By Chandrahas Choudhury
The skeletons in the cupboard of Narendra Modi, the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat, have once again spilled out into the open.
Last week, a suspended police officer who had turned whistleblower in the investigation of the gruesome Gujarat riots of 2002 was suddenly arrested on the charge of fabricating evidence and taken into judicial custody. The controversy broke out less than two weeks after Modi had organized an ornate, even narcissistic, three-day pageant of "goodwill" in his state after escaping censure from India's Supreme Court in another case pertaining to the riots.
The chain of events that produced the latest crisis in Modi's tumultuous political life had its beginnings in a gruesome chain of events more than nine years past. On Feb. 27, 2002, a train carrying a large number of Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob just outside the Godhra railway station in Gujarat and set on fire; 58 people lost their lives. The state was then newly under the rule of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which says it is dedicated to "cultural nationalism" or Hindutva, but is seen by its critics as a party of right-wing Hindu chauvinism.
In the days after the Godhra incident, retaliatory violence was widely visited upon the Muslims of Gujarat by rampaging Hindu mobs, many of them owing allegiance to right-wing groups. In the most sympathetic interpretation, Modi's government was guilty of not using the state's power to defend the Muslim minority from the violence. In the most damning analysis, it was culpable of conspiring to organize or support the pogroms. Hundreds were killed in the communal violence. And for years afterwards, thousands of Gujarati Muslims whose homes and belongings had been destroyed were subjected to the indignity of living, in their very own cities and towns, in relief camps.
In April of this year, Sanjiv Bhatt, a high-ranking police officer posted in Gujarat at the time of the riots, submitted an incriminating affidavit to the Supreme Court of India. Bhatt stated that Modi had convened a late-night meeting on Feb. 27, 2002, after the massacre of Hindus at Godhra, at which senior members of the government, the bureaucracy and the police force were present. According to Bhatt's affidavit, at the meeting, "Modi expressed the view that emotions were running very high amongst the Hindus and it was imperative that they be allowed to vent their anger."
Although there were questions raised about why Bhatt had waited so many years to make these revelations, there was no doubt that this was the most damning evidence to date about Modi's role in the riots.
Other bureaucrats who attended the Feb. 27 meeting have denied that Bhatt was present. Among the witnesses who had countersigned Bhatt's affidavit, testifying to his presence at the meeting, was police constable KD Panth, who was then Bhatt's driver. A few months later, Panth submitted a complaint to the Gujarat police, alleging that Bhatt had threatened him and forced him to sign the affidavit, and that he, Panth, wasn't present in Gujarat on the day of the meeting. Acting on the complaint about three months later, the Gujarat police grabbed Bhatt on Sept. 30 and are detaining him on multiple charges. Last month, the government launched proceedings against another policeman-turned-whistleblower, Rahul Sharma, for "unauthorised data collection."
The suddenness of Bhatt's arrest was, like many other gaps and delays in the entire chain of events, surely meaningful. Reporting on the arrest, the Hindu pointed out it took place just two days after Bhatt made further charges implicating Modi in the murder of a political rival:
Mr. Bhatt's arrest comes within 48 hours of his having filed another affidavit, this time in the Gujarat High Court, alleging the indirect involvement of the Chief Minister and his former Minister of State for Home, Amit Shah, in the murder of another former Minister Haren Pandya. Mr. Bhatt had claimed that Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah had repeatedly asked him to destroy some “very important documentary evidence” regarding Mr. Pandya's murder, but he refused to oblige them, following which he was transferred from the post of Superintendent of the Sabarmati Central Jail and kept without any posting for over two and half months in November 2003.
Following Bhatt's arrest, human-rights activists around the country mobilized people in the hundreds to protest against what they saw as the intimidation of witnesses in Gujarat, where courts are currently hearing dozens of cases concerning the riots of 2002 (in March, a special court sentenced to death 11 people accused in the train-burning incident). While Modi was silent, spokesmen of the Gujarat government and the BJP insisted that the law was taking its course.
Even so, the matter was a foretaste for the BJP of the political risks involved in choosing Modi as the party's candidate for prime minister in the national elections of 2014. It was also a reminder to Indian citizens, many of whom are disaffected with the present government led by the Indian National Congress, that behind Modi's record as a successful administrator and his reputation as a political visionary, there lie many murky intrigues that cannot be wished away, and that require Modi to be electorally contained as no more than an exceptionally powerful and popular regional satrap.
In a piece on Firstpost.com called "Too many ghosts to handle, Modi should kiss PM dream goodbye," Akshaya Mishra wrote:
Let’s put it straight. Narendra Modi’s dream to become the prime minister of India would remain just that — a dream — till he throws the 2002 Gujarat riots monkey off his back.
He might go for elaborate image makeover exercises — we witnessed one last month, have the entire media singing paeans for him, get global appreciation for his brilliant development model and summon other communities to share the stage with him. But he will still need to fend off the nagging riots-related legal cases and the public perception of him as a leader with a communal mindset. Unless and until he is free from both, his prime ministerial prospects will always stay loaded with ‘ifs’.
[...] Senior IPS officer Sanjeev Bhatt’s revolt against Modi and his subsequent arrest on 30 September may not appear of much consequence right now — we still don’t know who’s telling the truth — but it fits well into the impression that there’s a massive cover-up operation going on in Gujarat and that a politico-police nexus is furiously at work to bury the uncomfortable truths of 2002.
And in the Mumbai Mirror, the columnist Nalin Mehta wrote, in a piece called "The masque of Narendra Modi":
For all his reputation as an able administrator post-2002 and a business-oriented Chief Minister, Mr. Modi has always had two primary critiques: the obvious overhang of 2002 and a reputation for brooking no dissent.
The case of Sanjiv Bhatt seems to straddle both these critiques. His charges are at the heart of the debate about 2002 and though the BJP emphasises that the law is simply taking its own course, the manner in which the state machinery has swung into action seems political. It has taken on a larger dimension about whistleblowing.
Irrespective of whether Mr. Bhatt’s charges are proven or not, the case will remain in the headlines for a long time as it goes through the courts and the longer it persists the longer the political shadows it will cast on Mr. Modi outside of Gujarat.
In Lounge, the weekend edition of the business newspaper Mint, the columnist Aakar Patel, formerly the editor of a Gujarati newspaper, supplied an exceptionally astute portrait of Modi in a piece called "Everything you wanted to know about Narendra Modi." Unlike other commentators, Patel, while providing many incriminating observations about Modi, nevertheless suggested that he might be an effective prime minister:
I first met him in 2002 when the Editors Guild sent a three-man team to assess if there was media prejudice against Muslims during the riots (of course there was).
In his Gandhinagar office Modi took me aside. He slipped his left hand into my right, interlocking our fingers, and began swinging it playfully in the manner of Indian men. “Saurabhbhai saffron, Aakarbhai red,” he said with a chuckle.
The reference was to my colleague, the editor of a Gujarati paper whom I got fired because he wrote what I thought was an appalling editorial justifying the riots.
[...] Modi does not hesitate to get rid of high-quality and dedicated civil servants if they cross him. Young and upright IPS officers like Rahul Sharma and Satish Verma who defied the Gujarati consensus to “go easy” on rioting Hindus have been fixed.
[...] Modi has great patience. He has worn out the secularists. His insistence on economic performance has trumped their insistence on secularism. His understanding of middle-class Indians and what moves us is first-rate, better than any politician on the subcontinent.
[...] Unlike America, India’s parliamentary system conflates legislature with executive. It is fair to see [the current Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh as passing the first part of his job and failing the second.
In that sense Modi will be right for a people who have always required firm governance more than they have the freedom to write their laws.
For American policymakers curious to know more about Modi, this account adds a wealth of detail to the brief, approving remarks about Modi's government, based mainly on newspaper editorials, supplied by the recent report on India by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. These were widely circulated by the BJP and linked to by Modi himself on his Twitter page.
In 2005, Modi was denied a U.S. visa for his involvement in "severe violations of religious freedom," so the congressional report was cited by BJP spokespersons as evidence that Modi had consolidated his position to such an extent that he was no longer seen by the American government as a political untouchable.
It seems sure that Modi will return to power in the next elections in Gujarat, scheduled for 2012. Whether he goes any further in Indian politics depends on how well he is able to weather the storm of the Bhatt affair, as well as any future fallout from 2002.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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