Convicting Sajjan Kumar May Not Hurt Cong, Could Backfire on BJP

Yashwant Deshmukh assesses the impact of Sajjan Kumar’s conviction on the Congress’s prospects.

4 min read
Image of Sajjan Kumar and Congress ‘hand’ symbol used for representational purposes.

1984 was a year of madness. Our nation was engulfed in the fires of religious extremism and political overreach.

The nation was at ‘war’ with itself, and Punjab was the focus of particularly violent events. The year ended with the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Will Sajjan Kumar’s Conviction Help NDA in Punjab?

A hurt Congress machinery hit back with vengeance on Sikh citizens in Delhi, and thus began a saga of struggle for justice in the face of apathetic police and government administration. It is no secret that the 1984 riots were led by a section of leaders from the Indian National Congress (INC) who enjoyed protection and support from the top leadership.

Thus, the conviction of Sajjan Kumar, a person who was actively considered for a party ticket in 2009 as a Lok Sabha candidate, has opened up a Pandora’s box.

There is a view, mostly among the BJP supporters, that Sajjan Kumar’s conviction is a shot in the arm for the NDA in Punjab. The reality however, is more complex.

Captain Amarinder Singh is a very popular chief minister and under his leadership the party has gained popularity. As per the C-Voter tracker of October 2018, the Congress enjoys nearly 10 percent vote share lead over the NDA in Punjab. Also, AAP has undergone a meltdown in Punjab, and the personal glory of lawyer H S Phoolka is unlikely to be shared by him. Thus, Kejriwal and his party are ill-placed to take advantage of this conviction in Punjab.

Sikh-Congress Relationship Has Come a Long Way

When it comes to Delhi, the Sikhs have voted for Congress and BJP on several occasions. The issue seems to have lost its sting ever since the mid-1990s. This was evident in the Delhi Shiromani Gurudwara Management Committee being headed by Congress-affiliated leaders in the past.

Also, the elevation of Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister of the nation for 10 years, has not gone unnoticed by the Sikh community.

Therefore, the relations between the Congress and the Sikh community have indeed come a long way from the 1980s. To crystallize this, even in the Modi tsunami of 2014, an NDA led by an Akali Dal at its zenith, and the BJP, was unable to get even half the Lok Sabha seats in the state. The current mixture of an emaciated Akali Dal and moribund state BJP are ill placed to take advantage of this issue.

Given the anticipated tepid political response to this conviction, can we conclude that this is a non-issue? Hardly so.

In fact, for astute observers, this conviction opens up a lot of other fronts that we may not be looking at. Sajjan Kumar was acquitted for his role in the 1984 riots as recently as 2013 by a sessions court; it is only now that the Delhi High Court has convicted him.

‘2002 vs 1984’ Comes to An End

Therefore, similar demands for reopening and re-investigation of other riot cases in BJP-held states may be asked for. For all the noise surrounding Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and even newly-appointed Madhya Pradesh CM Kaman Nath, they remain eminently dispensable to the interests of Congress. A resignation of one or two of the big guns, and condemnation of those convicted by the courts may establish Congress President Rahul Gandhi as the messiah of communal harmony.

Thus, the Congress would not mind letting go of a couple of leaders to gain moral ascendancy over the BJP which has its own skeletons to hide in a couple of states.

Nationally, this issue has more potential to backfire for the BJP by finally burying the ghosts of 1984. With the judicial verdict removing the deadwood liabilities like Sajjan Kumar, Congress is free to re-articulate its position that was always hamstrung by its role in 1984. The BJP and the Congress were forever locked in a contest of whataboutery in ‘2002 vs 1984’. This deadlock seems to have been rendered academic by a judicial verdict.

What Next?

If one were to look at the recently concluded elections, communalism and judicial delivery were hardly issues of note. The economy is the political focus of the country. This is proven by the fact that there was no alternative to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh did not stop voters from voting for Congress. Also, the fact that the Congress has a checkered past that is riddled with service delivery failure and corruption, did not blunt the Opposition’s edge.

In other words, the verdict on Sajjan Kumar is more of a verdict on complicity of some Congress leaders in 1984 riots. While morally and legally it is a blot on the nation, it will hardly be a political factor of consequence.

Even in states where it is expected to matter that is, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, the voters including Sikhs, have moved on and redefined their relationship with the Congress.

(The author is the founder-director, C-Voter International. He tweets at @YRDeshmukh. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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