Has Amit Shah moved from being an asset to a liability in the Modi regime?

Topics Amit Shah | Narendra Modi

The coming Delhi Assembly elections may give us a signal where exactly Union Home Minister Amit Shah now stands within the Narendra Modi regime. Should his picture appear in election posters along with those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and newly-minted party president, JP Nadda, it would underline his position as number two in the government. If his picture goes missing from the election posters, however, it can be surmised that he has been brought down a peg or two.  

Not too long ago, Amit Shah could do no wrong. Defying psephologists and astounding critics, he won even the most difficult elections for Prime Minister Modi, his mentor, or “saheb” as he calls him. As the ruthless enforcer of his mentor’s wishes, he is the only one permitted to touch his leader’s feet, who otherwise discourages such genuflection.

But Union Home Minister Amit Shah may be emerging as a liability for Prime Minister Modi. His tandava with the Indian Constitution has damaged the prime minister’s carefully cultivated domestic image of a patriarch and threatens his aspirations to be a global statesman. Has the “faithful” instrument become blunted?

A loss of the famed Midas Touch was evident in the electoral defeats in party bastions of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. He barely managed to cobble together a Bharatiya janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana through an alliance practically forced on Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party.  

His pugnacious language and arrogance may have lost his party the government in Maharashtra. Referring to his ally the Shiv Sena contemptuously, he said, “We made a tiger out of a rat and that tiger is now trying to scare us. We need to show these rats their rightful place”. In the end the so-called “rats” – remember that the epithet “Mountain Rat” was also used by Aurangzeb for the Maratha hero Shivaji -- managed to do the improbable. They joined hands with their ideological enemies to form a government, stunning the BJP.

In September last year, the Union Home Minister announced his desire to further unify the country by making Hindi the national language. Shah’s call for “one nation, one language” was seen in tandem with the Union government’s replacement of the “three language formula” with a “two language formula” in the New Education Policy (NEP) making the teaching of Hindi compulsory in schools. The South Indian states and the Opposition erupted on the issue, forcing both the Home Minister and the Centre to backtrack on the imposition of Hindi. To undo the damage Prime Minister Modi had to speak a few Tamil phrases in Chennai and at the “Howdy Modi” in Houston, he said “everything is all right” in eight Indian languages! In case one missed his intent, he added, “This diversity is the very basis of our vibrant democracy.”

The failure of the Union Home Minister is all too evident in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Fears of impending terrorist attacks was promoted by dramatically cancelling the Amarnath Yatra mid-way and asking Hindu pilgrims and tourists to evacuate the Kashmir Valley overnight. These moves prepared the ground for the shock therapy of revoking the special Constitutional status of J&K and bifurcating the erstwhile state into two Union Territories.

As the Home Minister, he could suspend the democratic rights of peaceful assembly and plant one security personnel for every 10 Kashmiris in the Valley. Political processes came to a halt with the arrest of mainstream political leaders, businessmen, lawyers and social activists, and with the suspension of telephone and internet services.

His master should have been pleased.

However, such baring of ideological fangs, has brought the government international opprobrium and charges that the Prime Minister is trying to refashion secular India into a Hindu majoritarian state. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was able to cite these measures as intimations of a fascist agenda, a threat that the Western world understands more than Indians. The Prime Minister’s international image crafted in the last five years as a statesman and a champion of economic growth suddenly crumbled.

In rapid succession, Home Minister Shah managed to light fires across the country by ramming through the Citizenship Amendment Act and threatening to implement a National Citizen’s Register by expounding a “chronology” that sent shivers up the spine of the population. Prime Minister Modi’s popularity and approval evaporated overnight with the countrywide protests that followed.

Could one have even imagined five years ago that fearless teenagers would be standing in the streets shouting “Fascists!” at the Modi government? Protest art is further ramming home such accusations in a huge outburst of the public imagination. These young citizens are reading out the Preamble of the Constitution and proudly reclaiming the nation and the tricolour while they oppose the new citizenship laws. The very Muslim “sisters” in whose name the Prime Minister stewarded the law to criminalise instant divorce among Muslims, have organised sit-in protests across the country. They are joined by women cutting across caste, community and religious lines.

This then is the Home Minister’s New Year gift to his mentor.

Prime Minister Modi will have to find a way to regain his earlier standing domestically and internationally. He may decide to take a few steps back in J&K by further lifting restrictions, releasing political leaders and by retrofitting governmental processes to redefine citizenship.  However, these are core elements of the Hindutva ideology to which he is also committed.

Without giving up his core ideological agenda Prime Minister Modi could, however, try to refurbish his image by putting a distance between himself and his Home Minister. A pulling of the leash signalled by a change of portfolio perhaps? Not a personable figure in the best of circumstances, shifting Amit Shah from the Home Ministry may assuage public anger somewhat and help whitewash the Prime Minister’s image. Otherwise,  he will continue to make more enemies than friends for the Prime Minister. Already to the chagrin of Hindutva ideologues, he has turned secularism into a cause celebre for the citizens of India and eroded the stature of his “saheb” within six months of his re-election.

Twitter: @Bharatitis

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