Why Modi may never be able to leverage SIT ‘clean chit’

Modi and his army of supporters can claim justifiably that he has exorcised the ghost of the 2002 riots. But in the political plane, it's a lose-lose proposition for one of India's most polarising leaders.

Vembu April 11, 2012 06:43:35 IST
Why Modi may never be able to leverage SIT ‘clean chit’

The legal runaround over the 2002 Gujarat riots continues, with no immediate end in sight. On Tuesday, barely minutes after a court in Ahmedabad made public the Special Investigation Team’s finding that it found no prosecutable evidence against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the Gulberg Society killings, the petitioner, Zakia Jafri, said she would “fight it out”. Social activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been taking up the riots cases, too pledged to “fight to the finish”.

The search for justice for the riot victims is thus at risk of going into an infinite loop. For one thing, the Gulberg Society killings case has already been to the Supreme Court and back. The SIT had been appointed by the Supreme Court in 2009 to investigate Zakia Jafri’s complaint; in September 2011, when the SIT submitted its interim report, the Supreme Court had left it to the local court to decide whether Modi and the other accused should be prosecuted, but ruled that the case cannot be closed without hearing Zakia Jafri.

Why Modi may never be able to leverage SIT clean chit

Narendra Modi faces a lose-lose proposition. Reuters

The final word on the SIT recommendation for closure of the case against Modi must await another round of hearings, beginning 10 May.

There is much riding on this case. The petition by Zakia Jafri and Setalvad relates not just to the killing of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri and others in the Gulberg Society massacre. In a larger sense, it targets Modi and the other accused for the violence in nine districts of Gujarat in the days following the Godhra train carnage of 27 February 2002. If Modi were ever convicted in this case, he will be seen as the chief patron of the riots.

For that reason, the case has come to be seen by both civil society activists led by Setalvad and political parties as the key to Modi’s political passage, and even his very survival. Ahead of the Assembly elections due later this year, an adverse verdict would have effectively neutralised any hopes – such as those nursed by Modi’s vocal army of supporters – that he can spread his wings at the national level and emerge as the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister.

But the dilemma that confronts Modi is that even a ‘clean chit’ such as the one that the SIT has given him, may not give him the political liftoff that he is likely looking for in order to go national.
Modi has in recent years been looking to ‘outgrow’ his hardline Hindutva image by focussing on development and good governance: his recent string of ‘sadbhavana missions’ and fasts are seen as the nearest thing to an expression of contrition for the Gujarat riots that happened under his watch.

Yet, Modi today is locked in an image trap. He has a core group of very vocal supporters who constitute the hardcore “base” of the BJP. But although the disproportionately high decibel level of this base may make it seem larger than life, its support isn’t big enough for him to be catapulted to prime ministership, where, given the current state of disarray in the BJP, the party will need coalition allies to form a government.

However, Modi’s efforts to rebrand himself as a kindler, gentler leader – in the way that his sadbhavana missions suggest – risk losing some of the support from this very base that is the pillar of his politics today.

In that sense, Modi may be the LK Advani of the next generation. Within the BJP during the late 1980s and the 1990s, Advani was the most popular leader among the hardcore base of the party. The Ayodhya campaign that he spearheaded during his term as BJP president saw the party capitalise on Rajiv Gandhi’s many follies and become a formidable parliamentary force.

Yet, when the time came for the BJP-led NDA to form a government in the mid 1990s, Advani lost out to the far more moderate AB Vajpayee – simply because for the allies on whom the BJP depended, Advani (of the rath yatra fame) was far too polarising a political figure.

In much the same way, Modi today remains a politically polarising figure. Facts count for little in a political environment where both his supporters and his detractors are swayed excessively by faith in their perception.

For diehard Modi fans, this may seem an unfair way of checkmating his ascendance at the last hurdle, when in fact he has carried his home State thrice over (and would likely win in a US presidential-style election against any other leader); has established himself as a ‘doer’; and, now, will likely secure a ‘clean chit’ in the Gujarat riots.

But in the same way that the prospect of Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister faced immense pushback from the political establishment even after she had led her party to victory in the 2004 elections (BJP Sushma Swaraj famously threatened to shave her head as penance for the ignominy of a foreign-born leader becoming India’s Prime Minister), Modi too faces formidable odds at the last hurdle.

A legal ‘clean chit’ of the sort that the SIT has given Modi counts for little in the political plane. He and his supporters can claim justifiably that he has exorcised the ghost of the 2002 riots, but it won't take him far.  In that sense, it’s a lose-lose proposition for Modi.

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