‘He likes scaring people’: how Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, runs India

‘He likes scaring people’: how Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, runs India

Late one night in November 2005, a small group of plain-clothed police officers pulled over a bus in western India. They escorted off a man named Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who was joined on the side of the road by his wife, Kausar. Sheikh and Kausar were put into separate police cars and driven 600 miles away, across state lines, into Gujarat. They would never see each other again.

Sheikh had not been charged with anything. The Gujarat police did not have any legal grounds to detain him, let alone his wife. Upon reaching Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s most populous city, Sheikh and Kausar were not taken to a police station. They were instead detained in separate bungalows in a residential neighbourhood. Two days later, on 26 November, Sheikh was driven to a highway intersection in south Ahmedabad and shot dead. Police claimed that Sheikh was a member of an Islamist terrorist group and had been shot while trying to escape. Four days after Sheikh’s death, on 29 November, Kausar was killed. Policemen allegedly poisoned her, then carried her body to the Narmada River, where they burned it and dumped the remains in the water.

According to records later obtained by central government investigators, the officers allegedly involved made several phone calls around the time of each killing. On the other end of the line, each time, was a senior Gujarati politician who ran the state’s home ministry, which put him in charge of the police. His name was Amit Shah.

These details emerged in 2010, when the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s equivalent of the FBI, was investigating the killings. The CBI charged Shah with kidnapping, extortion and murder. It alleged that the officers who killed Sheikh and his wife were working on Shah’s orders. (The CBI also confirmed that Sheikh was a gangster who had collaborated with Gujarat police for several years. He had, it seemed, outlived his usefulness.)

The CBI found that Shah had exchanged five calls with the superintendent officer at the scene on the day of the abduction. Over the next few days, they spoke regularly. On the day Sheikh was killed, Shah spoke to the officer five times. The next call they exchanged was on the day of Kausar’s killing. (Shah did not deny making these calls, but later stated that they concerned another case.)

When a warrant was issued against Shah, in July 2010, he eluded arrest for four days, before surfacing in a press conference to deny any wrongdoing. He told the press that he was the victim of a political witch-hunt, orchestrated by the central government, which was then run by the Indian National Congress party, the main opposition to Shah’s own party, the BJP. “The chargesheet had already been made at the behest of the Congress. It is fabricated and had nothing to do with my summons,” Shah said. “I am not afraid of anyone. We will fight the legal battle, and expose those who have tried to wrong us in court.” Shah spent three months in jail and was then released on bail. To prevent any attempts to influence witnesses or judges, it was a condition of Shah’s bail that he stay out of Gujarat until the end of the trial.

Banished from his own state, journalists informally referred to Shah as tadipaar, the fugitive. Witness transcripts recorded by the CBI, which included claims that Shah had been running an extortion racket through the state police, were published in national newspapers. But four years later, in December 2014, all the charges against him were dropped. Echoing Shah’s defence, the judge stated that the whole case against him had been “politically motivated”. After years of work on the case, the CBI didn’t challenge the court’s decision.

Earlier that year, national elections had taken place and the agency was reporting to a new government in Delhi, headed by the former chief minister of Gujarat, at whose elbow Shah has spent his entire adult life: Narendra Modi. Shah and Modi first met as lowly foot soldiers of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, in the 1980s. Over the past 40 years, they have made a great journey, together, from the foothills of Indian politics to its very peak. During this time, Shah has played the roles of Modi’s confidant, consigliere, enforcer. It is impossible to chart the course of one’s life without the other.

Today, Amit Shah isn’t home minister for Gujarat, but all of India. From the heart of power in Delhi, he is in charge of domestic policy, commands the capital city’s police force, and oversees the Indian state’s intelligence apparatus. He is, simply put, the second-most powerful man in the country. With the BJP poised to win the current general election, he is all but certain to remain so for at least the next five years. For Modi, he is what Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were for George W Bush – the muscle as well as the brain – rolled into one. Over the past decade, he has been the key architect in remaking India according to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology.

A defining feature of life in India today is the suffocating atmosphere of menace and threat to critics of the government. Shah is the face and embodiment of this fear, which lurks everywhere, from the newsrooms to the courtrooms, and which inspires a sense of alarm that is bigger than the sum of the facts and anecdotes that can be amassed to illustrate it. Suspended in the margins between what is known and what can be said, no individual story is more illustrative of contemporary India than that of Amit Shah.

Amit Shah takes care of the details. He has the vast apparatus of the state at his disposal; an army of party workers await his orders amid the constant cycle of local, regional and national elections; he is a shrewd operator, always ready to weaken the opposition by forging new alliances and luring candidates away from other parties; he keeps tabs on the gossip. Last year, a corporate lobbyist in Delhi told me a story: a cabinet minister in the Modi government had pocketed a small part of the donation a businessman had made to the party, thinking no one would find out, only to get a call from Shah, who had run into the businessman at the Delhi airport and tallied the figure. Shah apparently told the minister to deposit the rest of the amount in the party fund. I could never confirm this story, but whatever its truth, it captures how Indians view the home minister. “Shah has something like the Eye of Sauron – he sees all,” said the lobbyist, laughing at the hapless minister.

One of Shah’s key roles is to be the prime minister’s shield. Modi has attended only one press conference in India since he became prime minister a decade ago. In the summer of 2019, at the new party headquarters in Delhi, he sat with half a dozen leaders of the BJP. Right next to him was Shah, then the BJP president, who answered every question on his behalf. When one journalist specifically directed a question at Modi – about a BJP leader’s remarks in praise of the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi – Modi deflected by pointing towards Shah. “We are just disciplined soldiers,” he joked. “For us the party president is everything.” Shah batted away the questions for about half an hour in his usual hectoring way. He blamed opposition leaders, feigned offence at criticism, and instructed the reporters to check their facts. The message was clear: Modi didn’t have to bother with pesky journalists; Shah took care of each.

BJP supporters wearing masks of Modi and Shah in Ahmedabad in 2019. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

In TV interviews, Shah sits impatiently and speaks in a terse, streetwise tone, seemingly checking off bullet points prepared in advance. The news anchors thank him for “gracing” their stage and avoid interrupting his monologues. In these managed interactions, Shah appears in command. Partly owing to his days in Gujarat and partly owing to the Indian government’s widely documented use of Israeli spyware to target journalists, activists and critics, the image of Shah in the public imagination is that of a man who holds everyone’s secrets. “Modi has a certain charm, which is perhaps the most dangerous thing about him,” the Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy told me. “Amit Shah is a single-string instrument: the only note he can strike is fear.”

Shah maintains a personal website, which includes a page called the Lighter Side, featuring political cartoons that depict him. In one of these, the finance ministry’s investigative agency is represented as a dog unleashed by Shah, chasing a leader of the opposition. (The finance minister is not in the picture.) “He likes scaring people,” a lawyer in Gujarat, who has known Shah for years, told me. “He likes the image that he has.”

Many of the people I contacted for this story spoke to me on the condition of anonymity or refused to speak altogether. Retired supreme court judges, former central government ministers and even political journalists told me they had nothing to say about the home minister. One former home minister told me, improbably, that he has no opinion about the home ministry any more. A few who agreed to talk were unwilling to do so by phone. One of the country’s top lawyers laughed at my suggestion of doing an interview over Zoom. When he was done laughing, he said: “No.”

Shah himself initially agreed to meet me, I was told by a BJP spokesperson, but then changed his mind without any explanation, and the spokesperson stopped responding. This month, when I sent him a detailed list of questions, the spokesperson said that it would be impossible to find time to comment before the end of India’s elections in June.

“One really has to think about how to talk about Amit Shah,” Roy had said when I first called her. “The things worth saying cannot really be said, or published.” A few weeks later, halfway through a meeting with a senior member of Shah’s own party, I heard the same thing again: “There are things about Amit Shah that cannot be said.”

A “gruff man” is how Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International in India, remembered Shah, having briefly met him two decades ago in Gujarat. Already, there was a brashness about him. A man of considerable girth and lazy posture, Shah dressed in ill-fitting kurtas. He had a bald dome, round face, unruly beard and canny eyes. Now, at the age of 59, the beard is trimmed, the kurtas are tailored and accented with Burberry scarves, and the eyes have settled behind rimless glasses into a fixed, unsettling gaze.

It was in the flames of the 2002 Gujarat riots that the current era of Indian history was inaugurated. Over the course of three days in Ahmedabad, hundreds of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs. Police did little to stop the violence, even as Muslim women were raped and then burned alive. Women’s pregnant bellies were knifed, and Muslim children’s heads were smashed open with rocks. A recently disclosed 2004 inquiry by the UK government held Modi “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that made this carnage possible. He was banned from entering the US or the UK for almost a decade. Modi has always denied any responsibility for the violence. Yet in a recent speech in Gujarat, Shah, his closest political ally, proudly told the crowd: “Modisaheb taught them [India’s Muslims] a lesson, and no one has rioted since.”

The 2002 riots in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Photograph: Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/Getty Images

In 2002, immediately after the mob violence, Modi went on a “pride march” around the state, blowing dog whistles with a smile and a wink. Shah was Modi’s point-man for that campaign, which rallied the Hindu electorate and paved the way to Modi’s first ever electoral victory in 2002. (Modi was originally appointed, not elected, to the chief minister role.) Shah, by then a member of the Gujarat assembly, was soon named Gujarat’s state minister for home affairs.

Even after that victory, questions about Modi’s role in the riots did not go away. Numerous credible sources accused him of having deliberately allowed, or even encouraged, the violence. Among the most significant sources was another BJP leader, Haren Pandya, a former cabinet colleague of Modi and his political rival in the party, who repeated these allegations to the press and in sworn testimony. In March 2003, Pandya was found in his car with five bullets in his body. The case remains unsolved, but Pandya’s story has come to be seen in allegorical terms. Last year, a senior leader of the BJP wrote on X that he was worried that Modi and Shah might “do a Haren Pandya on me”.

Subramanian Swamy, the maverick BJP leader who posted that tweet, belongs to a generation of Hindu nationalists that has been shelved by Modi and Shah. Swamy told me that he meant to say Shah might kick him out of the party, “as he did with Haren Pandya”. This was because, Swamy explained, Modi and Shah are deeply insecure people who want to limit the influence of leaders who have their own electoral base and political stature. “It has become a one-man show,” Swamy said. In Swamy’s view, Shah is the stage manager of this show. “Amit Shah helps Modi run the party like a machine, much like in the Soviet Union,” Swamy said.

In Gujarat, before his arrest and banishment in 2010, Shah effectively ran the state for Modi; he held 12 different portfolios in the state cabinet, and his influence on the state machinery outweighed all those titles. In 2012, he was allowed to return when the supreme court transferred the criminal case against him, relating to the death of Sheikh and his wife, from Gujarat to Mumbai, 500km away. It also instructed the lower court to ensure the case was seen through from beginning to end by a single judge. Yet after Modi became the prime minister, in 2014, the first judge who was hearing the Sheikh case was transferred out, shortly after having asked Shah to appear in court. Six months later, in December, the second judge, Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, unexpectedly died of a heart attack – the facts surrounding his death have been disputed – while attending a wedding. The third judge to be appointed to the case dismissed the charges against Shah within three weeks of taking charge.

In 2014, Modi made Shah the president of the BJP. At the time, Shah was still charged with murder, but the party lined up behind him obediently. He repaid their faith. Over the next five years, the party’s membership, which stood at 35 million when Shah took over as president, grew almost sixfold to 180 million. In 2018, thanks to Shah, the party was governing 21 out of India’s 28 states.

No one disputes that Shah is an extremely effective political organiser. Those who have worked with him say he is an obsessive micromanager. He has focused the BJP’s army of party members around the local polling booth, the smallest unit in the vast enterprise that is every Indian election. There are about a million polling stations in India. For each of these where the BJP is running, a small team of organisers identify potential BJP voters and make sure they come out to vote. These organisers report to their supervisor, who reports to a regional supervisor, who in turn reports to Shah, who hones the party’s strategy accordingly. “He is a tireless organiser of the party cadre,” a journalist in Delhi told me. “He is at the party headquarters very late into nights, making sure everyone is working, making sure everyone is fed, his phone is constantly ringing, he is getting updates from all over, laughing, making jokes, gesticulating.”

Shah’s power is equally undisputed. During Modi’s first term, Shah, as president of the BJP, was not technically part of the government. But the corporate lobbyist in Delhi told me that he had seen “cabinet ministers jump out of their chairs when a call came from him”. Rajiv Shah, a journalist who reported on the early years of Modi and Shah, explained the order of rule in Gujarat, which is a neat reflection of the way Delhi runs today. “No 1 is Modi, and because he is Modi, he has to be all the numbers from one to 10,” he said. “Then 11 to 30 is Amit Shah, and then there are a bunch of people who are told what to do.”

Unlike Modi, who relishes mythologising his life, Shah has cultivated an aura of total opacity, which makes it hard to establish even the most mundane details of his biography. So little is known about him that opposition leaders have publicly asked if he is even a Hindu. When I put that question to a Gujarati reporter, who has covered the state for over two decades, including all of Shah’s time there, he assured me: “He is a kattar Hindu.” The Hindi word, which literally means “staunch”, also suggests a violent fundamentalism.

Here are the bare facts. Shah was born in 1964 to a financially prosperous, upper-caste Gujarati family. His great-grandfather was the nagarseth – a phenomenally rich adviser to the ruling king – in the small princely state of Mansa, an hour’s drive from Ahmedabad. His childhood was spent in a haveli, the family mansion. His father was the president of the Ahmedabad stock exchange, and the family business was in manufacturing pipes out of thermoplastic materials. Shah’s could easily have been a life of dealing stocks or goods, running a business operation of some sort. (Last month, he disclosed to the Election Commission that his stock holdings in 180 companies are worth more than $2m.)

In 2016, Shah told the journalist Patrick French that he was “not keen on formal studies” and spent his time as an adolescent at the local shakha (school) of the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organisation whose political wing is the BJP. When Shah was a teenager, his family moved to Ahmedabad, then Gujarat’s capital. There, he met Modi, who was twice his age. “I was 16 or 17 years old at that time,” he told French. “Modi was in charge of three RSS districts in Gujarat, including the city of Ahmedabad. He had trained thousands of workers.” When asked to say more, Shah wrapped the subject up: “I am not going to speak about my personal relationship with Narendrabhai.”

‘Modi maintained a clean public image because he delegated all the dirty work to Shah.’ Photograph: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Shah may have attended a shakha. There are many people in India today who claim to have attended RSS schools in their childhood – to have basked in the atmosphere of Hindu supremacism is now a source of politically expedient pride. But local reporters in Gujarat recall nothing of this sort from Shah’s early years. There are no pictures of him in the distinctive uniform of the RSS, white shirt and khaki shorts. The RSS forces celibacy on its members, but Shah is a family man: he got married in 1987 and has a son, Jay Shah, who as head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, has been described as “the most powerful single person in any sport anywhere in the world”.

Dhirendra Jha, a Delhi-based journalist who has authored several books about the RSS, told me he believes Shah retrofitted his life story to make himself palatable to the lifelong devotees of the organisation. Shah’s account of his early years is inconsistent. In a book published in 2022 to celebrate Modi’s 20 years in power – 12 in Gujarat and eight in Delhi – Shah claimed to have met Modi in 1987, when he would have been 23, not 17. Even there, he says nothing more about it. The relationship between Modi and Shah, among the most consequential in the history of Indian politics, is clouded in obfuscations and secrecy from the very beginning. Even where there doesn’t seem to be anything worth hiding, there is an insistence on saying nothing. Silence is the only credo.

While in a private college studying biochemistry, in the early 1980s, Shah was already doing work for the family business. His friends included other businessmen such as Gautam Adani, now India’s richest man. A hanger-on with deep pockets, sealed lips and connections in the Gujarati business community, Shah was useful to Modi. As he climbed the ladder in the BJP, Modi took Shah along. “Modi successfully maintained a clean public image,” a Gujarati politician told a Hindustan Times reporter in 2010, “because he delegated all the dirty work to Shah, who executed it with ruthlessness.”

Look at the story of Hindu nationalism in modern India, and you start to notice Amit Shah’s fingerprints everywhere. In the late 1980s, the BJP was rallying around the issue of building a temple at the supposed birthplace of Ram, a Hindu deity, which they claimed was at the site of an old mosque in the town of Ayodhya. In support of this cause, LK Advani, then the president of the BJP, went on a two-month journey across central India, making inflammatory speeches wherever he stopped. He rode a Toyota pickup truck outfitted with Hindu iconography to make it look like a Vedic chariot. In the 80-day period covering the journey and its aftermath, the Indian historian KM Panikkar noted, Advani’s political theatre incited 116 riots between Hindus and Muslims across 14 states, in which 564 people died.

Shah claims to have managed the “campaign to mobilise masses” during Advani’s journey, which culminated two years later, when RSS men demolished the mosque in Ayodhya, sparking a wave of riots throughout the country. In 1991, when Advani contested his seat in the national election from a constituency in Gujarat, Shah was his campaign organiser. In a grainy picture from this time, surrounded by a roomful of people, Advani is seen signing his election nomination sitting next to Modi; Shah is the bearded figure at the edge of the frame, drenched in sweat, leaning over with his fist on the table.

In the second half of the 20th century, Gujarat, today a Hindu nationalist heartland, slowly turned into a communal tinderbox. There were large-scale riots targeting the Muslim community in 1969 and 1985. Shah grew up in this era. By the 1990s, the Gujarati historian Achyut Yagnik has noted, it was common for even women and children to be targeted during mob violence.

These trends reached their apogee in the violence of 2002. Rajiv Shah, the Gujarati journalist, has lived for decades in the Ahmedabad neighbourhood of Sarkhej, Amit Shah’s old constituency in the state parliament. When I met him at his apartment last year, he remembered running into Shah as a young reporter. “When the tensions were still running high, I caught Amit Shah coming out of Modi’s office,” he told me. “I said to him that there is a lot of uneasiness and tension in the community. I asked him if he is thinking about bringing the leaders of the Hindu and the Muslim community together and appeal for peace.” Amit Shah, in Rajiv’s telling, smiled and asked where he lived. In Sarkhej, Hindu and Muslims were segregated. Upon hearing Rajiv’s street address, Shah told him not to worry. Nothing would happen on his side of the neighbourhood, Shah said. It would be on the other side.

The riots left more than 1,000 dead, but the after­math would leave a further trail of bodies in its wake. The death of Haren Pandya was seen to be a warning shot. (Pandya’s wife has since publicly accused of Modi of involvement in Pandya’s death, which she described as a “political murder”.) In 2005, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife were killed. Years later, during the trial of Sheikh’s alleged killers – by that point, the charges against Shah had been dropped – a witness testified that Sheikh had himself been involved in Pandya’s assassination, and had allegedly been acting on the instructions of a senior police officer. In 2006, Tulsiram Prajapati, an associate of Sheikh who was on the bus the night that Sheikh and his wife were picked up by the police, was shot dead in police custody. He was the last witness to the police abduction of Sheikh, and had allegedly also been involved in Pandya’s killing. Two years after being indicted in Sheikh’s case, in 2012, Shah was again charged with being “the kingpin of the conspiracy” to carry out the extrajudicial killing of Prajapati. Two years later, BH Loya, the judge presiding over Shah’s case, was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

The precise circumstances around these deaths are murky, yet it is at least within the bounds of possibility that they are all linked to the riots of 2002. Pandya was speaking publicly about Modi’s allegedly deliberate inaction during the mob violence; Sheikh and Prajapati were alleged to have been involved in silencing Pandya; Sheikh’s wife was allegedly killed because she was a witness to Sheikh’s abduction by the police; and Loya was presiding in the court that was to hear the cases involving these killings. It is worth noting that too many details are missing to say anything with certainty, but the government’s consistent obstruction of transparency and oversight in these cases has allowed suspicions to persist.

Around the time of his 2010 arrest, other allegations were swirling around Shah and his cronies. There are tapes of his deputies talking about how to sabotage a supreme court-ordered investigation into extrajudicial killings in Modi’s Gujarat. (These were recorded by a government official and leaked to the media.) There are leaked tapes of Shah himself allegedly ordering an officer to put illegal surveillance on a young woman in 2009. (The BJP acknowledged that the woman had been surveilled, but claimed that it had been done at her father’s request, so it was not a violation of her rights.) The body of evidence against Shah was convincing enough for a national magazine to put him on the cover in 2012, behind a headline that asked: “Why is this man still free?”

Twelve years later, it is unimaginable that the Indian press would publish such a headline about a senior BJP politician. “They have been able to get away from their past,” said Amnesty International’s Aakar Patel – he was speaking of Modi and Shah together, as people in India often do – “and the media and the judiciary have helped them do it.”

India has never seen a crackdown on media freedom like the one Modi and Shah have engineered. Unlike the suspension of press freedoms during Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in 1975-77, this crackdown has been achieved through quiet coercion and precise threats. A striking indication of the media’s timidity in the Modi-Shah era came in 2017, when the Caravan, the magazine where I then worked, published the explosive testimonies of the family of Loya, the second judge to preside over Shah’s trial. The family alleged the judge’s dead body was not handed over to them directly; they pointed out that while the judge supposedly died of a heart attack, his clothes were covered in blood; they claimed that before Loya’s death, senior judges had been pressuring him to discharge Shah, dangling the promise of enormous bribes.

At first, no news channel or newspaper picked up the story. Finally, a week later, the Indian Express published an article in which two judges of Bombay high court dismissed the claims made by the family. A relatively minor detail in the family’s allegations was that the hospital where the judge was taken for urgent care was “an obscure place”, where even the electrocardiography unit was not working. On its front page the Express published an ECG report supposedly conducted just before the judge’s death – apparent proof that the family was lying. Yet, as social media users quickly pointed out, the date on the image did not match the date of Loya’s death. The newspaper issued a correction on this detail, but nevertheless stood by the story, without any further explanation or reporting. Later, when Shah was asked at a public event about Loya’s death, he gamely responded by saying that people should read the Indian Express, instead of the Caravan.

Shah was reaping the rewards of what he had sown. During the first term of the Modi government, it was he who rang up media owners when their coverage of the government veered out of line. Media owners in India are almost entirely businessmen with other, more lucrative businesses to take care of, for which they depend upon the government. Journalistic principles are generally reserved for ceremonial addresses at media soirees, not the newsroom. While the television news hyped and hailed everything that Modi did, newspaper editors who offended Modi and Shah were shown the door.

No better guardians of constitutional protocols were to be found in the supreme court of India. In 2018, several petitioners appealed to the supreme court to order an investigation into the death of Loya. The court refused. The judgment was written by the current chief justice of India, DY Chandrachud. “Utterly wrong and jurisprudentially incorrect,” was how one retired judge of the Delhi high court described it.

Chandrachud, a graduate of Harvard Law School who recently received an Award for Global Leadership from that same institution, had relied on the written statements of four judges who were with Loya the night of his death. They all said that nothing suspicious had taken place, but there were internal contradictions in their own accounts. The contradictions were never cleared up, because these judges never spoke to the media, and never sat through a cross examination of their statements in court. Their written statements were not even recorded on an affidavit, which means they were not made under oath. This was a serious procedural lapse, but Chandrachud felt, he wrote in the judgment, that these statements had “a ring of truth”. In response, one of India’s leading jurists wrote a scathing assessment on his blog. “Nobody can come to a definitive conclusion,” about whether or not the judges were telling the truth, “without going through the processes that the legal system expressly envisages for exactly this purpose.”

When I put to Tushar Mehta, India’s solicitor general and a friend of Shah’s from his Gujarat days, the claim that the supreme court has failed to protect constitutional principles in recent years, he responded via email that such a view was “shocking”. He wrote: “The Indian legal system and the supreme court of India have been upholding the constitutional principles much better than its counterparts in other parts of the world and the grievances of millions of citizens always reach the supreme court and are redressed by the supreme court exceptionally well.”

Being a reporter in India is to frequently come upon the limits of what can be known. Over the past decade, when I was working in Delhi and covering the judiciary, I had several off-the-record meetings with supreme court judges. At first, I thought they wanted to reveal information the public needed to know. But these meetings often veered into three-hour conversations, sometimes spread over dinner. Stepping out of a bungalow in central Delhi late one night, it dawned on me that I was being invited because these judges thought I knew more than them. Beat reporters assured me that that is often why they are called to visit, but I found it deeply unsettling that the judges of the supreme court themselves had no clear understanding of what was going on in the supreme court. It was in moments like that I realised that the entire institution was floating in the air, anyone’s for the taking.

A scarf worn by a BJP supporter showing photographs of Modi and Shah. Photograph: Ajit Solanki/AP

In the course of reporting the story you are reading, I had another of these absurd encounters. I went to see a judge to ask whether Modi’s government influences the judiciary, and if so, how. The judge suggested I read a profile of Mehta, the solicitor general, published in the Caravan. When I told the judge that I had written that story, he did not believe me. He pulled out his phone, checked the byline, looked at me, and said: “Then you should be telling me how it happens!”

But I do not know myself. You can understand the long history of corruption in the Indian judiciary, the remarkable frequency with which judges who rule in favour of the government seem to land cushy post-retirement jobs. But who calls whom, whether a carrot is dangled or a stick, whether people are driven by fear or greed or ideology or all of the above: these are things that remain in the dark, known only to the protagonists, who never talk.

Such questions do not just surround the case of, say, the death of a judge in 2014. They sit there blankly unanswered about the outcome of the Bhopal disaster of 1984, in which an explosion at a Union Carbide factory exposed 500,000 Indians to the toxic gas methyl isocyanate, for which the judges let the company off with a comparatively small fine; about the culpability of the Congress leadership in the anti-Sikh mob violence that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and left more than 3,000 dead; about the role of Modi in the 2002 riots that left more than 1,000 dead; and on, and on, right up to the present day.

If institutional frailty is nothing new in India, what distinguishes Modi from those who preceded him is his ruthlessness in imposing his will on this rickety system, and using it to his own end. It happened in Gujarat; now it is happening in Delhi. For more than two decades, Modi has been the face of this manipulation of state power, and all this time, behind the scenes, pulling the levers for his master, has been Shah.

Since the start of Modi’s second term in 2019, human rights organisations, thinktanks and international media outlets have begun to worry about India like never before. In many ways, the object of concern, each time, is Amit Shah: he has been the one engineering the events that make for the foreboding headlines. In August 2019, two months after taking oath as the home minister, Shah got up from his seat in parliament to realise a long-festering part of the RSS’s agenda. He announced that the government would be amending the Indian constitution to revoke the special protections given to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

No other minister in Modi’s cabinet knew about the move until that morning. The plan was worked over for months in total secrecy by Shah and the national security adviser, with only Modi kept in the loop. Two hours before the public announcement, the rest of the cabinet, including the minister of foreign affairs, was “informed”, a report noted in the Economic Times, India’s highest-circulation financial daily, and “asked not to speak to the media till Shah’s address”. Within hours, all of them would be lining up before cameras to praise Shah’s move.

Foreign journalists were immediately denied entry into the region. The entire population of Kashmir, about 4 million people, was put under lockdown, with all their communication lines cut. A severe curfew was imposed by Indian troops. There were about half a million security personnel already stationed in the region, before Shah flew in tens of thousands more. For months, Kashmiris had no access to hospitals or the internet, but they could watch the news on the television, where they were likely to find Shah, telling them, to the nodding agreement of a news anchor, how perfectly normal everything was in Kashmir.

Before anyone could appreciate the consequences of this brutal social experiment, Shah was already on to his next project. In October 2019, he pitched the idea of putting all 1.3 billion Indians through a citizenship test, in making a national register of citizens. To make clear the exclusionary purpose of his scheme, he floated the idea of a national register in conjunction with a new citizenship law, which would grant refugee status to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians coming to India from neighbouring countries. Muslims were to be pointedly excluded. Earlier that year, during an election campaign, Shah had referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as “termites” whom the BJP would throw “one by one” into the Bay of Bengal.

In December, when Muslim students protested against this RSS-ification of India’s citizenship laws, the Delhi police, now under Shah’s command, stormed their university. They attacked the students and made them march out of campus with their hands behind their head. In the following weeks, protests spread all over the country. In Delhi, thousands of Muslim women occupied roads to get the state’s attention. Leaders of the BJP incited Hindu mobs to thrash them away. The mob, unimpeded by the police, ran riot in the national capital for three days. Dark plumes of smoke rose over Muslim neighbourhoods while Donald Trump was on a presidential visit in the city, drinking tea with Modi 10 miles away.

“When you make a man like [Shah] the president, it sends out a big clear message to the entire cadre of the party. It pushes the limits of what is acceptable, or expected of them,” a former BJP minister told me. Today, mid-level party leaders seem locked in competition to outdo each other’s loutishness, in the hope of being noticed by the high command. In 2018, a junior minister publicly garlanded the people convicted of lynching a Muslim; in 2020, a cabinet minister at a BJP rally in Delhi called out the slogan “Shoot the bastards” in reference to Modi’s critics; in 2022, a BJP legislator in Delhi openly called for a boycott of Muslim businesses in the city; a few months ago, an aide of a BJP leader was recorded urinating on the face of a tribal man. At the very top of this heap are Modi and Shah, personifying the ideals of impunity to which everyone aspires.

Modi will secure his third term in June. Though India remains an electoral democracy, if only occasionally a constitutional one, the process of holding fair elections has itself been deeply corrupted. Shah’s well-rehearsed tactics of political extortion – unleashing government agencies on citizens and companies – have found their clearest expression in a scheme that has earned the BJP about $1bn in “donations”.

In 2017, the government passed a bill to introduce a new form of political funding, known as electoral bonds. These were promissory notes that can be bought by individuals and corporations from the national bank, and given to a political party without disclosing the identity of the donor to the public. In February 2024 – after seven years, one national election and more than a dozen state elections – the supreme court struck down the scheme as unconstitutional.

By then, it was already known that almost half the total amount issued in these bonds went solely to the BJP, but when the court asked the national bank to disclose the identity of the donors, an even more striking pattern emerged. Almost half of the 30 top donors to the BJP had made enormous political donations shortly after they had been raided by the government’s investigative agencies. Some of the bonds were bought by individuals and corporations in the very same week that they were raided by the income tax authorities or the enforcement directorate – those attack dogs that Shah displays himself unleashing on his website. The timing of the donations raised troubling questions, to say the least. On the day the details of the donations were released, a picture of an old headline from 2011 did the rounds on X: “Amit Shah headed extortion gang”.

In March 2024, during an interview at the annual gala of India Today Group, a media conglomerate that owns several influential magazines and news channels, Shah deigned to address the issue. In response to a polite inquiry from a news anchor, he gave an eight-minute speech, occasionally punctuated by audience applause, in which he listed out the amounts received by other parties through electoral bonds (though the BJP received more money than everyone else), and claimed that the electoral bonds actually brought transparency to political funding (even though the solicitor general repeatedly opposed making the details of the transactions public, and it took seven years for this “transparency” to arrive).

The interviewer did not press Shah for specific answers. That would have been risky. Shah might have been displeased; he might have been less inclined to attend the India Today Conclave 2025. Or worse, the owners of the India Today group might have been visited by a tax official the next morning. Instead, the public got something that looked like an interview, and everyone involved got to keep their job. With Shah, the undesirable consequences are always at the edge of the view, informing your thinking. Everyone holds an idea of him, of what he might be willing to do, and no one can be sure if there is anything that he won’t.

Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center

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