How Amit Shah is building a legacy as Union home minister

As home minister, Amit Shah has the ear, and complete trust of the prime minister

AmitShah2a Amit Shah | Sanjay Ahlawat

Amit Shah’s legacy as a consummate election manager was defined through his role as the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh in-charge for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party won 71 of 80 seats. His organisational skills were in focus again when he was BJP president, but those who knew him from his Gujarat days were not surprised with this display of political acumen at the national level. Then, in 2019, he became Union home minister, and began building another, more historically relevant legacy. One that could well be the yardstick against which future home ministers are measured. In the past five years, Shah has overhauled the internal security landscape and ushered in reforms that are in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governance model. The biggest of these reforms, in the criminal justice system, was the replacement of the old laws.

CAA is back on the government’s agenda, and this time Shah is prepared to deal with any backlash. The ministry has held several meetings to map out scenarios once the rules are notified and to find possible solutions.

Shah said it was a learning that had come in after 75 years. “Every society makes its own laws,” he said, replying to critics who have questioned the need for such a massive overhaul. “The British brought the Indian Penal Code, CrPC and Indian Evidence Act in the 19th century with the objective of consolidating their rule. The aim was not justice, but punishment to the enslaved population. Today, the aim is to create an equal and just society.”

Home ministry officials said that when independent India turned 75, Modi had listed five vows—panch pran—from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The new criminal laws fulfil one of them: “End the mentality of slavery”, where correction, not punishment; reformation, not rejection; justice, not mere penalties; and nationality, not servitude, are at the heart of the reforms.

The government has called the new laws the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam. Shah has defended the Indian names and has asked critics to introspect on why they accept a foreign language brought in by invaders and resist an Indian one. “I don’t think it is correct,” he said, looking a tad surprised.

As home minister, Shah has the ear, and complete trust of the prime minister. In fact, when a political or government issue is brought before Modi, he is said to often ask the person to consult Amit Shah, too. In the past five years, Shah’s refrain has been, “I am willing to listen to all grievances, but everyone should follow the law.”

In 2019, three months into becoming home minister, Shah was at the forefront of the government move to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution. It required deft political handling as it had geo-strategic implications, too. Security watchers in Jammu and Kashmir said that in the period that followed the abrogation, not a single bullet was fired in protest. “The mirage created by certain politicians to suit their political ambitions fell flat,” said a key security official in Jammu and Kashmir who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Four years later, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the decision, stamping out the last legal hurdle in what the BJP brass saw as the biggest impediment to the final integration of India.

Shah is also the driving force behind the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which seeks to ensure that persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—who entered India on or before December 31, 2014—are given Indian citizenship. The amendments caused protests in many corners of the country, and the government quietly put the move on hold.

Rally-support-CAA Right on target: A woman dressed as Lord Ram at a rally in favour of CAA at Shaheed Minar in Kolkata in March 2020 | Salil Bera

But, more than four years down the line, it is back on the government’s agenda, and this time Shah is prepared to deal with any backlash. “The opposition is trying to mislead [people]; it is not a law to take away anyone’s citizenship, but to give it,” said Shah. The ministry has held several meetings to map out scenarios once the rules are notified and to find possible solutions.

Another Shah intervention has been in the handling of bureaucratic appointments. “The weightage given to merit over seniority in bureaucracy, especially in top postings of Central agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (incumbent director Tapan Deka superseded four colleagues) is moving the wheels swiftly and effectively in a large country with myriad threats, from [issues in] economic security to cyber crimes,” said a Union minister.

Under Shah, the threat of hinterland terrorism has also diminished. The advent of Islamic State, first in Syria and later in Afghanistan, saw many youth with extremist tendencies moving out of the country to fight wars in foreign lands. This caused worry about new threats of fundamentalism and online brainwashing in 2014, but the home ministry and intelligence agencies are better prepared to deal with these today.

However, old threats are being replaced by newer worries of an emerging nexus between organised criminal gangs and trans-national terror syndicates assisted by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The mushrooming of these gangs, especially in north India, is a major security threat as many gang leaders are directing operations within India from foreign shores. To tackle this, Shah has brought in the National Investigation Agency, which has filed several charge sheets against gang leaders in Punjab and elsewhere.

Even his political detractors say that when it comes to matters of national security, the home minister is ready to extend all help to opposition-ruled states. A key example is when alleged extremist Amritpal Singh, on the run, was caught in Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Punjab. The Central security establishment under Shah swung into action to keep the troublemaker out of Punjab. Singh was whisked off to BJP-ruled Assam to cool his heels in a Central jail there.

The threat is yet to be crushed fully as gangsters are hiding on foreign soil. But Shah is confident the new criminal laws have the answer. “For the first time, we have brought in a provision of trial in absentia, which is a revolutionary step,” he said. “It is one thing to be seen as an accused, but another to be seen as a convict by the world.”

In the Naxal-affected states of Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, security forces are slowly clawing back into territories once considered red zones. The home ministry has reported a 72 per cent drop in fatalities among security forces in the past nine years.

Shah’s handling of annual home ministry meetings is another example of security getting prominence over political differences. The attendees say that chief ministers and police officers of insurgency- and Naxal-affected states are given more importance even if they come from opposition-ruled states. The trend before 2014, said a chief minister, was to treat these people as pariahs by making them sit in separate rooms. Chief ministers and police chiefs of better-performing states had a relaxing time while tougher states slogged. Now, both Modi and Shah sit with the police of all states for two days, every year, to thrash out key action points that are followed until implementation. “In fact, the farther we come from, the closer the audience with the home minister,” said a senior police officer from the northeast. The result—more than nine peace accords and surrenders of more than 9,000 militants in the northeast.

Manipur, however, has become a trouble spot and the government is relying on Shah to pull off a strategy to stop the ethnic violence and save the BJP government of Biren Singh from long-term damage.

The dangers to national security are as vast as the size of the world’s largest democracy. But, on the home stretch of his first term as Union minister, Shah looks to be in complete command as the prime minister’s most trusted lieutenant.