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This week, my colleague Shoaib Daniyal writes about the surprising prominence of Home Minister Amit Shah, who has taken the spotlight away from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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On August 5, the Union government made a momentous announcement: it moved to revoke the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a long-standing demand of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The government then went a step further, asking Parliament to scrap the state of Jammu and Kashmir itself. Over two days, Parliament agreed to partition the state and convert it into two Union territories.
By any account, this was one of the most significant decisions taken by any Indian government. And one man led it unequivocally: Amit Shah.
Through both days in Parliament, it was Shah who was in action. He introduced legislation as well as replied to questions from the Opposition. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi did come down to Parliament, he did not speak, allowing Shah to monopolise the spotlight. So complete was Shah’s domination that he would use the first person singular “I” and rarely the “we”, breaking with Westminster convention in crediting himself rather than the entire cabinet for the move.
For some time now, Shah has wielded power from the shadows. He functioned as Modi’s point man for more than three decades starting from their home state, Gujarat. While Modi was chief minister, Shah handled every critical political move from the 2002 riots, allegations of extrajudicial murders to even the case of using state police machinery to snoop on a woman.
Till 2014, Shah was the (brilliant) backroom strategist. From 2014, however, he became the undisputed head of the BJP’s election machinery. With this, he started to become a frontline leader in his own right. One indication of this was evident in the run up to the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, when a large order for billboards was cancelled, reported the Telegraph. The reason: Shah’s picture on them was smaller than Modi’s. New billboards were ordered with equally sized photos of the two.
This hit an apogee during the 2019 general elections where Shah drove backroom strategy but was also, by far, the BJP’s most active campaigner after Modi himself. When Shah filed him nomination from Gandhinagar in Gujarat (in itself significant since it was the seat of sidelined BJP veteran LK Advani), the event was packaged as a show of strength, with massive crowds and senior leaders from the party as well as its allies in attendance.
In addition to speeches, Shah also dominated the airwaves, giving a series of interviews to most major television news channels. It was a stunning rise for Shah, who was now being pushed hard as a mass leader and the only one with a national footprint apart from Modi.
Shah’s profile was further boosted at the end of the long election campaign when both he and Modi addressed a press conference. But somewhat bizarrely, Modi did not answer a single question, leaving them all to Shah. “Party chief is supreme,” said Modi at one point, as he diverted a question to Shah.
With the BJP winning big, Shah carried this momentum over into government formation. Shah is not only the number two in Modi’s cabinet, he is arguably the most powerful number two of all time. Not only did he bag the powerful Home Ministry, he is a part of all eight cabinet committees. Shah has even chaired inter-ministerial meetings, unprecedented for a person who is not prime minister. Moreover, Shah’s power extends far beyond his official designation as home minister: In June, for example, he oversaw a decision to invest in a gas field in Mozambique.
Uniquely in Indian politics, Shah’s rapid ascent seems to have Modi’s full backing. In other parties, supremos have often deeply resented the rise of a deputy (the only exception being family members). Shah’s rise also seems to received warmly by supporters of the BJP, who see in Shah a man who is as wedded to Hindutva as Modi is, if not more.
Coming after the Kashmir move, Makarand Paranjpe, a BJP-leaning academic and director of a Union government-run research institute, argued that Shah is now a leader in his own right. He even compared Shah to Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the BJP’s most admired leaders from the Gandhian Congress: “But, by now there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the only Loh Purush [Iron Man] that India has produced after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is Amitbhai Anilchandra Shah.”
This rapid rise means that the discussion around who will lead the BJP after Modi seems to be settled. “From a backroom guy who was a bit diffident about all the charges pending against him, Amit Shah’s transition is complete,” political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told Reuters just after the election results came in. “He is now the legitimised inheritor of Modi’s legacy.”
In fact, so sudden is Shah’s rise to prominence that some political currents are even fast-tracking this succession plan. On Sunday, Tamil superstar-turned politician Rajnikanth backed the scrapping of Article 370 and compared Modi-Shah to the duo of the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna from the Hindu war epic, the Mahabharata. However, maybe most interesting of all, Rajnikanth then went on to say, “But only they know who among them is Krishna and who is Arjuna.”
The Congress took three months to hold a meeting in which they would decide who would lead them next. And they ended up picking Sonia Gandhi. She will be interim president until the party holds an election, but who knows how soon that will happen?
Former External Affairs Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushma Swaraj died on Tuesday. She led a long, illustrious political career, having formerly been chief minister of Delhi and leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha from 2009 to 2014.
The Reserve Bank of India surprised markets by cutting interest rates by 35 basis points. This is the fourth cut by the central bank this year, a reflection of the need to revive demand in the wider economy.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won the Vellore Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu. Polls had been cancelled after allegations of money being used to influence voters. With this victory the DMK has now won 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu.
Since this week was primarily about Kashmir, let us catch you up on everything here:
First, what happened: The BJP-led government used a Presidential Order, two Parliamentary resolutions and a Bill – plus some legal convolutions – to kill the substance of Article 370, which spelled out Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. They also bifurcated the state, carving out Ladakh into a Union Territory without a legislature, and the rest of Jammu & Kashmir into a Union Territory with a legislature. Read my explainer here.
Sruthisagar Yamunan explained how the BJP used Article 370 to hollow out Article 370 and called it an “unprecedented attack on the constitution”. I asked what explanation the BJP could give for downgrading a state into a Union Territory, effectively giving New Delhi much more power. Shoaib Daniyal also wrote about how the Opposition had no answer to this move from the government.
All this happened while the Centre clamped down completely on the state, cutting communications, movement and access to information primarily in the Kashmir valley. A Kashmiri student wrote about not knowing when he would be able to go home, or even to speak to his family. Another young Kashmiri musician flew down to Delhi for a day just to get medicines for his mother. Safwat Zargar reported on cancer patients being unable to reach hospitals for chemotherapy, on others being unable to reach home.
The BBC released videos of massive protests in Srinagar, even as the government tried to claim that all was okay and that the people of the state were welcoming the move to downgrade the state and roll back its unique status.
Questions were raised about the impact this would have on federalism, with the Parliament of India’s assent, unilaterally downgrading the state into a Union Territory, without asking its leaders. Shoaib Daniyal explained how the structure of India’s government means it could happen to any state. Sruthisagar Yamunan examined whether the changes violate the Instrument of Accession that brought Jammu and Kashmir into India. Arunabh Saikia reported on the anxieties of North Eastern states over losing their own special protections.
A few challenges have now been mounted in the Supreme Court against the BJP’s moves, asking whether they violate the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.
We will be getting more coverage from the Kashmir valley soon, as communication lines are opened up and more information emerges.
A few more pieces before you go:
- Ipsita Chakravarty: Is this the end of Kashmiri “mainstream” politics as we know it?
- Samar Halarnkar: To the cheers of Indians, the lights dim in India’s democracy.
- Supriya Sharma: If Kashmir is merely the territory of the Union, then what exactly is this Union?
- Girish Shahane: Kashmir, the Incompleteness Theorem and the China Syndrome
- My piece: Indian law may allow this to happen to J&K. But should Indians allow it?
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