By Swapan Dasgupta
It is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s “closure report” to the Ahmedabad Magistrate’s Court on the plea to prosecute Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the 2002 riots will be the last word on the subject. If the past is any indication, the determined band of ambulance chasers that have lived off the misery of the unfortunate Muslim victims of the post-Godhra violence will avail of every legal trick in the book to keep the issue alive. The chance of the activists getting their way and getting a FIR registered against Modi may be very slim. However, that is not going to stop them from keeping the issue alive in court on one plea or another.
The important thing to remember is that no court, including the Supreme Court, has, after a decade of relentless litigation found anything to implicate Modi personally in the killings. Yes, there have been strictures, such as the latest one by the Gujarat High Court, against the administration for its sins of omission. In a way that is right because the mere fact that widespread riots did happen in the aftermath of the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express constitutes an indictment of the state government. However, there is a big difference between a state’s failure to protect the lives and property of citizens and the suggestion that the administration—from the Chief Minister and Police chief down to the local thanedar—was guilty of a criminal conspiracy to teach Muslims a lesson.
The difference matters life. For the Government’s overall failure to stop the killings citizens can react in two ways. First, they can pressure the administration to ensure that all the perpetrators of violence are identified and prosecuted. This has happened in the case of the Best Bakery case and a few others. Secondly, citizens and political parties have the right to take any failure of the administration to the arena of competitive politics. This too has happened. The riots dominated the agenda of the 2002 state Assembly election and were an undercurrent in the 2007 poll. On both occasions, Modi got a resounding endorsement from the highest court of democracy.
Indeed, it was the realisation that the Congress lacked the leadership and ability to outplay Modi in the electoral arena that triggered the attempt to defeat him through the courts. It is quite clear that the activists who have dogged Modi’s footsteps aren’t terribly interested in punishing members of the mob that attacked Gulbarg Housing Society and killing Ehsan Jaffri. That aspect of the case appears to have been conveniently forgotten. They want to somehow establish that Jaffri’s killing was the consequence of an order given by the Chief Minister. To achieve this end they have used every trick in the book, including getting a police officer to depose an imaginary accounts of a meeting—what the SIT report has diplomatically dubbed an “afterthought.” They have even undertaken a campaign of vilification against SIT members, calling into question their impartiality.
The activists’ initiatives may not have achieved the end goal but there is little doubt that they have had an effect. For a start, the preoccupation with Modi’s personal culpability has influenced the powerful liberal establishment, both in India and overseas, and cast the Chief Minister as an ogre. This in turn has diverted attention from the fact that there has been no recurrence of communal rioting in Gujarat since 2002. The past decade in Gujarat has been one of peace and very rapid economic development. In the sphere of governance, Modi’s achievements have been colossal. The people of Gujarat have long forgotten the riots—and don’t want to be reminded of them, something even the local Congress understands—but thanks to the activists the state has been portrayed as a laboratory of intolerance and regressive thought. As astute politician, Modi has managed to use this needless vilification to drum up regional pride. Yet, thanks to the demonology that has been constructed neither Modi nor Gujarat has got the necessary credit for a decade of exemplary growth.
Will this change after Modi has crossed yet another hurdle? The answer depends not merely on how Gujarat votes at the end of 2012. The real reason why Modi is being targeted isn’t because he is a regional boss of a national party. His detractors are reconciled to him playing a long innings in the state. Their fear—and I guess this is a fear shared by some BJP leaders as well—is that Modi is now for all practical purposes a national leader. If the legal assault on Modi loses momentum, nothing will stand in the way of Modi shifting his gaze to national politics where he is certain to be an inspirational figure, capable of mobilising a substantial section of the electorate exasperated by the dullness and cynicism of existing leaders.
I have little or no doubt in my mind that Modi’s popularity will exceed the present level of support for the BJP. He will galvanise a large section of those who have hitherto stayed out of politics and who regard electoral democracy as a cesspool. Modi will be the most formidable opposition to the UPA nationally. A Gandhi-Modi contest in 2014 will be absolutely riveting.
Sunday Pioneer, February 12, 2012