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At the Kumbh Mela this week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat took a holy dip at the Sangam and said that Narendra Modi was a “friend” and that “everyone is saying the same thing about who should be the prime minister”. But, he insisted, the decision was the prerogative of the BJP. This is seen, however, as Nagpur’s endorsement of the Gujarat chief minister, who is filled to bursting with the ambition of parachuting onto the national scene.
So when his Man Friday and hatchet man Amit Shah takes a national-level posting in the BJP, which could happen in a few weeks, he will also be reconnoitring for Modi as an advance scout. Shah was Modi’s minister of state for home. He had resigned after CBI investigators linked him to police officers who had carried out extra-judicial killings, outed through the infamous Sohrabuddin-Kausarbi “encounter” case. The minister allegedly machinated a shadowy network of trigger-happy special cell cops, informers, small-time crooks and gangsters, a veritable dirty-works department that carried out killings and, through media coverage, kept alive the piercing buzz of terror strikes in the public mind. He spent three months in jail and is now on bail. The Supreme Court had ordered him to stay out of Gujarat for fear he might influence the course of the case.
Recently, the Supreme Court allowed him back into Gujarat after the case was shifted to Maharashtra. And two months ago, he won the Naranpura seat of Ahmedabad city in the assembly elections. When Modi did not give him a ministerial appointment, it was bruited that he would be appointed a national general secretary of the party. Senior party leaders say the appointment of national-level functionaries could begin soon in a lead-up to the national executive and national council meetings, scheduled in Delhi from March 1. “By February-end, Shah could not just be appointed general secretary, but also be put in charge of a state,” says a source. Insiders confirm that such roles had been envisaged and cleared for Shah last October, when Nitin Gadkari was party president. But the party decided to wait till the Gujarat assembly elections and the party’s own election of a new chief were over.
Rajnath Singh, the new party president, faces a dilemma, given the shrill pitch of media-and-middle-class-driven clamour for probity and cleanliness in public life these days. Though the party sees and projects the CBI case against Shah as politically motivated, some leaders admit the evidence against him is serious and might lead to serious embarrassment. Sources close to Rajnath say he’s keener to have Purshottam Rupala, a Rajya Sabha MP and party vice-president, as Modi’s representative on his team. “It’s a difficult decision, so Rajnathji might do what Gadkari did to save the situation,” says a Rajnath aide. “Gadkari took three months to build a team; Rajnathji may well take a month and a half to announce his new team.”
Nevertheless, it looks like Shah will have to be accommodated. For Modi won’t brook his Delhi dreams being thwarted. Says a senior leader, “Once the office-bearers are appointed and a national executive is held, new faces will be inducted in the central parliamentary board. Modi is likely to be included in the board and Shah’s appointment will be just one step in that direction.” So Modi will be projected as the face of a national campaign even while he remains chief minister in Gujarat; Shah will mind Delhi for him.
As for the criminal charges he faces, the BJP’s legal luminaries don’t think they will damage Shah’s chances as he is backed by Modi. “Legally, there’s no problem at all for Shah,” says Mahesh Jethmalani, who had opposed Gadkari’s presidentship after some dubious details regarding his businesses had surfaced. “The charges are by the CBI, which has no credibility.” And Meenakshi Lekhi, lawyer and vice-president of the party’s women’s wing, says, “If he could contest elections and win, what stops him from being a party office-bearer?”