How Modi is burdened by the baggage of Amit Shah’s past

When you’re undergoing a transformational image makeover and reinventing yourself with an emphasis on the future rather than on the past, it makes little sense to carry the burdensome baggage of history. Particularly when that historical baggage reinforces the worst stereotypes about you that you’re looking to bury.

Which is why the decision of the Gujarat BJP—which, in effect, means Chief Minister Narendra Modi—to nominate former Minister of State for Home Amit Shah for the upcoming State Assembly election jars with anyone outside the group of diehard supporters of Modi and of the BJP.

Shah is undergoing trial in two fake encounter cases — admitted as such by the Gujarat government in court — involving arms smuggler and underworld kingpin Sohrabuddin Sheikh case and his criminal associate Tulsiram Prajapati. And although Shah has not been found guilty, and in fact dismisses the charges against him as having been trumped up by the CBI, he hasn’t been acquitted of the charges either. He is out on bail, after serving three months in jail; and although he had initially been barred from entering Ahmedabad, a Supreme Court directive in September lifted the provision exiling Shah from Ahmedabad.

In announcing Shah’s nomination as the BJP candidate in Narayanpura seat in Ahmedabad, BJP leader Bharat Pandya airily dismissed the notion that it was improper for the party to put up an undertrial in two high-profile fake encounter cases as a candidate.

In this 2009 file picture, the Home Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat Amit Shah (2R) stands with Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi (L) as they inspect The Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad. AFP

With certitude that makes a mockery of the judicial process under way, Pandya certified Shah as “innocent.” The CBI investigation against him, he added, was a “Congress conspiracy.”

Amit Shah isn’t of course the first politician to contest an election while still undergoing trial or investigation on grave criminal charges. The Congress, and even smaller regional parties, have played the cynical game of dismissing criminal charges against their electoral candidates as having been “politically motivated.” In that sense, Shah’s nomination, although a telling commentary on the BJP’s callous disregard for propriety in politics, isn’t atypical of parties.

Yet, it jars because it comes at a time when Modi is doing everything in his power to exorcise the dark memories associated with his 10-plus years in office, and particularly the charge that his government was complicit in the riots of 2002 and, as in this case, in instances of extra-judicial killings.

Modi’s message during this election campaign, more than in earlier campaigns, has been on the primacy of non-discriminatory, equal opportunity, secular development. Under his watch in Gujarat, the BJP has markedly toned down its Hindutva rhetoric; and even though some recent instances of judicial verdicts sentencing former Ministers and Bajrang Dal leaders to prison for culpability in the riots have rankled with diehard Hindutva sections, Modi has tamped down on them in the belief that his government’s cooperation in and public validation of the judicial process would remove the taint of association with the riots in the first place.

And from all accounts, the message that Modi is channelling is gaining traction with virtually every constituency other than the cottage industry that is committed to reheating old charges about him and his government. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, who has over the past decade written extensively (and critically) on the Gujarat government’s culpability in the riots, points to the fact that Modi is looking to modify — and modernise — his image, and is calling on the people of his State, particularly Muslims, to focus on the future, not dwell on the past.

“He now speaks the language of development and progress and claims that citizenship is an acceptance of the logic of development,” writes Visvanathan. “He challenges the Muslims to forget the riots and join the middle-class bandwagon, abandon the ghetto and join the new Gujarati middle class… He asks that people forget his past to accept the future he is offering.”

Yet, with the nomination of Shah, who is associated in the public perception with extra-judicial killings that cast a dark shadow on Gujarat’s past, Modi may effectively be dragging the ghosts from the past into the vastly different future that he promises. And it matters more to Modi than to Shah, given that Modi is perceived to be looking for newer political worlds to conquer.

Amit Shah’s primacy as a political stragetist who is close to Modi is well known. More significantly, it was Shah who played a pivotal role as a member of the West Zone delimitation commission, which redrew the electoral map of Gujarat. According to analysts familiar with the exercise, Shah effectively gerrymandered the map to ensure the creation of more urban constituencies, which traditionally favour the BJP, and effectively formalised the ghettoisation of Muslim constituencies.

As Neera Chandoke, professor of political science at Delhi University, notes (here), Ahmedabad today is characterised by the “spatial marginalisation of the Muslim community.” There was a time when Ahmedabad’s ruling classes, court officials, skilled craftspersons, weavers and textile workers were drawn from this community. “Today, it has been rendered quiescent, and even politically irrelevant, by ghettoisation.”

Analysts reckon that the outcome of that delimitation exercise will work to the BJP’s advantage in the upcoming election, and Shah is seen as the strategist who oversaw it.

Additionally, among diehard supporters of the BJP, Shah is something of an icon for having eliminated elements of the underworld that had proved troublesome both for Gujarat and Rajasthan. His methods may not pass the judicial test, but for precisely that reason, he is sometimes valorised as a doer.

So, it is easy to see how the nomination of Shah taps into the hardcore BJP support base. Yet, as Modi makes bold to reach out beyond his home constituency, casts an eye on Delhi, and goes about transforming and moderating his image and his political messaging, it is hard to see Shah’s nomination playing sympathetically with audiences looking for confirmation that the change that Modi is signalling about himself is for real.

For these constituencies, Shah symbolises Gujarat’s shadowy past, where it didn’t matter how you did things so long as you got them done. Nominating him as an electoral candidate while he still faces trial on grave charges of extra-judicial killings also sends out a crude message about a lack of abidance by political proprieties and the due process of law.

Such considerations may not be a critical factor in Gujarat, where the BJP is on a strong wicket, but for Modi, who is looking to appeal to centrist constituencies beyond the hardore BJP base as he looks Delhi-ward, they come with the risk that they could interfere with the image makeover, the reinvention, that he is projecting of himself.

Modi may want people to focus on the future, but such associations only have the effect of reviving memories and the ghosts of the past and of reinforcing the worst stereotypes about him that he is looking to bury.