Tavleen Singh’s New Book Suggests Amit Shah Harmed Modi’s Image
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.(Photo: The Quint)

Tavleen Singh’s New Book Suggests Amit Shah Harmed Modi’s Image

Columnist Tavleen Singh’s new book Messiah Modi? is out on the stands. As per the author, this is a “reporter’s book” that assess the six years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi led BJP government’s rule. While publishing the following sample after obtaining due permissions, The Quint has inserted subheadings to help readers with understanding the context. The excerpts encapsulate Tavleen Singh’s assessment of Home Minister Amit Shah when he was the party president.

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Modi’s Distance from Media Exacerbated by Shah?

If Modi made this clear by not meeting journalists and never holding a press conference, Amit Shah made it clear by showing open hostility whenever he met journalists. It had not always been this way. When Modi’s government celebrated its first year in office, Amit Shah, who at the time was president of the BJP, called a group of us for a little dinner party at the Constitution Club. We gathered in a long hall filled with the scent of hot rice and Indian spices and I found myself sitting on Amit Shah’s immediate right. Around the rectangular table sat journalists from print and television. I noticed some who were not exactly on good terms with Modi.

Home Minister Amit Shah.
Home Minister Amit Shah.
(Photo: Reuters)
But the BJP president talked to everyone and answered all questions with an amiable smile on his face. I even managed to have a private chat with him to warn him that the ‘parivartan’ everyone expected was not happening fast enough.

He listened with good grace. I am not sure if these meetings with the press continued but I was never invited to another cosy dinner.

The next time I met Amit Shah was more than a year later at a conference that the India Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, had taken to holding annually in a Goa resort. Shah had by then acquired a forbidding haughtiness but I took my chance to go up to him and ask if I could come and see him in Delhi. He gave me a cold stare before saying curtly, ‘If you want to.’ His words were unwelcoming enough for me to not make an effort to meet him again.

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‘Anti Intellectual’ Modi Sarkaar?

Shah’s demeanour was not just haughty but peculiarly menacing and in the interviews he routinely gave friendly journalists he exhibited a belligerence not usually seen in politicians. He was also unpopular with most people in the media because of rumours that he actually threatened journalists openly if he thought they were not being kind to the Modi government. A colleague who shall remain nameless told me this story. ‘I was sitting with him and heard him call up a minister and tell him off for giving an interview that he had not approved. I heard him say that he had been appointed to work for the government, not to speak out of turn, so could he in future keep his opinions to himself.’

It is hard to know if he did this sort of thing more than once but soon in newspaper offices and TV studios began to spread rumours that if Amit Shah did not like something you may have written or said then you could lose your job.

Around these rumours slowly developed a narrative whose basic message was that Modi hated ‘intellectuals’. The first time I heard this said was at an event organized by the leftist news portal The Wire at Delhi’s India International Centre. Historian Ramachandra Guha was being interviewed by Karan Thapar and I went along for want of anything else to do that evening. The interview was on a stage and was conducted in front of an audience of leftist intellectuals, many of whom had been shining lights in the Durbar that existed before Modi became Prime Minister.

Personal Attacks in Election Campaigns

BJP spokesmen now began to attack Rahul daily, confirming that he was being taken more seriously by the day. The most virulent attacks came from the BJP president, who imitated Modi’s style of speaking and his manner. But no matter how hard he tried to mimic the man who had lifted him out of the obscurity of provincial politics and exalted him as the leader of India’s biggest political party, he never managed to fit the role. He appeared to believe that his only job at his many, many public meetings was to praise Modi and the achievements of his government, so his speeches, when he was not attacking Rahul, consisted mostly of a list of things that he believed Modi had done.

His attempts to speak forcefully made him sound more belligerent than convincing. And because he lacked the kind of charisma Modi had, he never developed the popular appeal that he tried so hard to cultivate.

He tweeted daily about the vast crowds he addressed and thanked the people of whichever state he was visiting for their ‘love and affection’ but on the ground there were hardly any signs of it.

Importance of Being Amit Shah

Within the BJP, even lowly party workers began to snigger about how the day Modi lost power the first man to be thrown out of the party would be its president. When I asked BJP leaders about this they would immediately defend him for being a ‘great booth manager’ and credit him with being around because of this ability to win election after election after election.

When the BJP started to lose elections in 2018 the BJP president should have lost some of his arrogance. The opposite happened. He began to tour the country at a furious pace and address political rally after political rally as if he were Prime Minister himself. His speeches became more belligerent and his attacks on ‘Rahul baba’ and his family more vicious. A line he used most often on these tours was, ‘Oh baba (little boy), you dare to ask Modi for an account of what he has achieved in 48 months when you have given this country no account of what your family has done in 48 years.’

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