New Delhi: When India got Independence in 1947, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), tucked in a right corner of North Block on Raisina Hill, was supposed to be de facto No. 2 in the government. But after the death of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on 15 December 1950, the ministry lost its sheen in the corridors of power, till it was revived almost 50 years later when L.K. Advani entered North Block in March 1998. With the arrival of Amit Shah, the MHA is again on the cusp of regaining its pre-eminent position in the government.

“Shah has the complete trust of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I believe he will continue to be the principal driver of the party and he would become increasingly more important in the government. We have already seen that in a meeting this week where he took a pivotal position sitting with other ministers and discussing something which is actually outside the domain of the Home Minister. He is being groomed for a bigger responsibility some time in future,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based political commentator and Modi biographer. He believes Shah will be in a better position than any other Home Ministers in the past to deal with the Kashmir issue.

Interestingly, the day Shah took charge of the MHA, flags of Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) were unfurled outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. The episode unwittingly reminded the new Home Minister that Kashmir still remained a flashpoint and would be on the top of his government’s agenda.

Mukhopadhyay believes the Modi government failed in the past five years to have any “credible political policy” on Jammu & Kashmir. “The emphasis had been basically security-driven, whereas the target was political. They (security forces) achieved success in eliminating top terrorists, but unless it was politically-driven, it couldn’t ensure there were no easy replacements for them,” he emphasises.

“Our forces have killed a record number of terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir this year, but that has not broken the back of terrorism in the state. What’s more disconcerting is the rise of home-grown terrorism in the Valley,” says an MHA official as he recollects how in the first five months of 2019, as many as 101 terrorists have been killed by the armed forces in the valley. “Yet, for every Burhan Wani removed from the jihadi scene, two faces inadvertently emerge to replace him. Shah will have to break this cycle of terror and violence if he has to turn things around in Jammu & Kashmir,” he adds.

A recent PTI report quoting a senior Army official too paints a grim picture when it says that as many as 191 Kashmiri youths joined terrorist outfits last year, as against 126 in 2017. Incidentally, the numbers for the years 2016, 2015 and 2014 were 88, 66 and 53 respectively.

Shah, too, understands that Kashmir will test his mettle. No wonder, during an internal security meeting on Monday, he sought a briefing on the situation in the valley during Ramzan. The high-level meeting was attended by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Intelligence Bureau Director Rajiv Jain and Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba.

With Shah at Home, Mukhopadhyay believes, “we are going to see a very political MHA”. Kashmir watchers, too, think that the Modi government would up its ante in the valley. “The days of conciliations and rapprochements seem over now. Things like the Ramzan ceasefire, which was initiated with much fanfare last year, won’t find many buyers in North Block,” says a former MHA functionary who had also worked in Jammu & Kashmir. He reminds this newspaper how in comparison to this year, there had been six times more grenade attacks in the valley during the Ramzan ceasefire in 2018.

Apart from the immediate security threats in the valley and the preparations for the impending Assembly elections in the state, Shah faces an ultimate ideological challenge: Of abrogating Article 35A and Article 370, the two Articles that impart special status to Jammu & Kashmir and its people. “Though the BJP may want to do it, it wouldn’t be an easy task given the fact that the international community, while respecting the mandate, is keeping a hawk’s eye on the fears it has generated, especially among minorities. They would want the government to tread the line very cautiously,” says Mukhopadhyay.

Those who know Shah intimately, disagree. “The ‘Lutyens Consensus’ may project him as a hard-nosed politician who just knows how to win an election, but the fact is he is an extremely well-read and ideologically-rooted politician. It doesn’t matter to him what others are saying. If he is convinced about the efficacy of his idea, he will do it,” says an RSS functionary and adds that one can find shades of Chanakya and Savarkar in Shah’s thinking and style of functioning. The portraits of the two giants can be seen hanging in the sitting room of his Delhi residence.

Anirban Ganguly, director of a top BJP think tank in Delhi and author of Amit Shah and the March of the BJP, while mentioning Shah’s insatiable “passion for reading and devouring books on history, politics and statecraft, and on the scriptures”, also talks of his administrative acumen and innovation as the Home Minister of Gujarat when he did not just take steps to modernise the police force, but also set up a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory. “It was due to his initiative that a Forensic University, first of its kind in the world, was set up in Gujarat in 2008. A year later, he ordered the setting up of the Raksha Shakti University, the first of its kind in India, to conduct courses and confer degrees in the field of police science and internal security,” he says.

The “Lutyens Consensus” might want people to believe that Shah, the Home Minister of Gujarat, was the sum total of the 2005 Sohrabuddin encounter case, for which he was first put in jail and later banished out of Gujarat. But Ganguly exposes the UPA doublespeak: “During the period of his stewardship of the MHA in the state, 1,200 encounters were recorded nationally and 19 cases occurred in Gujarat. However, because of the Congress party’s obsession with trying to destabilise the BJP in Gujarat, all 19 cases of Gujarat and just one case from the remaining 1,189 cases were selected for inquiry.”

With rich administrative experience in Gujarat and long, awe-inspiring tours across the country, Shah seems well placed to crack the big Kashmir puzzle, something which his illustrious predecessors in the ministry, Patel and Advani, couldn’t do, either out of design or destiny.

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