CURRENT ISSUE APRIL 8, 2002  

STATES: GUJARAT

The Untouchable

The chief minister who has failed to quell communal fires looks likely to lead the BJP into the next assembly elections as the party feels he is indispensable

By Uday Mahurkar

FIRE SURFING:Modi says he intends to remain chief minister till February 2003

At one level, Narendra Modi’s meeting with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Delhi on March 27 was the coming together of the elder statesman and the enfant terrible of the bjp family. In another reckoning, it was a meeting of dissimilar minds. Vajpayee these days is better known for his long pauses, Modi for his inability to stop talking. Last Wednesday, as the Gujarat chief minister drove to 7 Race Course Road for a meeting with the prime minister, it was widely assumed that the events in Gujarat would see Vajpayee do all the talking. Modi, it was thought, would be given something of a dressing down.
Nothing of the sort happened. Modi walked out of the meeting with his job intact, despite the 700-odd killings and unprecedented destruction that Gujarat has witnessed in the past month. What makes this man so unflappable? And so indispensable for the bjp? Is it his deft skills in capitalising on the Hindutva fever that has gripped Gujarat post-Godhra? Or is it the impending elections in Gujarat in March 2003 that make it imperative that he lead the party to ensure the BJP’s success?

Perhaps a bit of both. The rss’ clean chit to Modi following the chilling message that it gave after its Bangalore conclave—where it reminded the Muslims that their security in India was dependent on the goodwill of the Hindu majority—is perhaps the biggest reason for the smile that never leaves Modi’s face these days. He knows that whatever the secularists and others may say, the entire Sangh Parivar is now behind him, thanks to the unprecedented Hindu resurgence in Gujarat triggered by the Godhra incident and its aftermath.

PAUSE ATTACK: Riots still (above); Vajpayee did not crack down on Modi

But questions still persist. Though the violence has abated considerably, it is not over yet. Around 35 people have died in communal attacks in the past two weeks. Modi claims he is trying his best, but the continuing violence seems to suggest his best isn’t good enough. A month after Godhra, normalcy still seems far away with partial or night curfew in as many as 30 cities and towns across the state.

Not all Modi’s problems are because of events “beyond his control”. Last week, at a bjp party meeting in Rajkot, he made the outrageous remark that the “fire in Gujarat would burn while the Lok Sabha was in session since the fuel was being poured on the fire from the Lok Sabha”. It is a one-liner that would have done him proud if he was still only the bjp national spokesman. But coming as it did from a chief minister, it had political opponents up in arms and his own partymen squirmed. The opposition Congress even talked of filing a privilege motion against him in the Lok Sabha. The heat subsided only when Modi insisted he had been misquoted in the media.

Modi has done more than shoot off his mouth to ruffle feathers. In normal times, the transfer of 27 police officers would have been considered a routine administrative measure, but in these surcharged times, it invited shouts of vendetta. “Many of those transferred had taken a tough stand against vhp workers involved in communal riots,” said one officer. Deputy Commissioner of Police Pravin Gondhia, under whose jurisdiction firs were filed against the State vhp Joint General Secretary Jaideep Patel and bjp MLA Mayaben Kodnani, for communal rioting, is being held up as an example. While the opposition called the transfers politically motivated and a brazen attempt to shield the culprits, Modi has brushed aside the charge saying, “The transfers were routine and were dictated by the promotion of some of the officers which were overdue.”

The Modi Government also came in for sharp criticism from chief of the National Human Rights Commission Justice J.S. Verma who addressed as many as three press conferences on the issue, two while visiting Gujarat and one in Delhi. Verma repeatedly contested Modi’s claim that violence had been largely contained and charged the state administration with not doing enough to control the riots. For once, Modi chose to exercise restraint, refusing to lock horns with the former chief justice. However, a counterattack on the nhrc came from another front. A writ petition was filed by an rss-supported trust in the Gujarat High Court that questioned not only the nhrc’s activism but its very involvement in the Gujarat episode “when the Modi Government had set up a judicial commission to probe the riots”.

The shrewd politician that he is, Modi has manipulated the vociferous protests by the secularists to his own advantage to create a hardline Hindu image for himself. But in the process he is finding it difficult to satiate the ever-increasing demands of the Hindutva cadres. He knows that the violence has to be put to an end but without antagonising the Hindutva cadres beyond a point. It is against this backdrop that last week’s transfers of police officers has to be seen.

At the moment, the task of controlling the riots is proving to be an arduous one. No sooner does he meet with success in putting out the fire at one place than another emerges seemingly from nowhere. As it happened last week in Viramgam, not far from Ahmedabad. After a Muslim woman was burnt alive by Hindu zealots, the minorities, who constitute almost 30 per cent of the 70,000-odd population in the town, went on the rampage. Soon, nearly 15,000 Hindus from nearby villages encircled Viramgam and targeted the Muslim localities in the town. It took some deft handling by the police and the army to save the day.
Though Modi brushes aside suggestions for a mid-term poll, it is no secret that the chief minister wants the poll to be brought forward as early as possible from the scheduled March 2003. After his meeting with Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani on March 27, he denied that he had sought their permission to allow him to opt for a mid-term poll. “How can I even think of polls in such a situation? My first priority is to establish peace.” He claims the violence now is only sporadic and the situation is largely under control. Says Modi: “Nearly 1,000 Moharram processions with over 100 big ones were taken out in Gujarat last week. Nearly 4,000 Hajis coming from Saudi Arabia have gone back to their native places in 22 districts. The presence of students at the examination of the state secondary board was about 98 per cent and gram panchayat polls were held in 1,700 villages. What more proof does one want that things are under control?”

In fact BJP leaders feel that the Hindutva wave that is sweeping the state post-Godhra will last long enough for Modi to take the party to victory, even if the state assembly polls are not brought forward and instead held as scheduled next year. That, of course, should come as some relief for a party reeling under a series of setbacks.

For the moment Modi is the Sangh Parivar’s man, the man their supporters support. If Vajpayee and Advani crack down too hard on Modi, they risk losing support in the Sangh Parivar cadres. Until the moderate elements among the Hindus begin to assert themselves the man in the eye of the hurricane has little to fear.

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