April 9, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt

'We are finished. We are gone...'

IT'S not just the Muslims and Hindus who suffered in the Gujarat riots. The Congress did too, terribly -- for, all the political points it had collected in the last 18 months have been blown away in that communal storm.

"We are finished, we are gone -- that's what my workers were telling me in the first three days after Godhra," admitted Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president Amarsinh Chaudhry.

In the first phase of protests, the Congress reactions were muted. Not that they didn't criticise the burning of the railway bogie with karsevaks inside, said Bharatiya Janata Party leader turned Congress MP Shankersinh Vaghela, but their voices were stifled.

"The newspapers in Gujarat are one-sided," he said. "When we criticised Godhra, they didn't publish our reactions. Anyway, when the religious fervour is on, the shutters of political shops are kept down. We had to first tackle the propaganda that the culprits in Godhra were Muslim Congressmen."

But before the Congress could, as Vaghela put it, 'save its face from that mud', horrific killings spread through the state. "Our party could not mobilise public opinion quickly enough against the BJP government's unpardonable -- maybe intentional -- failure in protecting 'Ramsevaks'," said a senior Congress politician. "It was a monumental intelligence failure. How could karsevaks be burnt alive in a state ruled by an RSS pracharak?"

"Since 1992 the Gujarat government has provided protection to karsevaks," added Congress legislator Narhari Amin, a former home minister. "The State Reserve Police is routinely present whenever karsevaks travel to and from Ayodhya. But this time they were not around."

Unfortunately for it, the Congress failed to use this political opportunity. And so, though Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers faced hell, they seem to have survived the carnage. But not so the Congress.

THE trouble with the Congress in Gujarat is that there are too many bigwigs.

First, there is state unit chief Amarsinh Chaudhry. Then there is Madhavsinh Solanki's group, Shankersinh Vaghela's, the one headed by Urmila Patel [former chief minister Chiman Patel's widow], and also that led, long-distance, by former MP Ahmed Patel from Delhi.

So many leaders, so many groups. But once the crowds came out on the streets, in the tens of thousands, the Congressmen stayed away.

"Our position of strength on the morning of February 27 has taken a 180-degree turn," admitted a Congress MP. "The BJP occupies that place now."

"We were confused and we will have to pay the price," said another. "We were not sure about the Hindus' reaction. We didn't have the confidence to help them... and, yes, we were afraid of getting bracketed as an anti-Hindu party."

Yatin Oza, a former BJP MLA from Ahmedabad who is now with the Congress, agreed. "I think we didn't have a strategy. When Godhra happened, we didn't apply our mind."

The BJP, however, was quick in its counterattack. "There were riots even when the Congress was ruling," said state Health Minister Ashok Bhatt. "Then too they hadn't come out to help riots victims -- what had stopped them then?"

The BJP, to ensure it got some dirt on its main opponent, commissioned a not-so-secret survey of the Congress role in the riots, said a former Cabinet minister, part of that exercise. "We found that in some villages, Congressmen supported the crowds that wanted to attack the Muslims," he claimed.

Congress workers, meanwhile, maintained that so powerful was the pro-Hindu wave that they just couldn't reach out to the Muslims.

"At many places Congress workers were attacked by the crowds," said Chaudhry. "Along with the Muslims the Vishwa Hindu Parishad targeted Congressmen too.

"The VHP had a programme to attack those Muslims who supported the Congress," he continued. "These riots were anti-Congress. In Bayad village, our leader Munnabapu gave shelter to some 300 Muslims. He received threats and had to shift them elsewhere."

SO the Congress was watching passively while Gujarat burnt? Well, Congressmen admit so, though obliquely.

"On February 28, I got some five-six calls from former Congress MP Ahsan Jafri just before he was burnt alive," said Chaudhary. "I tried my level best to save him. I called the chief minister, home minister, home secretary, director general of police and Ahmedabad's police commissioner and deputy commissioner.

"I sent three Congressmen -- Narendra Brahmbhatt, Jagrupsinh Rajput and Kisansinh Tomar -- to Jafri's area. But they were asked to leave the spot by the police... What do you expect me to do? Do you think I should have gone there with a revolver? Who is Congress chief Amarsinh Chaudhry when even Allah could not save them?"

Even after a month, the Congress appears powerless. Narhari Amin, a Patel leader and MLA from Ahmedabad's Sabarmati area, had to beat a hasty retreat when the VHP came out with a campaign against him for 'helping' Muslim families.

Amin had scored a political coup when he won against a BJP candidate from one of the most saffronised seats in Gujarat, which, incidentally, falls in Union Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani's parliamentary constituency. Indeed, his win had contributed much to Keshubhai Patel's ouster as chief minister.

The VHP campaign was so strong that Amin, whom the Hindu voters in his constituency had gifted staggering support just six months ago, was forced to issue a press release saying he was not helping Muslims.

"I told my voters that I am neither building nor planning to build homes for Muslims in or around Hindu localities," he told "Nor that I am starting a relief camp in Vadaj area as alleged by the VHP."

Amin said a large chunk of his voters felt Modi was a strongman who gave a fitting reply to Muslims. "People say, 'Modi has cut Muslims down to size'," the MLA said. "But I am not worried. I know that once the communal fever recedes people will abuse Modi and his government for the huge economic loss and for spoiling Gujarat's reputation all over the world."

Commented a Congressman: "We are keeping our fingers crossed. The majority opinion is that if elections are announced before September 2002, the Congress will not get more than 45 seats out of 182, but if it's announced on schedule early next year we stand a good chance."

Chaudhry, however, ruled out a Congress rout. "On April 7, in more than 1,600 villages, panchayat elections will be held," he said. "The Congress will win in 80 per cent of the panchayats."

And how would that come about? Chaudhry's argument is that the riots have not touched many parts of Gujarat -- for instance, Kutch, Saurashtra, south and parts of central Gujarat -- and the people there would vote for the Congress.

The Congress had been gaining lost ground in the state last 18 months. Of 22 district panchayat elections, it won 21. At the taluka level, it won 160 panchayats out of the 210 that went to the polls. As for municipal corporations, the Congress is in power in the former BJP strongholds of Rajkot and Ahmedabad.

The Congress feels the continuing violence in Gujarat is deliberate, a BJP attempt to polarise communities.

The BJP, naturally, doesn't agree. "When Vaghela visited Modasa, violence started the very next day," one politician said. "We know who is instigating it."

Deepak Babaria, a former Congress office-bearer, denied that allegation: "The VHP's logic is that more the violence, more the polarisation. This affects us badly. Only peace can help us win."

"Our information is that Nitin Patel, Kaushik Patel, Haren Pandya and Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia are behind these politics of riots," he alleged. "All of them are unhappy with Modi's powerful post-riots image of 'Chhote Sardar'. Their position within the BJP is in danger. They are afraid that now Modi will get rooted in electoral politics."

Meanwhile, within the Congress too, Chaudhry is having a tough time. Even as his opponent Modi carries on, his party men accuse him of a 'weak leadership'.

"Chaudhry lacks the killer instinct," said a critic. "Modi has that in plenty."

The Rediff Specials

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