For three days running, there was no reaction from the Bharatiya Janata Party to reports that the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, had evacuated ‘15,000 Gujaratis’ from Uttarakhand in the course of a two-day visit to the hill State. But with doubts growing over how such a feat was achieved, if it was achievable at all, the party finally broke its silence on Wednesday. BJP president Rajnath Singh said he had spoken to Mr. Modi who denied making any such claim. Mr. Singh also wondered at the source for the figure of 15,000. “Where did this come from”? he asked.

The journalist who first wrote the story with the ‘15,000 Gujarati pilgrims’ claim has come out with the answer. He said the figure emerged from Mr. Singh’s party, the BJP, itself. Anand Soondas — chief of the National News Features of Times of India (TOI), and Editor, Sunday Times — told The Hindu that his source for the figure was Anil Baluni, the BJP’s spokesperson in Haldwani in Uttarakhand.

Mr. Soondas said the conversation between him and Mr. Baluni had taken place in “the presence of Uttarakhand BJP president, Tirath Singh Rawat, a bunch of youth leaders from Gujarat and a couple of bureaucrats from Gujarat.” Mr. Soondas said he had asked them if they were sure if all those taken back were Gujaratis, and the answer was in the affirmative. Mr. Baluni is quoted in the story as saying, “It’s amazing what he (Modi) has done here.”

The Hindu called Mr. Baluni to confirm if he had indeed given the story to Mr. Soondas but he first asked to be called later and then switched off the phone. He was unreachable till late in the evening.

Headlined, “Narendra Modi lands in Uttarakhand, flies out with 15,000 Gujaratis’, Mr Soondas’s story had appeared in The Times of India on June 23. The story made many claims in addition to the rescue of 15,000 pilgrims. Among them: requisitioning of four Boeings and 80 Toyota Innovas by Mr. Modi towards passage of the rescued pilgrims; air-dropping of a complete medical team on Hardwar; and setting up of camps across the flood-hit areas.

The Gujarat Chief Minister’s supporters greeted the news in jubilation, citing it as proof of his super-managerial skills, and saying that the performance of the Centre, the Uttarakhand Government, and even the Armed Forces, had paled in comparison. BJP office-bearers hailed Mr. Modi’s effort as a model to be emulated by the Centre and other States.

But soon, criticism started on two grounds. The first punctured the ‘15,000’ figure, with several reports showing how it was logistically impossible to conduct such an ‘evacuation’ operation in the limited time span and in the prevailing weather conditions. Others pointed out that even if true, the act of only rescuing Gujaratis, did not enhance the image of a prime ministerial aspirant. It was after this that Rajnath Singh stepped in and questioned the veracity of the story.

Mr. Soondas was unfazed by criticism that he had not exercised due diligence in presenting the 15,000 figure as fact. He said: “I believe rescuing 15,000 people over four days is actually possible since it refers to providing them food, transport, logistics.” He defended the pitch of the story, and argued: “It is not possible to say everything in the introduction. The headline seems to have brought a sharper focus to the story.”

In the past few days, a spate of new stories and blogs — sourced to Gujarat government officials — have made fresh claims about Mr. Modi’s rescue efforts in Uttarakhand and praised him for showing the way forward in disaster management.

( The Hindu competes with The Times of India )