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Coping with the fallout

Print edition : Oct 11, 2002

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Modi-speak raises the temperature all round, and leaves even the BJP scrambling for cover.

GUJARAT Chief Minister Narendra Modi has an uncanny ability to shock, not only leaders of Opposition parties but those of his own. His performance during the Gaurav Yatra has set off alarm bells in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Senior leaders of the party are fidgeting at the way Modi has been firing his missiles at anyone and everyone. They are concerned that the low level of public discourse that Modi has stooped to will do the party more harm than good in the elections and beyond. Whether it is his attacks on the "fair-skinned, Italy ki beti" Sonia Gandhi or the "Christian Lyngdoh", or his remarks aimed at Muslims, senior BJP leaders are finding it difficult to defend him beyond a point.

Modi's latest salvo has been directed against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, and BJP leaders are at their wits' end to justify this particular one. At one of his public meetings, Modi called upon the "five crore people of Gujarat" to chop off the hands of "Miyan Musharraf" for raising a "dirty, accusing finger" at the State. Incidentally, posters and advertisements, apparently released at the behest of Modi, asking the people to choose between him and Musharraf, have sprung up in the State, coinciding with Modi's diatribe.

"We agree there is no logic in dragging in Musharraf's name the way he has been doing. It is totally out of context, unnecessary and uncalled for. We shall have to talk to Modi about it and tell him to refrain from stooping to such levels," said a senior BJP leader at the party headquarters in New Delhi. The posters and advertisements do not appear to have any direct association with Modi: they bear the name of "Rashtriya Chetna Man-ch". However, the fact that their appearance coincided with Modi's verbal attack on Musharraf makes the association only too stark. Modi's remarks against Muslims, describing them as people who believed in the philosophy of hum paanch aur hamaare pachhis (we five, ours 25) and his description of the relief camps for the victims of the post-Godhra violence as "child-breeding centres" too have embarrassed BJP leaders. "I do not know what exactly he said, so I cannot comment on it," said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Rajnath Singh, both party general secretaries. Incidentally, it was Rajnath Singh who flagged off with much fanfare the twice-postponed Gaurav Yatra. As the Modi gun started going full blast, Rajnath Singh did the disappearing act.

The consternation in the BJP was obvious from the fact that party president M. Venkaiah Naidu sought an explanation from Modi and advised him to refrain from making provocative statements. Predictably enough, Modi's reply was that he had been misquoted. Even Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who was visiting the United States, was alarmed by what Modi said about Muslims. At Becharaji village in Mehsana district on September 9, Modi not only ridiculed a section of people (again citing hum paanch, hamaare pachhis) but remarked that those who believed in multiplying their population in that fashion needed to be taught a lesson. He targeted the Congress(I) also for what he termed its pro-Muslim approach; he commented that if that party had its way, it would have brought Narmada waters to the Sabarmati river not in the month of Shravan, as he had done, but in the month of Ramzan. These statements were widely reported in the media and broadcast by television channels and this apparently forced the Prime Minister to call up the Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Vijay Goel, and ask him to rush to Ahmedabad and restrain Modi. In Delhi, an embarrassed Venkaiah Naidu nervously tried to justify Modi by saying that his statements were not meant to be derogatory to any particular community, but were made in the context of the population explosion in Gujarat and that he had been misquoted by the media.

However, everyone was not amused or convinced by these half-hearted explanations. The National Minorities Commission (NMC), for example, took suo motu note of Modi's statements and asked the Gujarat government for a copy of the tape containing his speeches. The Gujarat government, in typical Modi style, said no such tape existed. But the truth came out when a television channel repeated the telecast of his speeches containing objectionable statements. The NMC, however, seemed to have gone on the back foot. Despite the fact that major television channels have continuously beamed parts of Modi's speeches, it continued to wait for the "official copy of the tape" from Gujarat, before taking any action. The Gujarat government, on the other hand, took the stand that no `official' copy of the tape was available since it was not a government programme, but a programme of the BJP. A senior State government official said government agencies did not cover programmes of political parties.

Interestingly, the change in the NMC's attitude came after Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani defended Modi at a meeting of party office-bearers. He said what was more important was the fact that Modi's meetings were drawing a good response and the party, at this stage, should not give the impression that it was divided on backing him. He said the Gaurav Yatra was a commendable event. But this is Advani at his best in doublespeak. Not long ago, on a visit to London, he had called the Gujarat pogrom a "blot" on the country and described it as "indefensible". The same Advani, however, did not blink once while giving a pat on the back of his protg.

But there is no denying the fact that the BJP is caught in a cleft stick on the issue of handling Modi. The rift within the party was obvious when former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, in an interview to a television channel, said it was not necessary that Modi would be the party's candidate for chief ministership after the elections, hinting that he was still in the reckoning.

Despite having been dethroned by Modi, Keshubhai continues to be the undisputed leader of the politically and financially dominant Patel community. For the Congress(I), Modi has proved to be a boon in disguise. He has given the party enough with which to attack the BJP.

Congress(I) leaders are secretly celebrating Modi's statements. "It is good for us that Modi is speaking. He is only exposing himself and his party. We only have to sit back and repeat all that he has said when we approach the people, to remind them of the BJP's bankruptcy," said a general secretary of the party. The Gujarat unit of the Congress(I) has presented a memorandum to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, for the record, though, asking him to dismiss Modi and impose President's Rule in the State. His latest utterances had made it clear that "with him at the helm of affairs the letter and spirit of the Constitution has no meaning and the government of the State of Gujarat cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution," the party said. The memorandum, signed by State party president Shankarsinh Vaghela and others, reminded the President that the Rajya Sabha had passed a unanimous resolution under Article 355 of the Constitution calling upon the Government of India to ensure that the Government of Gujarat was carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. It told the President that not only had Modi thrown to the winds all democratic and constitutional norms by the brazen misuse of state machinery during his Gaurav Yatra but his provocative speeches had shown that the constitutional machinery had broken down in Gujarat and the BJP intended to polarise the State on communal lines.

Other Opposition parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Left Parties have stepped up their demand for Modi's removal, charging him with committing a "cognisable offence". Outlining the legal and political issues involved in Modi's hate campaign, Congress(I) Member of Parliament and senior lawyer Kapil Sibal said: "It is a case of criminal offence because Modi has violated sections 153 A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act)." Sitaram Yechuri, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and D. Raja, national secretary of the CPI, said the statements by Modi had once again proved that the government of Gujarat did not function in accordance with the Constitution and should be dismissed.

The Opposition parties unanimously condemned the "BJP's doublespeak" on this issue; on the one hand the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister described the events in Gujarat as "unfortunate" and "indefensible" and on the other Advani gave Modi a clean chit, they pointed out.

The demand for Modi's dismissal is likely to become louder in the coming days, but a lot will depend on what the Supreme Court has to say on the issue.

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