The Congress party isn't eager to learn from its own history. In April 2009, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the party was forced to drop two senior leaders from its list of candidates for seven seats from Delhi. Candidatures of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were cancelled following the controversy over their alleged involvement in the riots of 1984. Seven years later, the Congress has repeated the same mistake.
Officially, Kamal Nath is not an accused in any riots cases. However, his resignation indicates the Congress party's realisation that he is widely perceived as an accused. At least, among those affected by the riots. Asking him to step down may be an exercise to prevent further damage to the party's prospects in Punjab in next year's Assembly polls. But, guess what? The damage has already been done.
How could the party not see the obvious?
One can understand the eagerness to appoint a new general secretary in-charge of the poll-bound state. But what was the tearing hurry, which prevented the party from seeing the wall that it was about to ram into?
That handing over Punjab's charge to Nath will lead to protests was a writing on the wall, especially since the Tytler-Sajjan episode already exists as a precedent. Regardless, the stupefying decision was announced and as expected it created a furore, eventually forcing Nath and his party to succumb.
Look at what the episode has left behind. Before his appointment, Nath was a nobody in Punjab's electoral discourse. He was neither involved with the campaigning nor the Congress's decision-making process in the state. However, in the aftermath of the current imbroglio, he himself has become an electoral issue. By reviving the trauma of 1984, the Congress has given a stick to its rivals to beat it with. The BJP is claiming that Nath's resignation has proven his role in the riots and AAP is demanding reopening of the case against him and filing of charge-sheet against him for murder.
Badal shielding Kamal Nath. If not, get SIT reopen Rakabganj case & file chargesheet for murder against Kamal Nath. pic.twitter.com/cFls9dak78— H S Phoolka (@hsphoolka) June 15, 2016
It is likely that both parties, along with SAD, will keep this issue burning to embarrass the Congress and spoil whatever gains Captain Amarinder Singh expects to make. This episode could have been avoided had the Congress party's leadership adequately assessed the implications of Nath's appointment and had brought in someone else instead.
Failure to realise weight of electoral battles in states
The episode has also added to what has become a clear pattern now. The Congress is failing to realise that from now on electoral battles will be fought in the states. The party simply does not have the might to take on a resurgent BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level. It is in the states where it continues to have effective presence that it can hope to beat the BJP in localised battles. This was the key lesson from Bihar.
However, this lesson was forgotten in Assam where not only did the party walk away from the prospects of forming a Grand Alliance, it also easily let a key asset - Himanta Biswa Sarma - slip through its fingers, helping the BJP in a big way.
Punjab is a tough, three-way contest, with the ruling SAD-BJP combine hoping to cross out local anti-incumbency with its national footprint and the key rival, AAP trying hard to inspire Punjabi voters to emulate the Delhi verdict.
Another worrying aspect of this episode is that bringing Nath to Punjab was reportedly a decision made by Captain Amarinder's electoral consultant Prashant Kishor. If that is true, Kishor has exposed the lack of his command on the arena he has chosen. In that light, how wise will it be for Congress to follow the rest of his game-plan?
Remember, he is the Congress's official consultant in Uttar Pradesh, which is a bigger game than Punjab and where the party is said to have already started making changes in the organisation following his recommendations. What if those backfire too?