a special relationship, but it’s not noticed enough — since 2014, only in the rarest of rare occasions both share the stage, screen or limelight. Their joint appearances in public can be counted on fingertips. That’s the way they have tightly scripted their public roles. Those who know Amit bhai enough will vouch that he is the audacious leader who will rush to own up to a terminal illness if he had any.
He often reminds his teammates, “I am not a politician! I have not come to Delhi, leaving behind my family in Ahmedabad, merely to help run the government. We have come here to change the country. (Sirf sarkar chalane nahi, Desh badalane aaye hai)”. Eventually, when Shah got COVID-19 he tweeted about it. He was hospitalised, as his immunity level went down. He is diabetic and has never hidden it.
A voracious reader
During his hospitalisation, he attended most of the virtual meetings and phone calls related to J&K and the North-East states. During his hospital stay, when all kinds of speculations were abound, he was reading Gujarati author Ashwini Bhatt’s novel Aashka Mandal and other books. At the AIIMS, while recuperating, he started the translation of Narad Samhita, the legendary Dharma Shastra. Narad Samhita has a fascinating dialogue between Narad muni and Yudhisthira, one of the Pandav brothers of the Mahabharat, on good governance, security and diplomacy. Shah wants to publish Hindi and Gujarati versions of it.
Shah who is known for his blunt talk and ruthless implementations of bold political decisions, which critics say pushes majoritarian agenda, has a passion for music, history and books. His Gandhian mother Kusum ba, inculcated in him a habit for reading. Shah has acquired the RSS DNA but in respect of his mother, he wears khadi, only.
Gaurishanker Joshi, who had the pen name Dhumketu, was a brilliant Gujarati short story writer. His novels on Chalukya dynasty, Gujarat’s Solanki era and the Gupta kingdom are well-known. Shah has been most influenced by writings of Dhumketu. K.M. Munshi (lawyer and member of Constituent assembly) and Dhumketu were formidable Gujarati writers in their time. Both writers books are in Shah’s resource-rich library in Ahmedabad. Shah is keen to actively participate in his party’s election campaign of 2021-22 in West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh. A victory in these states, if achieved, would give an edge to Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Grip over contemporary Indian politics
Many critics see Shah’s hand behind the controversial charge sheet of the Delhi riots and summary haul up of grass roots activists in the Bheema Koregaon case. They frequently ask: What is Shah up to? The answer lies in an accurate analysis of the broad changes taking place in Indian society and politics since 2013. Modi’s grip over contemporary Indian politics is so tight that it hardly gives space for analysts to think about the shape Indian politics would take by 2030, after two Lok Sabha elections (if all goes well) in 2024 and 2029.
Within the BJP it is very much safe to assume that Modi will remain at the top while in power and even without power because Modi has touched Indira Gandhi’s level of face recognition in the nook and corner of India, which takes him to a different level within the Sangh pariwar. Many ask if Shah will grow on his own as he has become the symbol of divisive politics within the non-BJP constituencies. As things stand today, Modi will surely have the veto power to decide his successor in the coming decade.
In a country like India, it takes more than a generation to create a leader and build up his or her pan-India leadership. With the increasing role of money and changing of morality compass, the making of the pan-Indian leader has turned out to be the most complex process in Indian politics. Who knows that better than Rahul Gandhi? Highly successful leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Pinarayi Vijayan and Amit Shah are well aware of it.
Many things transpiring in India are shaping up Modi’s second innings, but a lot is happening that would decide if the next pan-India leader will tilt ideologically more to the right of Modi or will they be on Modi’s left or the extreme opposite of Modi? In such a dynamic India, Shah might have scored when thousands ask, “How is Amit bhai?”.
Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.