Barely hours after Narendra Modi's elevation to the BJP's parliamentary board, virtually signalling his anointment as the party's prime ministerial candidate for the next general election, the Gujarat Chief Minister appeared to yield to a long-standing demand from his detractors for an apology for the "shameful" riots in the State.
"Innocent people were killed, (the) atmosphere was tense and emotions were running high," noted Modi, recalling the worst days of the riots. "Any way you look at it, it was a shameful blot on the image of Vibrant Gujarat." And although he believed in the dictum of "less government" in all matters, he felt that "in this particular instance", the government, which had a pre-eminent role in protecting innocent people's lives, had failed in that responsibility.
"For that failing of the State government, I offer my unequivocal apology, as the current Chief Minister of the vibrant State of Gujarat," Modi said.
He was aware, he said, that there will still be people who will consider his apology as coming too late. "But it is never too late to begin the process of reconciliation," he added. "As I have always maintained, for me, secularism means India First."
The statement of evident contrition immediately set off an avalanche of public responses - from political parties and from ordinary people on social media platforms. Much significance was read into the timing of Modi's apology, which came on the same day that he was nominated to the BJP's parliamentary board, the party's highest decision-making body.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewary drew pointed attention to the timing, noting that Modi's apology seemed a "cynical attempt to wipe his karmic slate clean" and position himself as the BJP's prime-minister-in-waiting. "Nevertheless, the Congress welcomes Modi's apology," he added.
Congress sources told Firstpost, on condition of anonymity, that the party's senior leaders were conflicted about Modi's apology. One section of the party believes that the move could have enormous redemptive power among the electorate - and work to the BJP's and Modi's political advantage. "And since the Congress' entire strategy has thus far revolved around extracting an apology from Modi for the riots, we're now without ammunition," a senior leader acknowledged.
An effort is currently under way for the Congress to retrieve the political ground and claim an even higher moral ground by getting party vice-president Rahul Gandhi to offer a similar public apology - for some issue or the other. "God knows Rahulji has a lot to apologise for," noted a Congress Working Committee member. "So, the issue doesn't matter: what is important is for him to demonstrate publicly that anything Modi can do, Rahulji can do better."
But another section within the Congress sees an opportunity to fill the vacuum at the far right of the political spectrum created by Modi's "lurch to the centre".
"Modi is perhaps looking to render himself acceptable to the secular-minded constituency, so the Congress can seize the Hindutva agenda from the BJP," said a senior Congress Minister, sporting a flaming tika on his forehead. "Don't forget that it was Rajiv Gandhi who arranged for the gates to the disputed Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya to be opened in 1986, which eventually facilitated its demolition."
That political theory appeared to have some credence, going by the response of Narendra Modi's diehard supporters on social media platforms, who said they felt "betrayed" by what appeared to be his abandonment of his image as a hardline Hindutva warrior. "We thought NaMo was an unapologetic lion," one erstwhile supporter noted on Twitter. "But he's shown himself to be a 'sickular' lamb."
In just an hour after Modi's statement offering his apology, the number of his followers on Twitter fell by half. "People are voting with their feet against Modi," the tika-sporting Minister said. "The time is appropriate for Rahulji to claim the crown of 'Hindu Hriday Samrat'."
But there was a further twist in the political tale when, late on Sunday, Modi put out a second statement clarifying that his earlier statement of apology was in fact related to the riots in Gujarat in 1969 and 1985 - not the 2002 riots, as both his supporters and detractors had evidently misread it.
"Please read my statement carefully," Modi said. "Nowhere have I mentioned the 2002 events... My apology was only in respect of the 1969 and 1985 riots, which happened under Congress rule in the State."
"It may appear strange to you that I am apologising for events that happened decades before I became Chief Minister, but in fact, there is a precedent for that," he added. Modi recalled that in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had offered what was widely read as an apology for the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination. That "apology" - or a half-apology - came 21 years after the riots, from someone who was not even in government at the time of the riots.
In fact, Modi said, the Congress 'apology' perhaps offers a template for framing a 'national apology policy'. "Perhaps, as the Congress established, it needs the passage of time - of upto 20 years - for the wounds to heal and for an apology - even if it comes from someone else - to be accepted." On that count, he said, an apology for the 1969 and 1985 riots was long overdue, whereas the one for the 2002 riots ought perhaps to wait for another decade.
Congress leaders, evidently wrong-footed by Modi's apology, were scrambling until late on Sunday to come up with an appropriate response. The Congress Minister who had earlier been peddling a Hindutva line resurfaced briefly - without his tika this time - to say that Modi owed an apology to the nation for "fooling the people with his apology."
"What does Modi think he is doing?" he thundered. "Is this an April Fool's joke or what?"
On that count, the Minister may have been more right than he cared to admit...
Editor's Note: Dear readers, for virtually every day of the year, we at Firstpost offer you hardcore analyses of political events and other grim aspects of our lives. And although we look to make every one of our analyses lively, the tone of gravitas is hard to escape. We thought we might use the occasion of April Fools' Day to have a whimsical look at the manner in which even grave matters of public discourse acquire a farcical edge when the political spin doctors go to work on them. It is not our intention here to make light of the gravity of riots situation. Riots are, of course, deadly serious matters. But, without prejudice to the importance of reconciliation, the politics that gets played with riots - and the demands for an apology - is enough to make fools of us all. We hope you will read this article in the spirit in which it was intended.