An ex-Minister's murder

Print edition : April 25, 2003

Narendra Modi (centre) covers the body of Haren Pandya with a Bharatiya Janata Party flag as party president M. Venkaiah Naidu, Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley, and other leaders look on, before the funeral in Ahmedabad on March 27. - SIDDHARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/AP

The daylight murder of Haren Pandya, Narendra Modi's main rival in the Gujarat BJP, has come as the first major blow to the Chief Minister after the December 2002 Assembly elections.

JUST as people thought Gujarat was on the road to recovery, the State was put on red alert again after former Home Minister Haren Pandya, Chief Minister Narendra Modi's main opponent within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was shot dead. Pandya was killed at 7-40 a.m. on March 26 a.m. by two unidentified assailants who shot five bullets at him when he had just finished his morning walk in the Law Gardens in Ahmedabad. His body lay in his car for two hours. Pandya's family started worrying when he did not return home and sent his personal assistant Nilesh Bhatt to check on him. Bhatt found him lying dead in his car.

The BJP high command had recently decided to appoint him to the party's national executive. The assassination shocked politicians and ordinary people in the State alike. It dealt a blow to Modi's popularity, particularly because his main election promise was to make Gujarat free of fear. The popular sentiment was that if this could happen to a BJP leader, in broad daylight, then it could happen to anyone. When Modi visited the hospital where the slain leader's body was taken, Pandya's followers heckled him. Outraged at Modi's inability to protect a senior BJP leader, they demanded his resignation.

Pandya's father Vitthalbhai refused to let Modi garland his body. "Why have you come here with your security and gunmen? You could not even protect my son. We don't need your sympathy," he told Modi. His family blamed the Chief Minister for having failed to provide Pandya with any security after he resigned from his post as Minister. "If you couldn't protect my son, what security are you going to provide the rest of Gujarat?" Vitthalbhai asked Modi.

Haren Pandya.-AFP

Amarsinh Choudhury, leader of the Opposition, described it as a `political murder'. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and BJP national president M. Venkaiah Naidu were scheduled to arrive in Ahmedabad on the day of the killing. They postponed their visit to the next day after sensing the strong resentment against the party leadership. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee ruled out the possibility that the killing was owing to `political enmity'. He condemned it as a "cowardly and dastardly act". Later, Advani blamed the Dawood Ibrahim gang for the murder and linked it to the massacre in Kashmir in which 24 Kashmiri Pandits were killed. Police officials were surprised with his announcement as there was no proof to support this theory.

In order to deflect any accusations of interference, Modi handed over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Ironically, Pandya's murder is the first blow to the Chief Minister's image since the Assembly elections in December 2002. Modi had completely sidelined Pandya within the party, leaving him disarmed. Pandya no longer posed much of a threat to him, except for what he already knew about Modi.

Pandya resigned from the Ministry on July 6 last year. One of the moderates within the State unit of the party, Pandya was very critical of the manner in which Modi handled the communal violence in the State. BJP president Rajendrasinh Rana issued a show-cause notice to Pandya asking him to explain why he deposed before a Citizens' Tribunal on the communal violence (Frontline, August 30, 2002). An anonymous Minister reportedly told the Tribunal that on the night of February 27 (the day of the Sabarmati Express massacre at Godhra), Modi convened a high-level meeting and instructed top police officers not to obstruct "the Hindu backlash". Modi also allegedly told the officers that there would be "justice for Godhra" during the bandh called by the VHP on February 28. In a public reply to Rana's letter, Pandya denied making any such deposition. While submitting his resignation, Pandya said, "I don't want the party to suffer because of one person's whims."

Later, during the Assembly elections, Modi threatened to withdraw his nomination if Haren Pandya was given the ticket to contest. As part of his pressuring tactics, Modi even admitted himself to hospital for a day during the election campaign. The BJP high command had no choice but to give in to his demand. The rivalry between the two leaders surfaced soon after Modi was appointed Chief Minister in October 2001. He wanted Pandya to give up his Ellis Bridge constituency so that he could contest a byelection. Pandya refused to oblige, and finally Modi had to stand from Rajkot.

DURING his term as Home Minister in Keshubhai Patel's government, Pandya had cracked down on the cable television mafia controlled by former BJP Minister Purshottam Solanki, who was an accused in a case under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, and his brother Hirabhai. He had also antagonised the powerful builders' lobby by taking action, as Revenue Minister in Modi's previous government against illegal encroachments on government land. However, Pandya's close associates rule out the possibility that these mafias could be behind the assassination. "As Home Minister, you get on the wrong side of hundreds of people, who are punished. That does not mean that any of them could be involved in Harenbhai's killing," said one of them.

Even after he resigned as Minister and was sidelined within the BJP, Pandya continued to remain a thorn on Modi's side. He was the man who knew too much. Now, his death has made things more difficult for Modi.

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