For the Congress, the fact that the former Gujarat Minister of State for Home Amit Shah is behind bars for his alleged involvement in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case is clearly a matter of some satisfaction. It has put its principal political, the BJP, on the defensive. Simultaneously, the Congress hopes this will send out a positive message to the minorities, especially in Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, where Assembly elections are due this year, in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
If the BJP's central leaders turned down Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's invitation to lunch on the eve of the current Parliament session, accusing the UPA government of “misusing” the Central Bureau of Investigation, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi reads the current activities of the CBI as a plot against his State: “They have been maligning me for the last eight years. Now they have started maligning the State's judicial system,” he said in a no-holds barred speech at a rally in Ahmedabad on Saturday, and then asked, “Am I doing anything wrong by fighting terrorism?”
The Congress sees the BJP's response to the CBI's line of action in the Sohrabuddin case as a sign that “the party is on the run,” especially as it has not evinced any enthusiasm for an early discussion on the CBI in Parliament. So, what is the message that the Congress is hoping will go out from all this?
Rejecting the idea that the party hopes to make political gains in Gujarat, especially as reports are coming in of the possibility of the investigating agencies closing in on Mr. Modi himself, Congress general secretary in-charge of the State, B.K. Hariprasad, told The Hindu “For us, what is most important is that people should not lose faith in the legal system. Everybody in this country is entitled to a fair trial and no one, howsoever powerful, is above the law – that's the message. People cannot be eliminated in encounters.”
But whatever the impact the Congress hopes the current investigations will make nationally, what does it hope to achieve in Gujarat? In the State, the party, wary of giving Mr. Modi any advantage, is maintaining a very low profile, occasionally indulging in some verbal sparring, as Leader of the Opposition Shaktisinh Gohil did on July 28. “Whenever there is an atrocity on a woman, the tormentor loses power,” Mr. Gohil said, citing the example of Sita and Ravana from the Ramayana, while referring to the murder of Kausarbi, Sohrabuddin's wife.
“Politically, Modi is still strong, if one is to judge by the number of people showing up at his rallies,” a senior Congress leader from Gujarat, analysing the situation, told The Hindu. “But there is public disapproval of the encounters, and that is reflected in the Gujarati media, which is reporting on the current events in a neutral fashion, unlike at the time of the riots in 2002.” Nevertheless, the Congress morale is low in the State, with party leaders acknowledging that they don't expect to do well in the coming local body elections. They are now resting their hopes on Mr. Modi being called in for questioning by the CBI. “If the CBI has enough evidence and is able to arrest Mr. Modi,” the Congress leader said, “then things could change radically. The BJP would be forced to replace him, and given the divisions in the BJP State unit, we could then get some advantage.”
Clearly, the Congress is a demoralised force in Gujarat: as long as Mr. Modi rules the roost in the State, it does not see much of a role for itself there. Meanwhile, it is banking on sending out a strong message to the minorities elsewhere — and praying that this issue will help to break the new found unity in the Opposition, in evidence in Parliament.