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What Amit Shah's fall really means

Last updated on: July 28, 2010 14:19 IST
Amit Shah's downfall has dented Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's eligibility to lead non-Congress parties at the Centre some day. Here lies the real victory for the Congress, feels Sheela Bhatt.

Amit Shah is no ordinary politician.

The Ahmedabad-based politician has been handling senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani's elections in the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha constituency for many years. He is an important member of Chief Minister Narendra Modi's core group. He is one of the important people who helped Modi build his image as a strong politician after he became chief minister in 2001.

Shah, Gujarat's minister of state for home, has also been given credit for the prevention of major bomb blasts in the state.

Shah is, obviously, a shrewd politician. But his ability to read the intractable Indian voter's mind successfully is what has made the difference for his and his party's political fortunes in Ahmedabad.

He is a 24/7 politician. Other than speaking for ten minutes or so every day to his recently deceased mother whom he revered passionately, he played politics -- sometimes dangerously -- round the clock.

A grassroots politician and an ace manipulator of people and events, Shah, 46, is now disgraced. With the Central Bureau of Investigation filing a chargesheet against him, he will now have to defend himself for a lifetime, both inside and outside the courts.

There is not an iota of doubt in the minds of political observers that the Congress party has orchestrated the event from behind the scenes. There is little doubt that the CBI is under the central government's influence.

Despite this, Shah and the BJP do not have any convincing argument to claim that the case, now known as the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, is political humbug.

In Gujarat, people are watching the unfolding events with astonishment. Will Shah be arrested? Will he be taken to jail?

The man who once won an assembly election with the highest margin in Gujarat is in hiding today. The event's climax has come in the form of the chargesheet, but Shah and Modi both lack action and even strategy.

That also lends weight to the CBI chargesheet. Although BJP leaders declared political war against the CBI's action in New Delhi by holding a press conference on Friday afternoon, it appears they were left with no choice.

Shah always used to be dead right in judging the mindset of his core voters. That was his strength that nobody else in Modi's darbar could rival. He also knew political management: Like propagating against his competitors, creating debates or even subverting it if needed.

He ridiculed Congressmen with his superiority complex and sharp observations -- almost daily. His hunger for information about world trends, the intelligence of his political enemies and for knowing the new political trends in the country was such that he would always travel the extra mile to get it.

He used information as a weapon. During assembly or Lok Sabha elections elsewhere, he would send a team to assess the ground situation and would then make his own calculations. One could very well ask him, "Amitbhai, will Mayawati win the next assembly election?"

And rarely would his assessment be wrong.

Fundamentalist Muslims and the Congress party were his targets and he could, like most Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh people, never accept the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi helming India. He disliked Congress politicians, but appreciated Home Minister P Chidambaram for his handling of internal security.

He is obstinate in his view that Islamic jihad has engulfed South Asia and it has to be suppressed by constant vigil, covert actions and intelligence. He created a local version of the Bush doctrine while in office.

At home he was a family man where he allowed his heart to prevail, but once he stepped out he rarely trusted people.

He was born rich. His father Anilchandra Shah left behind share certificates of India's blue chip companies worth many millions of rupees. Before he turned a fulltime politician Amit Shah was a stockbroker and a veteran of co-operative banks in Ahmedabad. His house in his native place is worth seeing for its architectural beauty.

To make sure he remained connected to his voters, he stayed for years in an ordinary middle-class housing colony in Naranpura in Ahmedabad. Before growing in the BJP he established himself in the co-operative bank sector.

His arrogance is as legendary as Chidambaram's. Except one or two journalists, he never entertained reporters. He had some terribly wrong -- or should I say fascist -- notions about the functions of the media in Indian democracy.

He never gave regular media briefings. However, most times, he knew more than the visiting reporter would know about current affairs. He considers the media as a thoroughly corrupt force in Indian politics. He has said many times that he ran the home ministry without much interference from Chief Minister Modi, also the state's home minister.

He kept reporters away from his ministry's new activities. Democracy was a merely tool in his scheme of things. On a dozen political issues, his government was not challenged.

In the last nine years, with Modi winning several electoral battles handsomely, Shah started believing that Modi and their government had absolute power. The abuse of power started when political success came easy in the absence of substantial opposition.

Amitbhai, as his supporters addressed him, is a manipulative leader, but he knew his limitations too well. He knew that if and when Modi went to New Delhi, only Modi would decide his successor if the need arose.

Modi's confidante and minister Anandiben Patel, reportedly, envied Shah because he had Modi's ears on all serious issues. He advised Modi on almost all matters related to party management and political strategy.

The fundamental problem came when Shah was a Vishwa Hindu Parishad office bearer with typical conservative ideas about 'Mother India'. But those ultra-nationalist ideas and Gujarat's rapid urbanisation became a heady concoction for politicians like Shah.

If one takes a stroll in Shah's Sarkhej constituency in Ahmedabad and see areas like Vastrapur, one would understand how a VHP-man-turned-urban-BJP-man like Shah has grown in the party and how the Manmohan Singh-inspired new economy has taken shape here.

Religious elements are indistinguishable from the government; development and fast growth too are part of Shah's nationalist agenda. Police stations and panchayat buildings are sponsored by private companies and are fitted with marble and pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. Shah was very comfortable mixing the State and Church.

His public image among his supporters was that of a bully and that he would never compromise on Hindutva. People knew him as a doer and that he would bring development even in the lanes and by-lanes of his constituency.

But the most shocking thing for his supporters is that today it is not Hindutva or his so-called communal action that is under the scanner. Shah is branded a murderer and extortionist today.

There are some 20 pieces of evidence against him in the chargesheet and some are likely to stand up in a court of law. There are some businessmen who have given evidence that Shah demanded money from them after Sohrabuddin was killed in a fake encounter.

Some businessmen have alleged that Shah told them that during the police inquiry into Sohrabuddin's activities, their names were linked with his operations. They allege that they paid Shah to remain out of the investigation.

Also, how the police murdered Sohrabuddin's wife Kausarbi with the help of a poisonous injection is shocking, if true. Details ranging from the medical shop where the poison was bought to how her body was disposed is now documented in the chargesheet.

Shah will surely fight the case to prove his innocence because he will have to shield Modi too, who was his boss when this case took shape.

The weakest link in the BJP's arguments is that a large part of the investigation of the Sohrabuddin case was conducted by the Gujarat police officer Geeta Johari, who was sidelined by Shah.

Shah had been accused of transferring police officers who he did not find amenable or malleable. He also micro-managed the home ministry. People have often seen him talking to junior police officers.

In 2006, Johri, on the instructions of then director general of police P C Pande, formed a team and sent it to Hyderabad and other places to investigate how Sohrabuddin was killed. The Supreme Court had ordered the DGP to conduct an inquiry.

She built the case and before Shah could influence the probe she sent it directly to the Supreme Court. Till then, Shah was not within the ambit of the investigation.

Later, activists alleged that Shah favoured Johri and she allegedly tried to change the route of the investigation. Only then was the case given to the CBI. Johri was appointed Rajkot's police commissioner.

The turning point came for Shah when, under legal advice from senior lawyers, the Gujarat government accepted before the Supreme Court that the Sohrabuddin encounter was fake. It was unprecedented.

From that day, none of Modi's and Shah's political strategies seemed to work. Some believe Shah and Modi may have thought that the matter would end with the acceptance of 'guilt' and the Sohrabuddin chapter would be closed after the arrest of a few police officers.

Shah's calculation must have been that he had absolute power under Modi's rule. He found all the organs of democracy in New Delhi biased and anti-Modi. His arrogance due to political success and his miscalculation about the functioning of the bureaucracy and the police force during a crisis has proved to be wrong.

He underestimated the power of men and women in khaki and his total lack of judgment about the Supreme Court's influence over the cases before it has led to his downfall.

Unfortunately, this case will neither deter the men in khaki from errant conduct nor make people like Shah understand that there is nothing above upholding Constitutional propriety in independent India.

This case does not seem to send a correct signal because today's India is divided. There are a large number of Indians today who oppose the cruel and totally unacceptable murders of Sohrabuddin, Kausarbi and Tulsi Prajapati but do not want to question the killing of Maoists in a suspicious manner by the security forces.

In the end, the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case has turned into an ugly war between the Congress and the BJP.

At the end of the day, with Shah's fall, Narendra Modi's eligibility to some day lead non-Congress centrist parties at the Centre has shrunk. Here lies the real win for the Congress as this will play as an advantage for its future leadership.

It is the saddest moment for the country that the proven fake encounter case will remain a more political issue and less about the principles of upholding the ethos of the Indian Constitution, which does not give men in khaki the power to kidnap and kill a good, bad or ugly Indian.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi