By Swapan Dasgupta
During the 2007 election campaign for the Gujarat Assembly, an election which the Congress believed was eminently winnable, BJP's central observer Arun Jaitley maintained a checklist of must-do items for the evening. Early in the evening, there was a mandatory meeting with the low-key, soft-spoken V.Satish, a RSS-full-timer in the BJP, who would brief him on organisational matters relating to the entire Sangh parivar. This would be followed by a leisurely dinner which resembled a convivial dinner, attracting all manner of people from journalists and fellow lawyers to political tourists. Then, every alternate evening, there would be a 30-minute car ride to the spartan official residence of Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar, a private meeting that stretched well past midnight. On the other evenings, the post-prandial confabulations were reserved for a quiet meeting with the only other man who had his pulse firmly on the politics of Gujarat: Minister of State for Home Amit Shah.
If public profile was any guide, the portly, balding and scraggily bearded 46-year-old MLA from Sarkhej—the glittering part of 'new' Ahmedabad where the BJP majority, it used to be said, was weighed rather than counted—was just another junior minister in a government where the Chief Minister towered over all others. To those in the know of things, the taciturn Amit bhai had a reputation for quiet efficiency and enjoying the trust of a Chief Minister who chose to be regally aloof. His lowly status as a junior minister never reflected his true status as perhaps the most important political manager of the Modi dispensation. This must have weighed in the calculations of those who gave the CBI its political clearance to charge Shah with murder, extortion and obstruction of justice.
On his part, Modi never had the slightest doubt that the Supreme Court had unwittingly handed the Congress Party a deadly weapon of political combat by directing the CBI to investigate the 'encounter death' of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a criminal who shot to national fame after his death became the issue of a Modi-Sonia Gandhi sparring match in 2007. From early May, coinciding with the arrest of IPS officer Abhay Chudasma, he had alerting the national leadership of the BJP of what he believed were the real intentions of the CBI inquiry: to drag Shah into the case and pave the way for a legal-cum-political assault on the Chief Minister himself. Those puzzled by the BJP's unrelenting assault on the "Congress Bureau of Investigation" throughout last May and June were possibly unaware of the sub-text of the counter-offensive. Equally, those mystified by the BJP's eccentric choice of senior criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani for the Rajya Sabha, may now gauge that the Gujarat Chief Minister was in the process of 'capacity building' for what promises to be long and bitter fight. Ironically, the Congress spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed gave some of the game away when he demanded last Sunday that it was Modi who needed to answer various questions about the transfer of IPS officers linked to the case.
Whether the "Delhi Sultanate", as Modi derisively describes the Union Government, will opt for a frontal assault on the man who worsted Sonia in the 2007 'mauth ki saudagar' electoral encounter or prefer the death by a thousand cuts approach isn't clear as yet. For the moment, the political message of the CBI against Shah is that, far from being a doughty protector of national security, the Gujarat Government used robust patriotism as a cloak for running a protection and extortion racket with Shah as the mastermind and compliant policemen as foot-soldiers. It has been suggested that Sohrabuddin was eliminated, not because he was involved in a plot to kill Modi, but because Shah had taken a supari from some frightened marble traders of Rajasthan.
A more ridiculous version of events suggests that it was Sohrabuddin who was the 'actor' in the sex film of the discredited BJP general secretary Sanjay Joshi. As such, or so the argument goes, he had to be eliminated to prevent the sordid truth of the BJP internal feuds from coming out in the open. Mercifully, this fanciful version of political intrigue, attributed to a prominent human rights activist, doesn't find a place in the CBI version of events.
High level functionaries in Gujarat suggest that the CBI went the whole hog to try and link Shah to hawala operations and the benami purchase of land with the proceeds. It is understood that the CBI questioned nearly one thousand village patwaris to find out if land had been purchased by Shah or members of his family. This over-zealousness, it is whispered, even prompted Modi to remark that the CBI would be better served by going through the computerised data bank of land records. The premier investigation agency even organised its own sting operation through an arrested policeman who has allegedly turned approver to demonstrate that 'encounter specialist' D.G. Vanzara had acted on Shah's telephonic instructions.
The legal minds in the BJP national leadership who have studied the CBI charges say that, as of now, the case against Shah is flimsy and based on inferences and testimonies of people with very dubious backgrounds. Shah, it is true, made innumerable telephone calls to the various policemen who have also been charged with murder but, curiously, there are no records to show any conversations on the day either Sohrabuddin or his associate Tulsiram Prajapati were killed. This lacuna is being sought to be filled by verbal depositions from approvers—ex-DSP N.K. Amin has already been outed as one—or through sting operations. In the words of a BJP leader, the CBI's modus operandi was "arrest first and then discover the evidence."
The BJP believes that the Congress objective in the coming weeks is to create a hype of Modi's increasing vulnerability in Gujarat which it hopes will unnerve the bureaucracy. This impression of fragility will create conditions for many more officers to 'sing for their supper' before the CBI and reveal embarrassing truths or untruths that will nail Shah and, at a pinch, even implicate Modi.
The attempt by the CBI, through the media, to paint Shah as a shady figure, habitually inclined to accept bribes and come to the rescue of stock market scamsters appears to be part of the strategy to destroy the halo Modi has built around himself as the foremost practitioner of good and honest governance. It is a small but noteworthy detail that the bid to derail Modi as the 'mass murderer' of the post-Godhra riots has been shelved for the moment. It was seen to be yielding diminishing returns. The focus is on instances of arbitrariness that establish a moral equivalence between Modi and other 'lesser' politicians: the 'Lion of Gujarat' cannot claim special status.
At a national level, the Congress appears to have mounted a full-scale political assault on the BJP. The past fortnight has seen resurrection of the 'Hindu terror' revelations that came to an abrupt end after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the agitation against the alleged illegal mining operations of the Reddy brothers of Bellary in Karnataka and, finally, the arrest of Amit Shah.
Part of the operations may have coincided with an attempt to break the show of Opposition evident in the Bharat Bandh of July 6. It is possible the Congress will be partially successful in this venture although it is doubtful that the resentment against price rise will disappear just because the BJP is portrayed as a disreputable party. On the flip side, however, the determination of the BJP to fight "Congress skulduggery" could see the derailment of the Government's legislative programme. It is understood that the Prime Minister is concerned that any appeal to the BJP to cooperate with the Government on the Nuclear Liabilities Bill—something that is calculated to sweeten the visit of President Barack Obama in November—will not bear fruit.
The tensions within the Government over the rushed CBI chargesheet could even offer a possible lifeline to the beleaguered Shah.
Regardless of whether or not the CBI succeeds in convicting a man who was an undeniable asset to Modi, even the most ardent supporters of the Gujarat Chief Minister cannot deny that the events of the past week have been a major setback. The BJP may well be convinced of Shah's complete innocence—something that Modi took care to proclaim publicly—but it will be a while before this can be established by a court. Having secured his arrest and played out the 'incriminating evidence' in the media, a process that is likely to persist for a few more months, there is no tearing hurry on the part of the CBI to rush through with the case. From the Congress' point of view too, unless it is convinced of securing a speedy conviction, it makes sense to allow the case to linger and for Shah to rot as an undertrial for the foreseeable future or at least until the 2012 Gujarat election.
Unlike some countries where the principle of innocent until proved guilty actually holds good and is supported by speedy justice, Indian public life works on the assumption that a chargesheet, accompanied by a prolonged denial of bail, is as good as conviction. Since the judicial process takes a decade or more to resolve complex cases—even the Supreme Court's monitoring doesn't appear to make too much of a difference—the accused are held to be guilty by default, and more so because there is a cynical belief that the rich and powerful always get away. To that extent, it would seem that the shrill media coverage and his imprudent disappearance from public view for two days have cast Shah as a villain and swayed middle class sentiment against both Modi and the BJP. This impression is likely to linger for some time.
Shah, however, is an incidental casualty of a Great Game: for the Congress, the only worthwhile target is Modi. The choice of Modi as Political Enemy No. 1 is partially based on the demonology around the man. As someone who has been reviled as an unrepentant 'mass murderer' and declared persona non grata by the Washington, the hate-Modi campaign has some obvious benefits. Apart from satisfying Muslims and other minorities who regard him as the man responsible for the bloody riots of 2002, it establishes the Congress as an uncompromising defender of secularism among liberal Hindus with distaste for political Hindutva. Since liberal Hindus have an influence far beyond their numbers and dominate strategic institutions such as the academia and media, a resolute anti-Modi positioning secures political benefits far beyond narrow electoral politics.
Within Gujarat, as past events have repeatedly demonstrated, targeting Modi doesn't automatically yield tangible returns. In the elections of 2002 and 2007, the Gujarat electorate has shown an inclination to be swayed by Modi's fierce mixture of regional and Hindu pride. As long as Congress lacks local leaders who can match Modi's charisma and as long as the BJP government can deliver a large measure of innovative governance, Modi can fall back on popular support to bail him out of a political offensive mounted against him from Delhi.
Yet, it is well known in BJP circles that Modi will not be content to spend the rest of his days lording over Gujarat. Having already established himself as the state's longest serving Chief Minister and having presided over the state's silver jubilee celebrations, Modi has an eye out for his moment nationally. Hugely popular among the BJP's committed supporters, Modi is aware that there is a section which believes that only he is capable of leading a demoralised party to recovery and, possibly, power at the Centre.
Unfortunately for him, this is a view that isn't uniformly shared, not even by those who admire the Gujarat leader and believe he is capable of playing a major national role. The scepticism is based on the cold logic of existing electoral politics.
The kerfuffle over advertisements praising Modi's assistance to the flood victims of the Kosi floods has resurrected the issue of the Gujarat leader's political untouchability outside his home state. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's sharp reaction to Modi's self-publicity may have been triggered by those in his camp who see the Janata Dal (U) grabbing the entire 'secular', anti-Congress space, just as Lalu Prasad Yadav did in the 1990s. However, while Nitish is aware that such a move could well prove to be reckless at the present juncture—not least because he needs the BJP to garner the state's upper caste votes—he is equally concerned that Modi's presence during the forthcoming election campaign could lead to the consolidation of the state's 15 per cent Muslim vote against the NDA, as happened during the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. At the same time, there is no guarantee that, apart from enthusing BJP workers, Modi's presence would add value to the NDA campaign.
Although the hiccups of the BJP-JD(U) relationship appear to have subsided following a convivial dinner meeting between Nitish and BJP president Nitin Gadkari last week, the tensions in Bihar underline the problems Modi is likely to face in his quest for the national stage.
For the past eight years, Modi has consciously sought to reinvent himself as the upholder of purposeful and innovative governance. He has received glowing testimonials from India's corporate big-wigs and Gujarat has been consistently topping the economic growth tables. The Sohrabuddin issue may have been the last minute garnishing of the election campaign of 2007 but most observers recognise that the impressive BJP victory wouldn't have been possible had Modi not added an emotive appeal to a handsome list of tangible achievements.
Modi's biggest political failure has been his inability to unburden himself of the 'communal' tag he acquired after the 2002 riots. The image of Hindu Hridaysamrat is a heady one and assiduously promoted by Modi's fans on the internet. Unfortunately, this is an image that doesn't correspond with the priorities of today's electorate, as the BJP found to its cost after some of its supporters chose to tom-tom the shrill rabble-rousing of Varun Gandhi and the spirit of Hindu retribution in Kandhamal, Orissa. Additionally, most of the NDA constituents, with the sole exception of the Shiv Sena are uneasy with the image of Modi (though they have a convivial relationship with the man) and there is no surety the NDA wouldn't truncate further if Modi was anointed leader of the BJP.
Arguably, some of these losses could be offset if Modi brings with him a huge incremental vote, just as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in 1996. Secularism has been shown to be eminently negotiable when confronted with the realities of the public mood. Unfortunately for Modi, the BJP of 2010 isn't the BJP of 1996 and riding the crest of an emotional Hindu upsurge. True, the mood could change abruptly and trigger a Modi wave. In its absence, Modi has to unburden himself of the 2002 baggage and appear as something different to the people of India. It is his tragedy that every step he takes in that direction is nullified by a secular onslaught centred on the memories of 2002 and the painting of Modi the 'Muslim killer'. The Amit Shah controversy may well turn out to be an elaborate piece of fiction but it has once again stereotyped Modi.
For Gadkari, the affable self-made businessman from Nagpur who was entrusted by the RSS to bring some order and purpose to a fractious and demoralised party, the dilemma over a role for Modi belongs to the distant future. His priority has been to secure a smooth succession to the post-L.K. Advani generation of leaders and to hold the BJP together for a time when the political climate is more conducive.
After seven months in office, Gadkari has made a hesitant beginning. On the positive side, he has somehow stopped bitter inter-personal rivalries from spilling into the open, prevented the RSS from micro-managing the party and initiated a capacity building programme that is based on management science. On the minus side, he has been personally drawn into controversy because of his penchant for colourful colloquialisms—some say he models himself after the Marathi film personality Dada Kondke—and for his inability to keep a tight rein on the state satraps. The latter failure saw the BJP being gazumped and made a fool of by Shibu Soren and his son Hemant in Jharkhand. Equally damaging was his inability to prevent the Reddy brothers from holding the Karnataka Government and Chief Minister B.S. Yedyurappa to ransom.
There is one feature of Gadkari that has endeared him to the party: his political integrity. He may have taken wrong steps or even erred in his judgment of people but it is accepted that his motives are not mala fide and devious. He hasn't let narrow caste or factional considerations get the better of political common sense.
Where Gadkari has made no impression as yet is in resolving the deeper existential dilemma of the BJP: how does the party confront the realities of an India that is no longer enamoured of identity politics?
In the 1990s, the BJP grew dramatically and came to occupy the centre stage of national politics because it had a Big Idea. Hindutva may not have been everyone's cup of tea but the idea did galvanise a tremendous amount of political energy in favour of the BJP. Today, the constant invocation to Hindu nationalism is yielding negative returns. The BJP knows it, as does the more worldly section of the RSS. Yet, there is a strange reluctance to face up to reality.
Taking comfort in archaic certitudes is ultimately a self-defeating proposition in a changing world. This may explain why a disproportionate amount of the BJP's energies are expended in either preaching to the converted or waging factional wars for a share of a shrinking political cake. Except in Karnataka, the BJP hasn't grown since 2004. It is in search of a leader and another Big Idea. Modi comes closest to offering some light at the end of the tunnel. Alone among the BJP leaders he inspires. This is why the BJP will cling to him, fight his battles, and why the Congress will go all out to demolish him in the eyes of the people.