‘Modi government attempting to divert attention from financial irregularities unearthed by CAG'
The Congress may have vigorously criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for describing the Supreme Court's order — referring case of the murder of Ehsaan Jafri and 68 others back to a magistrate in Gujarat — as a victory, but this is not the issue the party will give play in the State.
With 15 months left for the next Assembly election in the State, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Congress — which has been out of power in the State since 1991 — will continue to tiptoe around the issue of the riots of 2002, wary of awakening the ghosts of the State-sponsored carnage, and mindful that it could help Chief Minister Narendra Modi consolidate the Hindu vote once again.
To target Mr. Modi, a man whose muscular Hindutva image is his USP (unique selling proposition), for being communal — as a civil servant from the State says wryly — could only be counterproductive, and the Congress knows this, to its cost. In the Assembly election of 2007, Congress president Sonia Gandhi's evocative – Bollywood style – characterisation of Mr. Modi as maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) boomeranged on the party. Congress sources told The Hindu that this time, it did not want to respond to the BJP's agenda; instead, it hopes to set its own in the run-up to the election.
The current debate over the Supreme Court order has neither helped nor damaged Mr. Modi in his home State, a bureaucrat in Gujarat admitted. But what is worrying Mr. Modi, the Congress – and civil society – sources say, is that of late, the Gujarati press has been reporting on accusations of corruption against members of Mr. Modi's government, the generosity of the government in giving top industrialists enormous tracts of land at throwaway prices and finally, the Lokayukta controversy.
In this season of scams, where social activist Anna Hazare's stock is running high, the Congress is clearly hoping to capitalise on these issues in Gujarat in the hope that it might dent Mr. Modi's carefully cultivated aura of being a Vikas Purush.
“I am surprised that those who want a tough Lokpal Bill at the Centre,” Congress functionary in-charge of Gujarat Mohan Prakash told The Hindu, “are objecting to the appointment of an independent, honest Lokayukta in Gujarat.” He stresses that the procedure adopted between 1986 and 2003 in the State was the one that was adopted recently – and was objected to so strenuously by Mr. Modi and his party. There was no Lokayukta in the State from 2003 till recently — a period during which Mr. Modi had been Chief Minister, says Mr. Prakash.
The Congress clearly wants to highlight the BJP's objections to the appointment of a Lokayukta as an instance of the party having something to hide. “The attempt is to divert the attention of the people from the financial irregularities to the tune of Rs.26, 000 crore unearthed by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG)'s reports,” Mr. Prakash said.
Memorandum to President
On September 6, Congress leaders from the State met President Pratibha Patil here. In their memorandum, the Congress alleged that the Gujarat government was opposing R.A. Mehta's appointment as Lokayukta as it was “scared” that as in Karnataka, the Lokayukta would expose the “massive wrong doings, irregularities and corrupt practices.”
The Congress's current low key strategy comes on the heels of a small but significant electoral defeat that Mr. Modi faced in April this year, when the former won the maiden election to the Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation. (GMC). The Congress got a simple majority winning 18 out of the 33 seats. For the Congress, it was an important victory: Gandhinagar is not just the State capital, but senior BJP leader L.K. Advani is the MP for the area.
Even as the Congress celebrated the victory, the BJP maintained that the area was a Congress stronghold and not much should be read into it. But a local political analyst told The Hindu that what was significant was most of the voters in the area were influential government employees: disillusionment in this class with the government of the day, he stressed, always spelt danger for it.
Of course, most Congressmen admit that ousting Mr. Modi from Gujarat still remains a pipe dream, but they are pinning their hopes on the fact that they do have a reservoir of support in the State — in the Lok Sabha polls of 2004 and 2009, the Congress did win 12 and 11 of the 26 seats. Of course, the memory of Mr. Modi's second consecutive victory in 2007 still haunts the Congress. when he seemingly multiplied and proliferated: as Mr. Modi stood on stage whipping up Gujarati pride, a sea of Modis cheered him on; as his rath took to the streets on the campaign trail, a seemingly endless line of Modis ran along. Mr. Modi and his clones (all wearing Modi masks) occupied the entire mindspace in Gujarat in 2007, pushing the Congress out of the frame.
The question is: is the Congress up to the task of destroying the Modi mystique, overcoming the ills of poor organisation, factionalism, an overdependence on dissidence in other parties and often, lack of ideological coherence?