It is the biggest blot on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s starched saffron kurta. The world over, when his detractors talk about him, they start by referring to the riots of February-March 2002 during his chief ministership, in which 1,180 people were killed.
But in the state where the riots occurred, despite the elections being barely a fortnight away — Gujarat will vote on April 30 — Modi’s political opponents are reluctant to discuss the matter. They do not want to corner him on his alleged role in the riots. They do not want to discuss the recent jailing of his social welfare minister Maya Kodnani, for her actions at the time. Both the Congress, as well as Muslims in the state, would rather pretend the stain does not exist.
“Yeh sab uparwaale ke haathon mein hein. Yeh duniya bas uski marzi se chalti hein(It was all God will),” said Mohammed Saif, 42, a Gandhinagar tailor, when asked .
One hurled shoe at home minister P. Chidambaram's press conference in Delhi may have brought the anti Sikh riots of November- December 1984 back into current political discourse, to embarass the Congress. But there is no question of anyone trying to use the 2002 riots to embarass Modi..
“The issue is development,” said union textile minister Shankar Sinh Vaghela, who is leading the Congress campaign in the state. His constituency Panchmahals saw some of the worst rioting in the state.
When asked about minority welfare in Gujarat, Vaghela referred to the 15-point programme for minorities and the separate ministry that the UPA had set up. He did not mention the recent relief package announced by the Centre for the state’s riot affected.
“We are going to focus on how much better a prime minister Manmohan Singh makes than Advani,” said state Congress spokesperson and former Leader of Opposition Arjun Modhwadia. “We will also expose the fake claims of rapid development in the state being made by Modi.”
What about the riots? “There are many issues like the failure of law and order, etc.The riots come under than category.”
Why such wilful blindness? The unspoken fear among Modi’s opponents is that any critical reference to the riots will take away the few Hindu votes that are with them. Muslims, comprising barely 10 per cent of Gujarat’s 5.05 crore population, can affect the electoral outcome of only three or four constituencies. It makes no sense to please Muslims by antagonising Hindus.
“Muslims vote for the Congress anyway. What choice do they have?” asked a party leader. “There is no need for us to woo Muslims. We need to woo Hindus.”
Muslims echo the sentiment. “We will vote for Congress,” said Dildar Umrao Sayeed, whose house was burnt down in the riots and who will be deposing against Kodnani. “We know they don’t support us on the riots, but there is no alternative.”