India's Modi tightens grip on ruling party, naming close aide as chief

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 09, 2014 6:28 AM

By Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's closest political associate was named the president of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Wednesday as the leader tightened his grip on the party he carried to its biggest election victory this summer.

Amit Shah is a controversial former minister from Modi's home state of Gujarat in western India. He faces three counts of murder and was banned briefly during the election campaign this year for delivering hate speeches.

But the stocky, bearded Shah masterminded the BJP's strongest showing in the battleground state of northern Uttar Pradesh, helping to propel the party to an absolute majority of its own in the parliamentary election.

"The spectacular success that he achieved in Uttar Pradesh has never been done before," the outgoing party chief, Rajnath Singh, told a news conference. "So we decided to give him the national responsibility."

The party's top decision-making parliamentary board unanimously chose Shah as his successor, added Singh, who is now in government as the federal home minister.

As workers at party headquarters celebrated with the beating of drums, Singh and Modi both offered sweets to Shah.

Shah's elevation completes Modi's takeover of the party apparatus and comes ahead of a clutch of elections in states the prime minister is hoping to win back from the opposition, to help him achieve his ambitious economic and political plans.

The BJP now rules just eight of India's 29 states.

In a break from tradition after the crowning of a party chief, neither Modi nor Shah spoke to reporters. Instead, Modi posted a message on Twitter saying Shah had started his journey as a simple party worker and repeatedly proved himself.

But Shah's elevation as head of a major party marked a new low, said Yogendra Yadav, a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has campaigned for a clean-up of Indian politics.

"A sad day," Yadav said in a Twitter message. "Amit Shah's appointment as BJP president further lowers the minimum moral qualification for becoming a national leader."

The son of a well-to-do businessman, Shah was interior minister for seven years in Modi's cabinet in Gujarat before his 2010 arrest on murder charges and subsequent release on bail.

Shah denies charges that he ordered the killing of a man police said was an Islamic militant on a mission to assassinate Modi. The man's wife and a witness were also killed.

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Shah's political rivals accuse him of sowing religious hatred in Uttar Pradesh soon after Modi put him in charge of the populous state. The tactic, they said, was aimed at polarizing Hindu and Muslim voters along religious lines.

Critics say the BJP, which is the political offspring of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has a deep-seated bias against India's 160 million Muslims. The party denies the charge and says it is opposed to the appeasement of any group.

During the national election campaign, Shah was banned by the Election Commission from holding rallies and delivering speeches after it found him guilty of delivering "hate speeches" designed to promote "hatred and ill will" between religions.

The ban was lifted after Shah vowed in writing not to use abusive or derogatory language.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)