Marking Out The Roadmap
- Will the Ishrat Jahan case scorch Modi’s PM dreams? It’s definitely going to singe him.
- Two persons close to him may be questioned for calls around the time of the encounter.
- To counter this, the BJP could prepone the announcement of Modi being its PM candidate.
- Modi could contest from Varanasi and Allahabad. He may also contest from Gujarat.
- Modi’s aide Shah, now in UP, has raised the emotional pitch by invoking the Ram temple.
How close to Narendra Modi will the fake encounter probes actually get? There is the possibility of a private secretary to the Gujarat chief minister being questioned by the CBI about receiving a phone call from the telephone number of a particular individual at the time the Ishrat Jahan encounter took place in June 2004. Amit Shah, a BJP general secretary considered the closest aide of the chief minister, is likely to be questioned too, again about calls made from a particular number around the same time.
As Project Modi—the idea of making him the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate—moves on, the Ishrat Jahan case proceeds too, threatening to foul his maps. Outlook has learnt from well-placed sources that the CBI is planning to file additional chargesheets almost simultaneously in both the Ishrat Jahan case and in another encounter case involving a young man in his twenties, Sadiq Jamal, handed over to Gujarat police 10 days before he was shot dead near an Ahmedabad cinema in 2003. The attempt is to file both chargesheets by July-end or early August.
The political counter-strategy is also being readied almost simultaneously. Strategists for Modi are all too aware of the legal route the court-ordered investigations could take. Therefore, sources in the BJP say, it makes good sense to advance the formal announcement of Modi as a PM candidate, possibly to this month, and to announce that he would be standing from a seat in Uttar Pradesh, where Amit Shah is now in charge.
The BJP wants to outdin the noise raised by the encounter cases by focusing on Modi’s candidature for the PM’s post.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders have already informed veterans L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi that they should refrain from standing for the next general elections. Joshi is the current MP from Varanasi, a safe BJP seat that the party would like Modi to contest from. A strategist explains that the effect of Modi contesting from Varanasi would be felt in the entire Purvanchal belt, up to Patna, encompassing close to 50 Lok Sabha seats. But party insiders admit that there is a catch. First, Advani and Joshi could play games so that they’d have to be accommodated. In case Joshi is adamant about keeping Varanasi, the next best option for Modi is believed to be Allahabad, currently held by the Samajwadi Party but also in a catchment area where the ‘strong Hindu leader’ card is expected to work.
The other problem the BJP foresees is the issue of a chief minister of a state standing for elections from another state. In case that opens itself to a controversy or even a legal row, then Modi also has the option of standing from two seats, one from Gujarat, the second from Uttar Pradesh. A partyman jokes: “Perhaps he should stand from Gandhinagar and Varanasi, replacing both Advani and Joshi.”
But the hard strategy being prepared is no light matter. It again involves utilising the terror narrative for political gains. The Akhilesh Yadav government has made the politically loaded promise that it cannot keep off releasing Muslims arrested on charges of terrorism that are seen to be false by the minority community. There is already a communal undercurrent in Uttar Pradesh, where several Hindu-Muslim clashes have taken place since the SP took over in 2012.
There is more ammunition to come in the fake encounter cases, and there is a growing argument to take the bull by the horns and turn the issue on its head. Although members of the BJP concede that the fake encounter cases only reinforce Modi’s unacceptability to regional parties, his followers also believe all the cases will be just water off Modi and Shah’s backs. As a leader quips: “Let them arrest Modi and Shah and see if we don’t get 200 seats.”
The go-it-alone strategy certainly involves relying on and hoping to generate a communal backlash in favour of Modi in Uttar Pradesh. It cannot be ignored that the day after the chargesheet in the Ishrat Jahan matter was filed, Shah went to the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Till now, Modi was being projected as the enabler of a modern aspirational India. Now, the strategy also involves lip service to the temple and a strong emphasis on terror. As Modi runs for prime minister, the hope would be that the fake encounters issue gets drowned in the din or becomes ammunition in the larger theatre about terrorism and his model of governance besides his personality.
As it is, BJP leaders insist that the encounter cases will be countered by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), hence they just have to sit back and watch the drama. Meanwhile, sources have also revealed to Outlook that the arrest of Rajinder Kumar, the IB special director entangled in the Ishrat case, is imminent. Kumar was station chief in Gujarat between 2002 to 2005, when many of the fake encounters took place. It has been said that special permission would have to be sought to arrest and interrogate a senior IB officer like Kumar, hence the CBI would wait for his retirement from service at the end of this month. But well-placed sources say this is not necessary as they have looked into the matter and in luring individuals for fake encounters Kumar would not be seen as acting in the line of duty.
Although the IB has put up an institutional defence of its officer, there is acknowledgement that the evidence could make it difficult to protect him. Kumar is currently working from an IB office, whose locations are never made public, in Delhi. Hard-nosed officers in both agencies know that the leaks intended to show Ishrat as a dubious character are irrelevant to the case of a fake encounter and how it was executed.
One question that complicates the IB’s involvement is: Why was its officer in touch with Ishrat’s friend Javed Shaikh?
What is significant is that Rajinder Kumar’s telephone records have not been included in the first chargesheet. They are currently being analysed for further leads and the scope of the conspiracy that will be included in the additional chargesheet. Sources have revealed that there was a telephone call made from his mobile phone to that of Javed Shaikh aka Pranesh Pillai on June 6, 2004, to lure him to Gujarat. The question, say sources, is this: the CBI can at the very least always ask why Kumar was telephoning a “terrorist”—one who gets killed nine days after the call? And when Shaikh was killed with Ishrat, surely he would know he was becoming party to a custodial killing? The matter does not rest here for Rajinder Kumar. The evidence against him is even more damning in the Sadiq Jamal case.
At this stage, there is no direct evidence to show that Shah or Modi were involved in ordering the Ishrat or Sadiq Jamal fake encounters. It cannot, however, be forgotten that Shah has already been charged in the Sohrabuddin-Kausarbi-Tulsi Prajapati fake encounters and is currently out on bail. It was, in fact, after Shah walked free while policemen continued to rot in jail that many began to cooperate with the investigations. The CBI, meanwhile, has only charged those who fired to kill. But those who participated in the sequence of events, leading to the eventual executions, have begun to open up and give details about what went on. Investigators, therefore, believe that the evidence opens up avenues for further investigations.
There is, however, no direct answer as to the motive behind fake encounters. A veteran officer says, “They do not follow any pattern we have seen elsewhere, when fake encounters take place because of an insurgency or genuine terrorist threat. The actions of Rajinder Kumar and the policemen who have already been chargesheeted suggest they were just on the hunt for possible victims. We can only presume that the political class wanted this, but unless key witnesses and those who are arrested in the future start giving more evidence, it is difficult to prove.”