Has Narendra Modi left ghosts of 2002 Gujarat riots behind?

By Manisha Singh | Updated: Jan 07, 2014, 20:41 PM IST

A day after a local court in Ahmedabad rejected the petition by Zakia Jafri that challenged a probe report clearing Narendra Modi of complicity in Gulberg Society massacre case, Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014 General Elections, broke his silence on December 26 on the one issue that has plagued him for years and on which he has consistently remained silent - post-Godhra 2002 riots. He didn’t talk to the media or gave any interview but wrote a blog on his ‘inner thoughts’ and on how he had been hounded relentlessly for personal and political gains.

Attempting a closure of sorts and calling the verdict by the magistrate as the end, he talked about the triumph of truth and called the violence of 2002 as ‘mindless’. He also talked about grief, sadness, misery, pain, anguish and agony and being shaken to the core on ‘witnessing inhumanity’. He disclosed that he had appealed to the people of his state for peace and restraint and expressed shock at being blamed for the killings of his own ‘brothers and sisters’.

Countering the allegations that he had asked the state machinery to go slow on rioters, Modi insisted that his government had ‘responded to the violence more swiftly and decisively’ than ever done before in any previous riots in the country.

Whichever way one looks at it, the upholding of the closure report filed by the Supreme Court monitored SIT citing lack of prosecutable evidence for initiating criminal case against Modi by the metropolitan court is a boost for the man ahead of the General Elections. The timing could not have been better – a few months before the polls that is going to either make or break him. In his own words Modi can now hit the campaign trail feeling ‘liberated’ and at ‘peace’.

For Modi this was the best time to break his silence, reach out to the voters, sound like a victim and talk about ‘unity’ and ‘harmony’. As was obvious to many, by writing the blog he was in no way trying to convince his critics. He has been in politics for too long to realize that energy should not be wasted on those who cannot be won. So the blog was not for the Congress or other Opposition parties or even those activists who have been doggedly pursuing various cases against him. It was to win over that section of the electorate who may be fence-sitters and are not Modi or BJP sympathizers yet.

Needless to say that the Congress was not impressed and neither were the likes of Teesta Setalvad, who has run a campaign of sorts against Modi and has threatened to go to higher courts against the verdict. Dismissing his blog as mere posturing, the Congress called the blog by Modi an exercise in hypocrisy and an attempt to burnish his image for the 2014 polls. The Congress also insisted that the riots baggage will remain. They may have a point. For a section of the populace, Modi will always be anti-minority and a polarizing figure and whatever the Gujarat CM does or does not do, they can never be won over. A recent example of this is Manmohan Singh, in what was most likely his last presser and intended to announce his retirement, saying that Modi would be disastrous as the PM of the country.

However, the Congress needs to realize that in an election year, especially with the tide in favour of the BJP and the sentiments strongly against the grand old party, Modi is doing what any politician from any party would have done – take advantage of the situation and sound right. Politics is about perception and posturing as much as it’s about governance and that is precisely what Modi is attempting to do. His attempts at a makeover and reaching out to the minority community have all been an exercise in this direction. Also, by waiting for the court’s decision to speak on the contentious issues and by not reacting to allegations earlier, he almost sounded vindicated. By consistently refusing to say sorry for the 2002 Gujarat riots, he has driven home the point that he cannot apologize for a wrong that he says he did not commit.

Coming back to the Congress, it also needs to realize that Modi bashing and trying to turn the discourse of the election into secular versus communal will not get them anywhere. To be fair to the Congress, Modi has been taking them on issues of corruption and price rise and has been attacking the Gandhi family along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. So naturally the Congress will hit back. But the flip side to all this is that it’s the Congress who has its back to the walls and it’s the Congress against whom the public anger is directed at. The victory of BJP in recent polls in state Assemblies and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party is a clear indication of that. At the same time, by failing to govern in many ways and by failing to lead from the front, Manmohan Singh conceded the space to Modi to take advantage of.

In such a scenario, taking on Modi on 2002 riots with no court having indicted him so far and ordering a central panel to investigate the Gujarat snooping case, may backfire on the Congress. The BJP has already said that as the Congress cannot fight Modi politically, it is using investigative agencies to combat him. The BJP has also been rubbing it in by saying that the Congress is afraid of Modi and that the party vice president Rahul Gandhi is no match for the Gujarat CM.

As far as Modi is concerned, in a few months the voters will either put a stamp of approval on him for his governance agenda or they will reject him at the hustings. If they vote for the BJP’s PM candidate, then by and large the so-called stain of the 2002 will be wiped out from Modi’s profile and then his critics and the activists will have a hard time nailing him down. But if he fails to cross the finishing line then not only his baiters outside but his detractors within the BJP will leave no stone unturned in pulling him down. However, as of now it seems that the Modi-juggernaut is on a roll and the Gujarat Chief Minister’s eyes are firmly set on the top post of the country.