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The Ellisbridge Factor
In life, former Gujarat minister Haren Pandya was a headache for Narendra Modi. In death, he seems to have become a cancer that is spreading through the state BJP, an organisation that Modi has so far bossed over unquestioned. Five months after Modi led the BJP to a huge electoral victory, the dissent within had been quelled, except for the solitary voice of Pandya. But with his daylight murder in Ahmedabad, Modi-baiters in the BJP are back in business.
And when deputy prime minister L.K. Advani ticked off Modi publicly at the condolence meeting for Pandya in Ahmedabad last week—saying it was a mistake not to have let Pandya contest from Ellisbridge—it was green light for all those dissenters who'd thought the battle was already lost. Says a party MLA: "Modi has very little real support. Most of us are much too scared of him. When Advaniji spoke out, it seemed there is a light at the end of this terrible tunnel."
It did not take long for insiders to sound out the media that the rumblings of disenchantment had begun. There has been talk of 60 MLAs forming a lobby, with tacit support from Keshubhai Patel and Pandya's friends. Keshubhai, of course, denies it. But much is being made of his camping in Delhi last fortnight and his meetings with top BJP leaders. Besides, his condolence meet speech was loaded.
Those opposed to Modi within the state unit say they feel helpless, given the autocratic style of his functioning. Suddenly, the sleeping dissenters in Gujarat BJP seem to be wide awake and there is talk of all those instances in recent times when BJP MLAs had to face the brunt of the arrogance of a handful of pro-Modi ministers. "He and a couple of his close ministers just don't listen to us," says a Saurashtra MLA who recently had his first brush with Modi's confidante, Anandiben Patel. The MLA had gone to the minister with the transfer case of a handicapped man who was posted far away from his home town. "She told me, 'Just get out if you have come with a transfer case, whoever it is'. She simply won't listen," he later told a party colleague.
Then there is this case of a cabinet minister who went to the chief minister complaining about a bureaucrat in his department. He was seeking the latter's replacement. The minister was aghast to hear Modi praise the officer for doing a 'damn good job'. In fact, the chief minister even praised the officer in his cabinet colleague's presence at a meeting, according to sources. Yet another senior cabinet minister apparently suffered similar humiliation. The minister had sought a two-minute meeting with Modi with a complaint that the budgetary allocation to his department had been cut down. The moment 'two minutes' elapsed, Modi told him that "two minutes are over" and he had another meeting. Says a supporter of the minister: "Not that the minister was not completely at fault for he himself reached a bit late, but that should not mean a record-keeping of every second, especially when a senior minister is making a point."
And if this is what ministers are up against, one can well imagine the plight of legislators. Take the case of two MLAs, from Panchmahals and Baroda. They went to Modi with requests to transfer certain district-level officials, but they were told not to bother him with demands for transfers and postings. "When the two MLAs said that it would be difficult for them to explain this to their voters, they were told they owed nothing to voters for they had not won the election on their own steam but because of Modi's charisma," a person who accompanied them to the CM told Outlook.
Party insiders believe the pressure on Modi may force him to go in for an expansion of his 16-member cabinet. (An obvious reason, for party seniors, is the fact that the chief minister has retained the major portfolios.) Modi may also appoint MLAs to government-owned boards and corporations to cool frayed tempers. A former senior minister, however, says: "This might, perhaps, cool down tempers, but this is no guarantee of safety for ordinary people." He says the government is making no attempt to bridge the communal divide. Particularly, disconcerting is the fact that the social and economic boycott of Muslims, which began after Godhra, is still on in many areas. "The more you push a community to the wall, the more you strip them of their options," he explains. It's a dark irony that the killing of Haren Pandya has demonstrated to Gujarat the flip side of the politics of communal hatred. Pandya's murder, bang in the middle of a flourishing upmarket area, has driven home the uncomfortable truth that the average Gujarati is vulnerable in his own state. "Haren's murder has made all of us vulnerable and afraid. He was not a hardliner, but he has still become a victim," says a young, educated BJP MLA who was also a minister in the Keshubhai Patel cabinet.
Surprisingly, similar sentiments are being echoed by BJP hardliners, including MLAs and former legislators who are accused of participating in the communal violence. Maya Kodnani, an MLA from Naroda, which saw one of the worst massacres, says that she doesn't travel alone any more. Says she: "Earlier, I used to drive alone. Now I keep an escort."
Hanif Lakdawala, a resident of Sanchetna is more direct. "The government is adding insult to injury by not initiating efforts to bring the communities together. In Mehsana, north Gujarat, and Panchmahals in central Gujarat, people don't visit Muslim-owned shops. In other places, Muslims displaced in the post-Godhra carnage have not been able to return home. There are instances of Muslims discovering, on their return, that their shops have been taken over by others. And the murderers and rapists are roaming around freely till this day."
As for Pandya's murder, the Ahmedabad crime branch has, predictably enough, nabbed five Muslim boys who, it claims, were trained in Pakistan after the post-Godhra riots. Few in the BJP find comfort in these arrests. "There is no guarantee that another Haren Pandya or another Akshardham may not happen," says a former minister who was Pandya's college-mate and a colleague in the Keshubhai Patel government. "The absence of violence is not peace."
With such intense levels of insecurity, the pressure is on Modi to prove that his 'good-governance' card is not a joker. If he fails to deliver, the dissenters will stop speaking in whispers.