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. It is not as simple as it sounds. It's a bit like erasing one's past. And the recurrence of Sanjeev Bhatt-type episodes will never let that happen.
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'.
Gujarat and the rest of India are two different political-electoral propositions altogether. His party, the BJP, would be taking a big political risk by projecting him for the top job despite the knowledge of his weaknesses.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.
Three senior police officials have come out in the open with 'evidence' which they claim is good enough to nail the chief minister and senior officials for their acts of omission and commission during the riots. Some have been victimised systematically for opening up too. It is not usual. The chief minister is known to be tough on his detractors but in this case the more he tries to act tough the more he is likely to come under a cloud of suspicion.
Bhatt, for the record, was arrested by the Gandhinagar police for allegedly forcing a constable to file a false affidavit supporting his claim that he was present in the controversial 27 February, 2007 meeting where Modi allegedly asked the police to go slow on the rioters. Earlier in April this year, he had filed a detailed affidavit in the Supreme Court, listing what happened on that night.
He had also filed an additional affidavit citing the Gujarat government was systematically subverting justice in several key cases. He also claimed to have documentary evidence indicating the involvement of some ruling party politicians in the Haren Pandya murder. He promises to reveal more.
Surely, it's a direct challenge to the government. And there's no way the government could have stayed indifferent to the allegations. But its actions have helped the anti-Modi groups find a rallying point. The human rights groups have upped the ante and the Congress has gone on record saying Modi is 'dictatorial' in his approach.
The situation might snowball. On Monday, NGOs held meetings in Delhi and Mumbai and said Bhatt was a victim of political vendetta. Muslim organisations in several cities called it "state-sponsored intimidation".
"As long as the Gujarat government felt they would not be exposed they did nothing…Bhatt's testimony is crucial as it will show that Modi and others participated in a criminal conspiracy to conduct revenge killings and destroy evidence," said Teesta Setalvad of NGO, Citizen for Justice and Peace.
Modi's detractors are now planning to rope in Gandhian Anna Hazare to fight for Bhatt's cause. The Congress would be foolish to let go of the opportunity.
Where does all this leave Modi's prime ministerial ambition? Between a rock and hard place for certain. He might go to town claiming he has changed. But it is also an admission that not everything was alright with him in the first place.
Even if he metamorphoses into a different person — his refusal to accept the Muslim cap from a cleric points to the contrary though — it won't be easy for him to erase the past. The likes of Bhatt will keep surfacing to trouble him.
His big ambition is fraught with serious problems. It's time he and the BJP did a reality check.
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