Gujarat may have had a narrow escape from another conflagration. The decision of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to launch a yatra from Godhra was ominous. Godhra had been a flashpoint early in the year. It can be said that the elections to be held in December have come in the wake of the killings that began in Godhra. Godhra was thus deliberately chosen by the VHP as the starting point of the rally. The Election Commission was apprehensive and ordered the state government to stop the yatra. The EC may have extended itself in passing this order against a body that is ostensibly not involved in the election process. But the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, stood by the EC and asked the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi, to implement the orders of the EC. It could not have been easy for Mr Modi, a loyal pracharak, to move against another wing of the sangh parivar and to have its top leaders arrested and the yatra stopped. Why Mr Modi did this will remain a moot point. Mr Modi is by no means out of sympathy with the ends and the means of the VHP. He is as aggressive in his propagation of Hindutva as the leaders of the VHP. It is possible, of course, that by complying with the orders of the EC, Mr Modi is trying to project himself as a chief minister who respects the institutions of democracy. Having shown his face of hatred to the people of Gujarat, he is now trying to put on the mask of governance, civility and legality. He has proved his colours to the VHP in February-March this year; to the people of Gujarat he has to show before the elections that, for the sake of peace, he can stand above ideological predilections.
Mr Vajpayee’s injunction to Mr Modi to abide by what the EC had said will surprise no one. Mr Vajpayee has not made his disapproval of Mr Modi a secret. He may not have acted on his disapproval: he did not sack Mr Modi for incompetence during the pogrom. But his dislike has been manifest in a number of ways, from words to body language. Forcing Mr Modi to kowtow to the EC was another of such manifestations. It also made clear the distance Mr Vajpayee wants to mark between himself and the more extremist wings of the sangh parivar. Ever since he assumed power within the Bharatiya Janata Party and as prime minister, Mr Vajpayee has emphasized governance and has been outspoken against any form of extremism. This has not won him too many friends in Nagpur, the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But he can claim that he has tried to be the prime minister of India and not just of the Hindus. It is precisely this that makes him disapprove of Mr Modi.
Despite the EC’s intervention and Mr Modi’s compliance, Gujarat continues to be a tinder box. It was clear during the pogrom that the VHP has very strong and deep roots there. It is entirely possible that the stopping of the yatra may strengthen the resolve of the VHP and may even bring electoral dividends for the Hindutva brigade. It is clear that unless an end to the violence is ensured, Gujarat will remain in danger.