In the middle of a heated election campaign, largely based on the leadership issue, the Supreme Court ruling on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots could cut either way for the BJP. The apex court has asked a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into Mr Modi’s conduct during the riots and also that of a cabinet minister, three MLAs, three Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists and some Indian Police Service officers.
At one level, the timing could not have been worse for the BJP which is engaged in a tough fight in an election that could be anyone’s game as of now. However, at another level, this would be one way for Mr Modi, who has avoided any reference to the riots during this campaign, to come clean on the controversial issue. He is, after all, being spoken of as a prime ministerial candidate. There is no doubt that his abilities as an administrator in his state are noteworthy. Gujarat has among the best development indicators of any Indian state. Nevertheless, Mr Modi’s reputation has been marred by the riots and the role that his administration played during the carnage and after. The ghosts of the past never seem to go away. Congress candidates like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler have had to stand aside in Delhi owing to doubts over their role in the horrific 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The Gujarat riots have been bogged down in controversy since they took place. There are many who feel that Godhra was the starting point for what is now seen as among the worst riots in independent India. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is also on record as having said that the ‘fire’ started in Godhra. The stories of those who lost their lives have been documented by many human rights organisations. But, as the case of Ehsan Jaffri, the former Congress MP, who was mercilessly butchered by a mob and whose wife has filed the petition on which the apex court has acted shows, there has been no closure to the cases of 2002.
Mr Modi should welcome this opportunity even as his state goes to the polls. If he is a contender for the Prime Minister’s office, and he has given no indication that he is averse to it, he should begin his move towards it with a clean chit from a team appointed by the highest court in the land.