The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to respond to a plea seeking contempt action against him for his election speech allegedly justifying the murder of gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh in a fake police encounter.
The order has sharpened the political debate around the chief minister in Gujarat, where the second phase of polling will be held on December 16. Many of the 95 seats where voting will take place had seen rioting in 2002, followed by strong communal polarisation.
<b1>In his reply to the court, Modi is likely to take the same line that he took last week, when the Election Commission asked him to explain the same speech: that the recording of the speech does not show him making the statement attributed to him by the media.
The chief minister had also told the poll panel that he spoke against terrorism only as a political response to Sonia Gandhi’s alleged description of him as a "merchant of death".
At an election rally in Mangrol on December 4, Modi had asked the crowd what should be done to a man like Sohrabuddin who hoarded weapons. The crowd had roared back, "Kill him," after which Modi had said: "Should my police go to seek Sonia Gandhi’s permission for that?"
The Sohrabuddin encounter case is in the Supreme Court, and Modi’s critics say his contextual reference to the killing makes for a clear case against him. Sohrabuddin’s brother Rubabuddin is seeking contempt action and registration of a criminal case against the chief minister for his statements.
The court has exempted the chief minister from personal appearance for now. This means that he can file his response through lawyers, and the order will not disrupt his campaign. If the BJP loses the election, however, there’s no saying what position the new government will take before the Supreme Court - and Modi may face more troubles.
Reacting to the Supreme Court notice, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javedekar said, "There ought not to be a judicial review of a political debate on terrorism." He added, "We have high respect for the Supreme Court and will duly reply to the notice. Modi’s speech was a political response to the earlier speech by Sonia Gandhi in which she had described him as maut ka saudagar."
Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan hailed the notice, and said her party hoped the court would deal suitably with "the man who sponsored riots and came to power on the dead bodies of Godhra".
(With inputs from Saroj Nagi)