Modi's 'man with the golden touch' has dark past

Modi's 'man with the golden touch' has dark past
Mr Amit Anilchandra Shah played a major role in helping Mr Modi consolidate his power in Gujarat, taking on different portfolios at different times.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi powered to a decisive victory in May's national elections, the focus was not just on him but also on his closest aide Amit Anilchandra Shah, a portly, bespectacled politician with two murder cases against him.

Speculation was rife about the role that the politician from Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat would play and whether he would join the Cabinet after helping to propel the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the landslide win of 282 of the 543 parliamentary seats.

This was the first time in three decades that a party had garnered a majority on its own in Parliament.

The suspense ended when Mr Shah, 49, a quietly assertive politician, was officially made the president of the party on Aug 9.

The media-shy man, whose rise was nothing short of phenomenal, has moved fast.

He went straight to work, picking his new team, giving pep talks to party members and kickstarting the BJP's election campaign in the northern state of Haryana - the first, likely in October, of a clutch of upcoming state polls.

Mr Shah is expected to consolidate the party's massive win in the national elections through good results in the state polls. Those within the party believe the man with the golden touch will succeed.

"He is a very target-oriented political leader. His appetite for political success is quite unlimited," said Mr G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, who is part of the new BJP team of national spokesmen.

"He knows to be a successful president and for the party to be a success you have to keep winning elections and expanding influence and he plans to do that," he said.

Yet, Mr Shah is possibly the most controversial politician in India today, facing two cases of murder that pushed him into exile from Gujarat for two years.

The BJP and Mr Shah have dismissed these cases as a "political witch-hunt" by the Congress party, which was in power from 2004 until this year.

Mr Shah is accused of ordering the alleged "encounter killing" of Sohrabbudin Sheikh, a criminal who police claimed was planning to assassinate a prominent politician thought to be Mr Modi.

In India, encounter killings refer to shoot-outs that are staged by the police after the accused is already in their custody.

In the second case, Sheikh's associate Tulsiram Prajapati, a witness to Sheikh's murder, was killed in another police encounter shooting in 2006. The BJP insists there is no evidence of Mr Shah's involvement in either case.

Mr Shah, who was home minister of Gujarat when the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case in 2010, was briefly detained for three months that year for the first case. After his release on bail, he was asked to leave the state while the Supreme Court deliberated on a plea challenging his bail.

He also had to quit his ministerial post. He has since been allowed to return to Gujarat as the plea has been rejected.

Any lesser politician would have had trouble surviving Indian politics after such grave charges. But Mr Shah's grit and his closeness to Mr Modi kept him in circulation and even helped him thrive.

Born into a well-to-do business family in 1964, Mr Shah, like Mr Modi, spent his formative years in the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organisation that is the ideological backbone of the BJP.

The BJP said of Mr Shah in an official profile that joining the RSS as a volunteer at the age of 14 was a "turning point in his life".

It was through the organisation that Mr Shah, at the age of 17, met Mr Modi in 1982. Mr Modi at the time was in charge of youth activities in the RSS.

In spite of the 14-year age gap and dissimilar backgrounds, with Mr Modi being the son of a tea seller, the two men bonded over ideology and began a partnership that strengthened over the last three decades.

As Mr Modi rose through the ranks, Mr Shah, who joined the BJP in 1986, followed him as his loyal lieutenant.

He played a major role in helping Mr Modi - a four-time chief minister of Gujarat - consolidate his power in the state, taking on different portfolios at different times.

Personally, Mr Shah, an intensely private man close to his wife and son, also found electoral success, winning five times in state elections over the years.

But what has really catapulted him to the top post of the BJP is his handing of the biggest political prize to the party in the May elections - 71 of the 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh, a politically important state with the most number of seats in Parliament.

It did not come easy - Mr Shah camped out in the state for more than six months, reaching out to senior party leaders to end infighting, energising the cadre and visiting voters at home to get a sense of the public sentiment.

It was not without controversy either - he was briefly banned from campaigning by the Election Commission after giving a hate speech exhorting Hindu voters in Western Uttar Pradesh, where communal riots had taken place, to take revenge on Muslims by voting for the BJP. He had to swear in writing not to make hate speeches again before the ban was lifted.

Those who know him said his success also stems from his complete focus on politics.

"He is a 24-7 politician. He doesn't have any interest other than politics," said Mr P.R. Ramesh, managing editor of Open magazine.

"He is the prime minister's man. They will play a complementary role. Virtually, he is the second most important man in the system."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 25 in The Straits Times.

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