People have been saying that Election 2009 is devoid of issues. That is not really true. There is no strong central theme such as the need for a stable government or tougher measures against terrorism. But there are powerful undercurrents — national parties versus the regional and caste formations, criminalisation of politics, issues like Pakistan and Sri Lanka and so on. In the past week, another important issue has come up which, because of the pusillanimity of the Congress party, has remained sub-surface as it were.
The Supreme Court which had set up a Special Investigation Team to look into the nine most heinous post-Godhra cases, has now ordered it to probe the role of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, his cabinet colleagues and senior police and administration officials in the 2002 Muslim pogrom in the state.
Only last week a chorus of voices from the second-rung of the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership articulated what had, till now, been spoken of in whispers — that Narendra Modi would succeed L.K. Advani as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next election. This was as much a verdict on the octogenarian Advani’s ability to reach the highest office in the land in this election, as it was an exercise to cut Rajnath Singh to size.
There have been inquiries on the killings in Godhra and its aftermath, but they have either been by a commission appointed by Modi himself, or through NGOs. That commission, headed by Justice H T Nanavati, has said that it could not find any lapse on the part of the Gujarat government in the riots.
The Supreme Court’s SIT will be able to access records of the police and the government itself and probably give us a better understanding of what happened during those horrific days. Did Modi lose control, or was he cynically manipulating things?
A case could be made that Modi, who took office in October 2001, was not really in full control of the levers of governance when the Godhra massacre of Hindu pilgrims took place in February 2002 and so he was not able to effectively check the violence that led to the massacre of Muslims in several parts of the state.
Whatever may have been the situation then, Modi has since left no one in any doubt about his attitude towards the pogrom. He has refused to acknowledge any guilt and, worse, his government has used every tactic in the book to prevent the prosecution of those guilty of the killings. Take the Best Bakery case. On March 1, 2002 the Best Bakery was attacked and burnt down by a mob. Fourteen people of whom 12 were Muslims died.
According to human rights activists, the police deliberately weakened the case by failing to collect witness statements and other evidence. The key witness, Zaheera Sheikh was subsequently suborned and all 21 accused in the case were acquitted in July 2003 by a fast-track court. When it became clear that the Supreme Court could intervene, the Gujarat government admitted that there had been lapses in the case and sought to file an appeal.
The case was retried outside Gujarat on Supreme Court’s orders, in Mumbai. Zaheera was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment by the court for perjury and in February 2006, nine out of the 21 people were convicted of murder and given life sentences.
More germane, perhaps, is the case of Maya Kodnani, a gynaecologist and Sangh Parivar activist whose name came up as one of the accused in the Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gam massacres. The Gujarat police did question her, but said there was no evidence against her. By this time, she had become a minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. But once the SIT began looking at those two cases, it became clear that she was likely to face charges. Fearing arrest, she went underground on February 2, but later at the end of March, she resigned from the Cabinet and surrendered. Till this point she had Modi’s full support.
Clearly, Modi is either guilty of the charges against him and would therefore go out of his way to protect the other guilty persons. Or, he has decided that he gets greater dividends by polarising the electorate.
This latter tactic is a cynical game practised by many politicians. But we are talking of Modi, the potential prime minister. While other Prime Ministerial hopefuls have also been accused of crimes, such as L.K. Advani for the Babri Masjid demolition, or Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav for corruption, none has been accused of being complicit in mass murder or of shielding those involved in that act. In this sense he is different. In the last six years, Modi has vehemently refused to acknowledge any guilt for the shameful killings that took place in Gujarat during his watch. At the same time, as if in expiation, he has gone out of his way to avoid any communal discourse and has promoted the development of Gujarat as his defining policy. He has recently appointed a Muslim as the Director-General of the state police. And there was an almost Orwellian touch to Modi’s visit to the Muslim areas of Godhra on the eve of Republic Day where he was welcomed and feted.
No doubt as someone looking at his own future prospects, Modi the politician realises that he cannot appear as a Muslim-baiter before a nation-wide electorate. But Modi, the politician, has to overcome Modi, the supreme egoist, who cannot admit that he can do any wrong. To compound this, is his macho self-image which he promotes by making all those tough statements about hanging this or that person, or justifying illegal killings by police officials.
During the Gujarat Assembly elections he justified the killing of Soharbuddin Sheikh because he dealt with illegal arms and ammunition, but Modi did not care to mention that Sheikh’s wife Kausarbi, too, was killed for no fault other than that she was the wife of an allegedly “bad” man.
Modi’s biggest mistake could be to misread the mood of the Indian electorate. While they will certainly be impressed by his developmental record in the state, they are becoming increasingly leery of people who are linked to violence. This is evident from the fate of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Modi’s tough guy image may work in Gujarat’s specific ambience, but it is doubtful whether it would be acceptable in other parts of the country. By and large people tend to be in the mid-stream politically, unless the polity itself is out of kilter, as in the case of Israel. Modi’s polarising ways may not even find full acceptance within his own party.
Modi has predictably dismissed the Supreme Court directive as a conspiracy against him. Like other politicians in similar circumstances, he is seeking to make the election outcome a referendum on his fitness for high office.
But it is not so simple. Modi was, after all, the Chief Minister of the state when there was a complete collapse of governance in which the mass murders took place. In that sense it is a big question-mark on his competence and self-proclaimed ability to create a safe and secure environment in the country.
This article appeared in Mail Today May 1, 2009