India elections 2014: The murky past of Narendra Modi's right-hand man

Prime ministerial hopeful's trusted lieutenant Amit Shah has been censured for making inflammatory speeches

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The Independent Online

He is known as a master strategist, the man whom Narendra Modi trusts like no other.

Last spring, a year ahead of the election now gripping India, Amit Shah was dispatched by Mr Modi to Uttar Pradesh with instructions to build support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the nation’s largest and politically most important state. He set about identifying candidates and meeting local leaders in an effort to deliver Mr Modi the “wave” he will need to become India’s next prime minister.

But while Mr Shah has enlivened the BJP base and cemented support for Mr Modi, he has also run into problems. Over the weekend, one week into the five-week voting process to elect a new government, the Election Commission (EC) banned Mr Shah from addressing public meetings in the state and ordered that charges be filed against him after he was accused of stoking communal tensions.

In speeches in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), which last year saw deadly clashes between Hindus and Muslims, Mr Shah told a gathering of Hindus they should vote for the BJP as a means of “revenge for the insult” inflicted last year. The EC also banned a senior figure from the local Socialist Party (SP), Azam Khan, for making similar speeches to Muslims.

“The commission has been observing with serious concern that Azam Khan and Amit Shah have been making highly inflammatory speeches,” said the EC. “These statements are promoting feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will, and creating disharmony between different religious communities.”

It is not the first time the 50-year-old Mr Shah has been under intense scrutiny. The man said to be a highly industrious and skilled political operative, also has a long and controversial history.

In 2010 he was charged with murder and kidnapping over the alleged extra-judicial killing of three people in Gujarat in 2005 and banned from the state while the inquiry went ahead. Out on bail for more than 18 months, Mr Shah has denied the charges and claimed they were politically motivated.

Mr Modi and Mr Shah first met in the 1980s when they were young members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a conservative Hindu nationalist group inextricably linked to the BJP. In the early 1990s, Mr Shah, who comes from a wealthy Gujarat family and who has a degree in biochemistry, took charge of the election campaign of senior party leader LK Advani.

He secured Mr Advani a landslide victory and subsequently rose through the ranks.  One crucial task he was given was to oversee the party’s representation over constituency realignment. According to Vidyutkumar Anantray Joshi, an academic who has studied the process, the move created more urban constituencies, something that helped the BJP. “He was very good. The BJP had never had anyone that skilful,” he said.

Mr Shah, who has been elected four times to the Gujarat provincial assembly, became a minister in Mr Modi’s state government in late 2001, shortly before the notorious massacre of hundreds of Muslims by Hindu mobs. Mr Modi has always denied claims that he took insufficient steps to stop the killings.

The murder charges against the bearded, heavy-set Mr Shah, who is married and has a son, relate to the killing of an alleged gangster, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife and a witness, at a time when the aide was junior home minister.

At the time of the killings in 2005 it was claimed Mr Sheikh was a jihadi terrorist dispatched by Pakistan’s ISI to assassinate Mr Modi and that he had been killed in a shoot-out with police. But two years later, the state government’s own lawyer, KTS Tulsi, stated to India’s Supreme Court that the killings had taken place while the three were in police custody.

Mr Tulsi resigned his position after Mr Modi was perceived to have bragged about the killings during the 2007 state election campaign. “Does my government need to take permission from Sonia [Gandhi, of the rival Congress party,]” he asked supporters who chanted “kill, kill, kill”.

According to the Reuters news agency, the charge sheet filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), said that in his position as home minister Mr Shah headed an extortion racket with Gujarat police officers and Mr Sheikh. They fell out and police snatched Mr Sheikh from a bus with his wife, then staged a gun-battle. Mr Sheikh was killed and his wife’s cremated body was found in the village of one of the policemen. A witness was killed later.

Mr Sheikh’s brother, Rubabuddin, told The Independent he was pleased Mr Shah had been prevented from campaigning by the EC. “I was surprised how this man was released by the court after my brother’s killing,” he said. “I have full faith in our judicial system. I don’t doubt it for a moment. But I couldn’t digest how these people were released.”

Mukul Sinha, an Ahmedabad-based lawyer representing the relatives of three separate alleged “fake encounter” cases from Gujarat, for which a number of police officers have been charged, said the prosecution of Mr Shah was proceeding in a Mumbai court. He said in all three cases the victims were innocent Muslims. Asked about Mr Shah being banned from giving election speeches, he said: “He is always in trouble.”

Mr Shah was sent to UP by Mr Modi in May last year, two months after the aide had been made a senior official in the BJP’s national set-up. Uttar Pradesh returns 80 seats to India’s 543-strong parliament and eight of the 14 people who served as prime minister came from the state. Mr Modi needs to win big there and if he does, Mr Shah will likely be rewarded with a senior job if Mr Modi becomes prime minister.

Mr Shah failed to respond request for a comment. However, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior BJP spokesman, said the party believed the EC had acted unfairly and not had given Mr Shah a chance to respond. He said while Barack Obama had been campaigning in Ohio, he had called for voters to get their “revenge” through voting and that Mr Shah’s remark was no different.

He said the murder charges against Mr Shah were politically motivated and that reports that Mr Modi had delivered a speech in 2007 in which he admitted the government had killed Mr Sheikh were wrong. “There is a trial but we object to the way Mr Shah is being prosecuted,” he said. “And there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”