Modi, Shah: Bound by ideological affection

The home minister must be replaced, as some Opposition leaders are saying; but that is unlikely to happen

Amit Shah and Narendra Modi after the victory in New Delhi.
Amit Shah and Narendra Modi after the victory in New Delhi. File photo

Shortly after Narendra Modi won the re-election last May, I was speaking with an entrepreneur I admire, who has built his business through technical innovation rather than by cosying up to politicians and who, in his personal and public life, absolutely eschews all kinds of sectarian prejudice. The new government was about to be sworn in, and my entrepreneur-friend was worried about the constitution of the cabinet. The Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah, had played a major role in orchestrating his party’s second electoral triumph — as he had the first — and it was known that this time he would no longer be content with just running the party. Shah had to be accommodated in the cabinet — the question was which portfolio he would be given. It was widely rumoured that he would be given charge of the finance ministry. This rumour had made my entrepreneur-friend anxious, since he knew the BJP president to be a man hostile to experts and expert opinion. With the economy already in crisis, with investment down and unemployment up, the thought of an arrogant and unpredictable person in charge of the finance ministry had made my friend — and other entrepreneurs like him — very nervous indeed.
In the event, Amit Shah was allocated the home ministry instead. The immediate reaction among the entrepreneurial class was one of relief. Despite her inexperience, they were content with the choice of Nirmala Sitharaman as finance minister since they had feared that it would be someone far worse.
On my part, however, I had profound misgivings about Amit Shah’s inclusion in the Union cabinet in the first place. Shah undoubtedly had a certain talent for raising money for his party, in getting people from other parties to defect to his party, in separating Jatavs from non-Jatavs and Yadavs from non-Yadavs and so on. But the skills required to win an election in India did not necessarily equip one to become an effective or capable cabinet minister for India. Besides, Shah’s politics had been animated all along by a deep vein of anti-minority sentiment — how could a person like him inspire trust as home minister?
Whether (as my entrepreneur- friend feared) Amit Shah would have made a poor finance minister must always remain a matter of speculation. But that he has been a disastrous home minister is a matter of record. With great show and spectacle, Shah piloted two radical, as well as radically unnecessary, legislative changes through Parliament. The first, the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, damaged India’s standing in the world. The second, the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, has sharply divided and polarized Indian society itself.
The ostensible reason for the abrogation of Article 370 was to end terrorism in the Valley. But no one who knows the history of the BJP can be under any illusion that it was also animated by the desire to obliterate India’s only Muslim-majority state. The ostensible reason for the CAA was to give refuge to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries. But the very wording of the Act revealed its anti-Muslim bias. Only countries that were Muslim-majority were said to be capable of religious persecution; while refugees of all faiths except Islam were told that they were welcome in India.
The home minister’s repeated insistence that there would be a nation-wide register of citizens accompanying the implementation of the CAA made many Indian Muslims feel vulnerable and insecure. But where he, and the prime minister, miscalculated was in thinking that this immoral and illogical piece of legislation would be met by submission and silence. They did not anticipate the spirited opposition to the Act, in which a wide cross-section of the citizenry, including tens of thousands of non-Muslims, have participated.
The government’s actions in Kashmir had already brought it considerable adverse publicity overseas. The CAA dealt a further, and greater, body blow to India’s image abroad as a pluralist democracy. Within the country, the new Act has sown suspicion and discord between religious communities and between the Centre and the states. A more open-minded, less ideological, government would have reconsidered the Act, especially in the light of the widespread and continuing popular protests against it. This government did not. Instead of withdrawing the legislation, it has sought to brazen it out. The prime minister has denied that the Act is discriminatory (when its very wording clearly is), and further denied that there was any link between it and the National Register of Citizens (when the home minister had repeatedly said there was).
In the last week of December 2019, by which time it was clear that the CAA had become a hot potato that was causing the government much domestic and international embarrassment, I had a long conversation with a scholar-civil servant with a deep understanding of modern Indian history. He drew an intriguing parallel between the relationship of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, in the present, with that of Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon, in the past. Nehru and Krishna Menon had been bound by ties of ideology and of personal affection. Both were democratic socialists with an innate suspicion of the United States of America. Notably, Krishna Menon had helped Nehru at a critical stage of his career by acting as his literary agent, arranging for his books to be published and for him to go on speaking tours in Europe in the 1930s.
After Independence, Krishna Menon served as our high commissioner to the United Kingdom and, later, as a sort of roving diplomat, representing Indian interests abroad (and especially in the United Nations). He was moderately effective in these roles, but then Nehru brought him directly into the cabinet in the important post of defence minister. In 1959, Krishna Menon clashed publicly with the army chief (the highly respected General K S. Thimayya); in the same year, the Chinese attacked our border posts. It was clear that because of (among other things) his erratic temperament and his hostility to arms supplies from the West, Krishna Menon was a liability as defence minister. He should have been sacked in 1959 itself; but Nehru, blinded by personal loyalty, kept him in the job till 1962 when the ill-equipped Indian army’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese army finally forced Krishna Menon to quit.
In this conversation, that I had with the scholar-civil servant back in December, he asked me whether Amit Shah might be seen as being to Narendra Modi what Krishna Menon once was to Jawaharlal Nehru. I answered that their relationship appeared to be even closer than that. The events of the past few months clearly called for the prime minister to replace the home minister. However, this was unlikely to happen because of the ties that bound the two men; ties that, like those of Nehru and Krishna Menon, were as much personal as they were ideological.
It is now two months since that conversation. In this time, Shah has led a polarizing election campaign in Delhi. He has done nothing while the Delhi Police — which reports to him — vandalized the capital’s universities. Most recently, as I write this, the home minister has looked on while BJP politicians made incendiary speeches that set sections of the capital aflame while the American president was on a state visit.
Amit Shah has been home minister of India for less than a year. In this short period of time, the damage caused to our always delicate social fabric by his words and actions has been immense. This is widely recognized; which is why the call to appoint a new home minister is now being regularly made on the social media and by some Opposition politicians. The prime minister has surely heard this call; but one doubts that he will, or can, act responsibly and do what justice and the national interest demand.

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