If he can make the transition, it would mark an important step forward in the career of one of the most controversial politicians of our times
In the nasty and cruel world of social media, even the second most powerful man in the country is not spared. When Union Home Minister Amit Shah was conspicuous by his absence in the first two months of the COVID-19 lockdown, there were even distressing questions raised about his health, eventually forcing the Home Minister to issue a clarification that all was well. In the last month, as the country slowly ‘unlocks’, all doubts have been put to rest: Amit Shah is well and truly back.
He has given a slew of well-choreographed interviews on the first anniversary of Modi 2.0. He has addressed ‘virtual’ rallies in Bihar, Odisha and Bengal. He has closely monitored the Rajya Sabha elections, especially in his home state of Gujarat and staved off a crisis to the government in BJP-led Manipur. Most significantly, he has virtually taken over as the ‘Big Boss’ of the COVID-hit national capital. In a sense, the return of Shah marks the ‘unlocking’ of politics. For almost three months during the lockdown, it wasn’t just the country’s economy that was in a lockdown but so was its politics. With the mostly timid Opposition reduced to expressing its angst on Twitter, there seemed little space for raising issues of vital public interest. No Parliament, scarcely a select or standing committee has met to address urgent matters. Yes, the Prime Minister has held half a dozen meetings over videoconference with chief ministers on corona and an all-party meeting on China but these in-camera cyber-engagements cannot be a substitute for the cut and thrust of public debate. Where other corona-affected democracies, most notably Britain, have ensured that open parliamentary debate is encouraged, India has chosen to impose a moratorium on its politics.
This wilful disregard for any form of democratic dissent and discussion is dangerous. It allows a dominant party government to impose its will on the people amidst a veil of non-transparency and non-accountability. A serious national security challenge on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh is wrapped up in secrecy and disingenuous wordplay. The tragedy of the dislocation of lakhs of migrant workers is blamed on state governments. The failure to prepare for a pandemic by boosting health infrastructure is again to be blamed on states. A faltering economy is put in pause mode but no industrialist (with one or two notable exceptions) can raise voice. No details are provided to RTI filed seeking information about the PM Cares Fund. Petrol and diesel prices are hiked 22 times in two months with no explanation. A 27-year-old Jamia student activist is named as a prime conspirator in the Delhi riots but local political leaders linked to the ruling party are given a clean chit. A police officer arrested for allegedly helping terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir is granted bail because no charge sheet is filed but bail to human rights activists is furiously opposed. The continued detention of political prisoners in the Kashmir Valley is clearly untenable but any attempt to voice concern is instantly dubbed as seditious ‘anti-national’ behaviour.
In this ominous scenario of unbridled state power, reenter ‘the great polariser’ Amit Shah. No other minister in Modi 2.0 has invested as much time and equity in keeping the political pot boiling as has the Home Minister. Nullifying Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, pushing ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Act, driving the Ram Mandir agenda forward, Shah has provided the ideological muscle to the BJP’s Hindutva juggernaut. Not to forget his sharp and ruthless political instincts that have seen the BJP displace the JD-S-Congress government in Karnataka, engineer mass defections in Goa, topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and now gradually break the Congress in Gujarat. In the process, Shah has become a political figure to be feared and admired, depending on which side of the ideological divide you lie.
Now with Shah’s return to the centre-stage, it would seem that the Modi government is preparing to shift gears once again and focus on the political management of a COVID-struck nation. There is, for example, an election to be won in Bihar at the year-end and Shah’s poll organisation skills will be required to ensure what seems a near-inevitable triumph. There is an even bigger prize that awaits in Bengal next year, the conquest of which Shah has made a personal mission of sorts. That in the midst of a corona and cyclone-ravaged state, Shah chose to launch a scathing attack on his great rival Mamata Banerjee is a sign that the gloves are now off once again after a brief hiatus. Ironically, the Home Minister is expected to work closely with state governments during a national disaster. The Disaster Management Act 2005 gives the Union Home Ministry enormous residual powers to act in a health emergency but also requires the Centre to provide support and guidance to them, and in general ensure a harmonious Centre-state equation. Shah’s personality trait is instinctively combative but a pandemic calls for a change in style, for consensus-building, for cooperation and not confrontation. This is not a moment for further dividing a hyper-polarised society or seeking to rule by fear and intimidation. Whether a leader like Shah can reinvent is uncertain: the rules for good governance are very different to those for winning elections.
Already in Delhi there are suggestions that Shah is running the COVID fight by diktat with little consultation with the state government. This might partly explain why so many unilateral decisions taken one day are hastily abandoned the very next. For example, a medically unwise decision that anyone who was affected with corona, be it with mild or severe symptoms, would have to be hospitalised had to be quickly reversed: across the world, home quarantine has been encouraged for non-critical COVID patients to avoid overburdening a strained hospital system. A pandemic calls for personal egos to be set aside for the larger public good. The Home Minister may have no love lost for Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal but this is a moment to set aside personal differences and work as a team. So far in his political career, Shah has been a divisive figure; now he needs to become a unifying force by providing a healing touch to a traumatised citizenry. If he can make the transition, then it would mark an important step forward in the career of one of the most controversial politicians of our times.
Post-script: The only thing certain about Indian politics is the future is uncertain. At the start of 2020, Shah and Kejriwal were engaged in one of the most acrimonious and polarised election campaigns the country has seen. Now, a virus has forced them to jointly inaugurate COVID care centres as grim-faced, masked men!