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Modi makeover

Print edition : Nov 04, 2011 T+T-
Chief Minister Narendra Modi interacts with Muslims during the first day of his "sadbhavna" fast in Ahmedabad on September 17.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

Chief Minister Narendra Modi interacts with Muslims during the first day of his "sadbhavna" fast in Ahmedabad on September 17.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

Narendra Modi tries to appease Muslims by trying to dissociate himself from the 2002 riots, with an eye on the 2012 Assembly elections.

THIS year marks a decade of Narendra Modi's rule in Gujarat. Many people consider him the most successful Chief Minister the State has seen, but there are others who say that he is also the most dangerous one. The year 2012 looms large for the Chief Minister as the State will go to the polls then to elect a new Assembly.

Modi will have to win this election to play a bigger role in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level. Analysts believe a victory will give him the ticket to the national stage when the general election takes place in 2014. In all likelihood, Modi will pull off another victory in the State election, but it will be important to see whether his magic will work for the BJP in the general election.

Modi has already launched his election campaign. His strategy appears a little unclear and even confused at present. However, political analysts say he will do whatever it takes to win the election. For instance, he has distanced himself from his trusted weapon communal politics. But the wily politician, they say, will definitely have an ace up his sleeve. The sadbhavna (goodwill) fast he undertook recently was just one of his masterful poll tactics.

Modi is in a tough spot and knows his future will be bleak unless he sorts out the mess he finds himself in. To begin with, the various cases relating to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, which implicate him, are in their final stages of resolution. The judgments in these cases could make or break his career. Modi has made a valiant attempt to distance himself from the riots but is unable to shake off the responsibility for them.

Additionally, he had a run-in with the Governor, Kamla Beniwal, when she decided to constitute a State Lokayukta (ombudsman). Modi claimed that the Governor was executing the plans set by the Congress. The Justice Nanavati-Shah Commission report on the riots is still to come out, and Modi fears his complicity in the riots may be exposed once it is submitted. Furthermore, the voice of dissent in Gujarat, which had been suppressed for many years, seems to be rising. It is not just the minorities or Modi-bashers who are speaking out, but even communities that have been faithful to him are voicing their concern about whether his brand of politics and administration is good for the State.

But Modi is a skilled and seasoned politician. If anyone can get out of a hole, it is him, said an academic from a well-known institute in Ahmedabad.

Another case that is beginning to take political overtones is the arrest of the suspended Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Sanjeev Bhatt on September 30 on some flimsy charges. Modi had probably not anticipated its reverberations. A few months ago, the ghosts of 2002 came back to haunt Modi when Bhatt and another IPS officer, Rahul Sharma, implicated several important Gujarat politicians, including Modi, in the 2002 riots, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Muslims.

In April, Bhatt filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that at an official meeting on February 27, 2002, that is, the day before the communal carnage began, the Chief Minister had ordered officials to go slow on the rioters or, in other words, to be indifferent to the violence that would unfold. Bhatt claimed he was personally present when Modi issued these orders. According to Bhatt, he directed senior police officers to allow Hindus to vent their ire on Muslims in the aftermath of the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra. Three days before his arrest, Bhatt filed an affidavit in the Gujarat High Court stating that he had documentary evidence of the role of top government functionaries in the killing of former Home Minister Haren Pandya in 2003.

Rahul Sharma, who was in charge of the control room during the riots, claimed that he had plausible evidence indicating that every senior BJP leader and some police officials knew exactly where the violence was taking place but had orders not to interfere with the rioters. The data he has collected apparently shatter the theory that the riots were a spontaneous reaction to the Godhra train burning incident. The data could provide clinching evidence to nail the perpetrators of the 2002 riots, sources say.

The Gandhinagar police arrested Bhatt on charges that he forced a police constable, K.D. Panth, to sign a false affidavit that corroborated the former's claim that he had attended a high-level meeting called by Modi in 2002. The arrest of the senior IPS officer with an unblemished record raised eyebrows. There is an outpouring of support for Bhatt in the State. In an unprecedented move, 35 police officers associated with the Gujarat IPS Officers Association challenged the arrest, calling it a witch-hunt. They claimed that the officer was being victimised an accusation that Modi should be quite used to by now.

Bhatt has not yet been granted bail. Activists, including the dancer Mallika Sarabhai (also a victim of Modi's vindictiveness), have been fighting for his release. They say the cases of Bhatt and Sharma may prove to be Modi's nemesis. He may not be able to get out of these unscarred. Modi's script is now well known. But we have to challenge these witch-hunts. This is a democratic country. He cannot be permitted to operate like this. Try as he might, he cannot suppress the truth, says Mallika Sarabhai.

Another person who has taken on Modi is Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, the slain Congress Member of Parliament. She has been fighting a relentless battle to nail the culprits behind the massacre of her husband by a mob that attacked the Gulberg Housing Society on February 28, 2002. Sixty-eight others were killed along with Jafri.

The Jafri family, along with the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) led by Teesta Setalvad, have been demanding that Modi be charged and held culpable for the riots. They wanted a first information report (FIR) filed against the Chief Minister. On September 13, the Supreme Court, which is monitoring 10 post-Godhra riots cases, referred the Gulberg Society case back to the trial court in Ahmedabad for a decision.

The court passed the order on a petition by Zakia Jafri alleging that Modi and 62 government officials had refused to take action to contain the State-wide riots. In March 2010, Modi was summoned for questioning by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), appointed by the Supreme Court to probe the riots, in connection with a complaint by Zakia Jafri. It was the first time in the history of the country that a Chief Minister was questioned on a crime of this nature. Zakia Jafri is ready for a long legal battle, and if the case goes in her favour, it could effectively ruin the Chief Minister's political career.

Uncharacteristic

Political observers feel Modi is on a mission to change his image. While it is obvious that he is desperately trying to distance himself from the 2002 riots, it is becoming more and more clear that the Chief Minister wants to appease the minority community. Recently, Modi made two uncharacteristic moves. Soon after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Jafri case, he undertook the sadbhavna fast to show his gratitude towards the people of the State and promised more such fasts across the State. An observer said, Modi is trying to unveil a new Modi. He wants to be seen as compassionate, moderate, liberal, democratic and secular. The fast was supposed to do that. Unfortunately for him, it came across as a farce.

On the first day of the fast, he wrote an open letter to the six crore people of Gujarat. He published this as a full-page advertisement in local newspapers. In the letter, he said: As Chief Minister of the State, the pain of each and every citizen is my own pain. Ensuring justice to all is the duty of the State. He also talked about the curse of communalism, which hindered peace and progress. Finally, he thanked those who pointed out his mistakes, adding that just like anybody he too was not perfect.

What he hoped to achieve with the fast and the letter is not clear, but he is a master strategist. The Chief Minister realises that he has to appease sections he once despised openly. Yet, he also needs to keep the fundamentalists on his side. Clearly, he has a plan. The fast and the letter appear to be a move to erase the brash, aggressive, macho image he once seemed to enjoy. Whether his loyal constituents will be convinced with his new look is definitely a risk he is taking. Is he trying to win the hearts of secularists and fundamentalists?

He will win the election but perhaps not with the margin he did the last time, says Achyut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad. Modi has definitely begun his propaganda. The sadbhavna fast, the letter, the efforts to appease the minority, are all focussed on next year's election.

Significant changes have taken place in Gujarat, and so he may not be able to sweep the election, says Yagnik, who is a well-known commentator on Gujarat. Modi has serious contenders with Congress leaders Arun Modhwadia, Shaktisinh Gohil and Shankersinh Vaghela coming together on a common platform. The State Congress, which was an apology for an opposition until recently, was a fractured unit. These leaders seem to be making an effort at a cohesiveness that will threaten Modi's future. Moreover, Modi's supporters and foot soldiers from the Sangh Parivar affiliates the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Durga Vahini and even the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh are distancing themselves from him.

Actually, this is part of Modi's image makeover. He is making it clear that the Hindutva agenda is not the only thing about him. He is trying to pose as a different person than he was 10 years ago. This is not going down well with the saffron brigade, says Yagnik.

Another significant development in recent months, which is not going well for Modi, Yagnik says, is that the Gujarati media, particularly the language newspapers Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar, which were once his supporters, have become critical of him. Essentially this has created cracks in his image.

Yagnik says that nonetheless the BJP has realised they need him. Gujarat sends 25 seats to the Lok Sabha, and Modi is their prime fund-raiser due to his popularity with industrialists. Although he is positioning himself as prime ministerial material, it is unlikely that he can pip stalwarts such as Sushma Swaraj to the post. Additionally, Yagnik says, while the Gujarati middle class has accepted him, he is not sure whether the larger Indian middle class is ready for him.

Modi's trump card

Modi's trump card in recent years has been his determined effort to make Gujarat an industrial hub. He has laid out the red carpet for Indian conglomerates such as the Tatas and Reliance. Reportedly, the auto major Suzuki is also setting up a massive plant in the State. He claims that the entire State is electrified and connectivity and infrastructure have improved. His public relations efforts have been quite successful as Gujarat has definitely acquired an image of progress.

Whether Modi is really responsible for Gujarat's success is debatable, says Dipankar Gupta, an eminent sociologist who has written extensively on Gujarat. In a recent report, Gupta says the Congress has let Modi take all the credit for Gujarat's progress. He says the Congress' strategy is all wrong. Instead of showcasing its past achievements, the party is trying to nail him as a communalist and fundamentalist. And it is getting nowhere with that line.

Dipankar Gupta says, In 1991, a full 10 years before Modi arrived, as many as 17,940 out of 18,028 villages had already been electrified. The Ukai plant, which uses washed coal to generate power, was set up before Modi came to power. The asphalting of 87.5 per cent of Gujarat's roads also had happened before his tenure began. In 1980-81, Gujarat's share in manufacturing at the national level was only 16.29 per cent, but by 2000-01 it rose to an impressive percentage. Not surprising then that between 1994 and 2001, well before Modi's tenure, the State domestic product grew at 10-13 per cent, way higher than the all-India average.

In addition, Gujarat, since the 1990s, has been producing 78 per cent of the country's salt, 98 per cent of soda ash and 26 per cent of pharmaceutical products. Following Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel's intervention in 1993, port traffic in the State jumped from a mere 3.18 million tonnes in 1981 to 86.17 million tonnes in 2001. In the same period, Gujarat's share of national port traffic increased from 45.36 per cent to above 76 per cent and has stayed at that point ever since. Modi's 10-year rule has not made that percentage grow.

If there was ever a person who reaped what somebody else had sown, then that was Modi, the sociologist said.

So, where is the Modi magic? The coming months will certainly show whether the BJP leader will be able to cast a spell on voters.