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All Fools Day, April 1, found itself sandwiched this year between two days that presented the crest and ebb of potential prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s career. March 31 was a high point of sorts for the Gujarat CM, being nominated to the BJP’s 12-member central parliamentary board, pretty much its highest decision-making body. April 2, the day after, saw Modi plumbing new depths when he used his brute majority in the assembly to bulldoze a bill in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha that virtually marginalises the governor and HC in the appointment of the state Lokayukta, vesting it in the hands of the very CM it may need to investigate. (The bill seeks to replace a 1986 Act under which Governor Kamala Beniwal had in 2011 filled up a post lying vacant for nine years with retired justice R.A. Mehta.)
With this one act, it became abundantly clear that the “development messiah”—billed as a replacement for ex-PM Atal Behari Vajpayee—is at best a petty politician acting out of pure pique. The Modi government, which had challenged the Lokayukta appointment in 2011 within hours (and contested it all the way to the Supreme Court), failed to get support from any of the judicial forums. After the SC upheld the appointment on January 2, 2013, the state government was back with a review petition which was dismissed on March 14. The egg on its face notwithstanding, the Modi government returned before the apex court four days later, this time with a ‘curative’ petition and that is where the matter rests now. Meanwhile, it used the last day of the budget session to push through a bill that will see the anti-corruption ombudsman probing the misdemeanours of a mountain-load of officials, including sarpanchs and self-government functionaries.
Opposition leader and Congressman Shankersinh Vaghela is emphatic that a scared Modi government is resorting to all sorts of tricks to obstruct the authority: “Its cupboard is rattling with skeletons and a deluge of corruption cases will come hurtling down now. Hence the desperate steps.” (His words seem prescient. A CAG report on April 3 came down heavily on the Modi government and state PSUs for causing a loss of Rs 580 crore to the exchequer with its “undue favours” to some big corporates, including RIL, Essar Steel and Adani Power Ltd.) State finance minister Nitin Patel counters the charge by saying that “we are merely following on the lines of the Lokpal Bill”. The fact of the matter is in the entire Lokayukta episode Modi has acted like a petulant child, rather than the mature leader befitting a diverse country like India. Contrast this with the approach of Justice Mehta who has still not taken charge—though there is no court stay—advancing the plea that it is “a question of judicial propriety”.
It is the same peevish, obstinate nature which had come to the fore when he forced party chief Nitin Gadkari to keep out saffronite arch rival Sanjay Joshi from the national executive in May last year or having a tainted Amit Shah elevated to general secretary in Rajnath Singh’s new team, an in-your-face defiance designed to prove his clout at the detriment of the party organisation.
The Amit Shah issue is a case in point, a former home minister who shines in reflected Modi glory but had to quit the government after being chargesheeted by the CBI in the fake encounter case of gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh. After an extended time in Sabarmati jail, he was released on bail on the condition that he would stay out of Gujarat. The ban was relaxed before the 2012 assembly polls to enable him to contest, which he duly won by a big margin. Amit Shah now also stands chargesheeted in the Tulsiram Prajapati fake encounter case. A close confidant of Modi who allegedly headed the dirty tricks department during his ministerial days, Shah presently faces charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, abduction, destruction of evidence, criminal intimidation and extortion in the continuing cases.
For Modi, Amit Shah is a trusted handyman who carries out any task assigned to him loyally. For all the turmoil the party has been through in Gujarat, Shah has remained steadfastly attached to Modi. The thinking, perhaps, is that in the days to come, Shah will prove immensely useful as Modi makes a bid for Delhi, as much in Delhi as to keep an eye on the flock in Gujarat.
The Gujarat CM’s impatience with authority other than his own is the stuff of folklore. The Lokayukta isn’t the only example. Education has been another field where the say of the chancellor (the governor) in state-headed universities has invited Modi’s attention. In gross violation of UGC guidelines, the state has now pushed through an amendment ensuring that the ‘governor’ is replaced by the ‘government’. “This is the way Modi seeks to subvert established procedures,” points out state Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi. Earlier also, the Modi government had tried to push through a Common University Act in the state but the move was stonewalled by then governor Nawal Kishore Sharma.
Interestingly, the day Modi was being anointed in the CPB, the VHP was busy unleashing a Hindutva agenda in his Maninagar (Ahmedabad) constituency at a public rally attended by RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat. VHP boss Praveen Togadia, a staunch Modi opponent, hit out at the CM (of course, without taking his name) while speaking at a Hindu sangam rally. The VHP, it seems, is determined to heighten Hindutva temperatures in the run-up to the 2014 elections, raking up issues like the “safety of Hindu women” and a perennial fallback, the Ram temple at Ayodhya.
Modi and Togadia have been at loggerheads for long. Indeed, almost every Sangh parivar outfit stands split in Gujarat. The VHP had become persona non grata here in 2008, after the police picked up state general secretary Ashwin Patel, a close confidant of Togadia, and charged him with ‘sedition and inflaming communal passions’. He spent considerable time behind bars before higher-ups intervened and Patel was released.
In Gujarat, Modi’s dictatorial streak has hit farcical lengths. It’s common knowledge that party legislators send in signed blank forms for questions to be asked later in the House. The re-election of R.C. Fardu as state BJP chief came as no surprise. District leaders signed on blank forms to re-elect a man who had lost in the assembly polls. Some sought to enquire but were sternly shooed off by Amit Shah. His being the only name, he was duly re-elected. Thus it is that Modi is both the party and the government in Gujarat. Indeed, there is no BJP in the state, only brand Modi! And as the brand moves to a central stage, who overwhelms whom remains to be seen.
By R.K. Misra in Gandhinagar