Will Kamal Nath speed bump prove costly for Congress in Punjab?
The Congress was quick to remove Kamal Nath as its in-charge for Punjab. But the question that remains is - how much damage has already been done?
The party's poll campaign took a hit following his appointment as its leaders had to spend their time defending his appointment rather than promoting the party's poll programmes and agenda.
"We knew what was coming right from the time the appointment was announced on Sunday evening. Everyone was wondering why this was done by the headquarters," said a Congress insider. Sources said that most Congress leaders in Punjab were guessing how and when the damage would be contained but none had the guts to even raise the issue of withdrawing his appointment before the Congress high command.
Despite this corrective measure, the Congress poll campaign was put on the back foot over the last three days.
To begin with the party high command handed an issue to both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) as well as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to put it on the mat. The instant reaction of observers was that Nath's appointment infused a new lease of life for the Akalis who have been on the lookout for an emotive issue. It is a well known fact that the events of 1984 are etched deep in the psyche of Punjabis. Be it Operation Blue Star, assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi or the anti Sikh riots, their very reference still has the potential to whip up passions.
In the last two decades in particular, the Congress leadership has tried its best to pacify the anger on these issues. It has succeeded in decimating the propaganda that the party is anti-Sikh. Observers say that the party appointed a Sikh Dr Manmohan Singh as the country's prime minister and India also saw the first Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from the community in General JJ Singh, who was appointed in 2005. Incidentally, the second Sikh appointee to the post General Bikram Singh was also under the Congress led UPA regime in 2012. These appointments removed the community's mistrust towards the Congress.
Observers also point out that the party also took a wise and correct step when Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi apologised for the 1984 riots. The Congress leadership uses this as an example to counter prime minister Narendra Modi with reference to the Gujarat carnage against Muslims.
Given the steps the Congress has taken to reach out the the community, Kamal Nath's appointment was a self goal, even though he has been exonerated of charges of having led an attack on Gurudwara Rakab Ganj following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
"It is a timely corrective measure. Although 1984 has never been a decisive factor in the elections in Punjab yet it was a talking point that the Congress handed over to AAP and Akalis who are looking for issues. Now the issue stands dissolved and they will have to look for something else to target the Congress," says veteran political observer Jagtar Singh.
Observers are convinced that the appointment of Nath had come at a 'perfectly inopportune' point of time. "The party was preparing for its show of strength under vice president Rahul Gandhi at Jalandhar on the issue of drugs and deteriorating law and order. There were huge banners and hoardings that had been put on Sunday afternoon with pictures of local leaders, Rahul and the then party in-charge Shakeel Ahmed. Just when the appointment of Nath was announced in place of Ahmed, there was a commotion. The leaders began rushing to confirm the appointment and starting a search for Nath's photographs as well figuring out how to put them in place of Ahmed's pictures on hoardings and banners. Some of them were wise enough to let the things continue with Ahmed's posters knowing that it was safer to go ahead with them," narrates a party insider.
Observers point out that the controversy upset the campaign momentum of the party just when it was about to take off. Having put up good shows at Baisakhi Mela in Talwandi Sabo and later at Dina Nagar on the issue of delay in payments to sugarcane farmers, the Congress that is known for factionalism, had showcased its unity at Jalandhar.
Despite the presence of a senior leader like Rahul Gandhi, the party had decided to do away with the practice of setting up a stage and a dais. Instead it was a show of commoners where Rahul also sat with leaders. He made senior leaders Sunil Jakhar who has got a raw deal in the recent past from the party and also Manpreet Badal who had recently merged his Punjab People's Party (PPP) with the Congress, sit along with him. This had sent a positive message across for the electorate. But it was overshadowed by the spate of allegations by the SAD-BJP combine and the AAP leadership on Nath's appointment. The party was back to being defensive.
Similarly, the announcement of Amarinder's new innovative campaign 'Halke (assembly constituency) Vich Captain' was also over shadowed by the controversy over Nath's appointment. This is a 24 week outreach programme under which Amarinder plans to spend one day in each of 117 assembly constituencies to reach out to more than two crore people while getting into direct contact with more than five lakh people.
"You just cannot hit a road block when you are at a take off stage. There was no need to give the opponents a chance and issue to attack you," said Jagtar.
It needs to be pointed out that both the Akali and AAP cadres had worked overtime to dig out material on Operation Blue Star and anti-Sikh riots over the last three days and circulated it widely in the social media as well as through other channels. Even at the press conferences it was old affidavits and photographs that were being used to score brownie points.
With the decision taken to remove Nath, the Congress now hopes to lay the controversy at rest at the earliest.