New Delhi: For their most recent front cover, Society magazine, an Indian monthly dedicated to lifestyles of the rich and well-connected, made an unexpected choice - Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, arguably India's most controversial major political figure.
"Metamorphosis: From Merchant of Death To Sultan of Corporate Governance," the magazine proclaimed, in what surely must be one of the more dramatic cover lines to ever grace a society magazine.
In the wake of Monday's Supreme Court decision related to allegations against the Modi administration's role in the 2002 riots that left more than 1000 dead, mostly Muslims, Mr. Modi seems eager to announce a metamorphosis, as well. He released a letter Tuesday that proclaimed an end to "the unhealthy environment created by the unfounded and false allegations made against me."
He declared he would embark on a three-day fast starting Saturday, to "strengthen Gujarat's environment of peace, unity and harmony." From the setting for the fast, an air-conditioned convention center that holds 5,000 people, it seems that Mr. Modi expects to draw a crowd.
The fast is being described in some quarters as a "huge image makeover exercise" designed to promote Mr. Modi both within his Bharatiya Janata Party and within India as a potential candidate for prime minister. With Gujarat's growing pull for businesses from local giants to multinational corporations like Ford Motors, and a dearth of charismatic leaders at the top of the BJP, Mr. Modi could emerge a serious contender for the 2014 national elections, in what some speculate could become a battle against Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the governing Indian National Congress Party.
Not to be outdone on the public relations front, Congress party sources were quoted saying that Shankersinh Vaghela, a former chief minister of Gujarat, too, will fast for three days starting Saturday, at an ashram.
The Gujarat riots began in February 2002, after a fire engulfed a train carrying members of a Hindu nationalist organization, killing 59 people on board. Many Hindus blamed Muslims for the fire and began rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods. For weeks, spasmodic and brutal violence continued between Muslims and Hindus. Mr. Modi, a Hindu nationalist, had just become chief minister, and his critics have blamed him for doing too little to stop violence against Muslims, and in some cases, they say, even abetting the violence.
The case in question this week is one of numerous lawsuits pending related to the riots. It was filed by the widow of Ahsan Jafri, a former Member of Parliament who was killed in the 2002 riots, in connection to her husband's death and the death of 69 others a day after the train fire.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, but returned the case to the Gujarat magistrate to decide whether to hold a trial. While Mr. Modi and his supporters have claimed a victory, his critics say that far from exonerating him, the case may have the opposite result.
After Monday's order, Raju Ramachandran, the amicus curiae, or impartial legal expert on the case said it was far from decided, for either side. It is "premature to talk of either clean chits or indictments," Mr. Ramachandran said.
Outside the courtroom, the battle was over shaping public opinion.
In an open letter made public today, Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer suspended from duty in Gujarat, accused Mr. Modi of orchestrating "a very smart attempt to mislead the gullible people of Gujarat," by suggesting the matter was closed after the Supreme Court order was announced. "The order of the Honourable Supreme Court is, in fact, a very major leap in the direction of delivering justice to the hapless victims of the Gujarat pogrom," he wrote.
It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Mr. Modi will be the Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister. The party is deeply divided and prone to squabbling. Some argue that Mr. Modi, who was denied a visa to visit the United States, reportedly because of the Gujarat riots, is simply too tainted to lead India.
The Times of India yesterday referred to Mr. Modi as "BJP's Albatross," because of his administration's alleged role in the 2002 riots, which "continue to prevent his rise at the national stage," and drive minority votes and allies away from the party.
In order for any real metamorphosis to happen, the Modi administration needs to go beyond public relations, the Times of India implied. The victims of the riots need to see justice, it said, which has yet to happen nearly 10 years on, and the minister needs to acknowledge the allegations and ask for forgiveness.
"The Congress, too, has the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to answer for. But at least it has since apologized for the tragedy," the Times of India said. "As the BJP's poster boy, Modi should follow suit."