The Ghost of 1984

The 1984 riots continue to bring back memories of an inhuman eruption of hate, death & disaster. But can the conviction of Sajjan Kumar evoke the same anti-congress sentiment as before, I doubt?

Anil Anand

The might of the justice system has finally caught up with Delhi strongman Sajjan Kumar following his conviction and life imprisonment in one of the 1984 anti-Sikh riot cases. This development meant different things to different people. For the families of the riot victims, the ends of justice had just been partially met after long, arduous and painful wait, spanning well over three decades. Politically speaking, it may have derailed somewhat the Congress vehicle of resurgence, coming as this judgement did in the immediate aftermath of their spectacular victories in the very significant Hindi heartland.

Again Sajjan’s conviction may give rise to all kinds of speculation & conjecturing by political pundits, congress think tank & the opportunity hunting adversaries. All of whom have a lot at stake going into the 2019 elections. There could be two major connotations to his conviction. Firstly the impact on Congress’ standing in Delhi local and secondly the impact on national politics as BJP is bound to derive some political capital from the issue in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections and naturally their direct target would be Congress and particularly the Gandhi family.

There is no denying the fact that Sajjan Kumar has been a part and parcel of Congress in Delhi for over three decades. He has dominated the capital city – state’s politics landscape with a near total sway in Delhi rural belt particularly in outer Delhi, which incidentally was his Lok Sabha constituency. Being one of the largest constituencies in the country, in terms of number of voters before it was dismantled under delimitation process; Sajjan Kumar has won many a battle from here. The large organisational network which he had created made him almost indispensable both for Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) as well as All India Congress Committee (AICC). His indispensability lay in his capability to make any party programme a great success by mustering large crowds.

Whosoever has been the DPCC president, none could take the risk of ignoring him simply because had been the only party leader with vast network of workers. While this indispensability factor made him a very critical pivot for his party, it also created many rivals for him across the political spectrum. He would bulldoze his way, extracting his pound of flesh from any DPCC chief & ensuring that he held his sway over the organisational matters.

His conviction and sentencing on the eve of Lok Sabha elections is nothing less than a sweet succour for BJP in the wake of saffron party’s defeats recently. They could now be renewing attempts to create a new perception against the Congress (read Gandhi family) for being responsible for the anti-Sikh riots. Hence BJP wasted no time, pouncing on the issue as soon as the court verdict came and tried to hit the Congress where it hurt the most.

There were two options left with Congress in their attempt to ward-off or at least weaken BJP’s perception building exercise, before it got manifested in their (BJP) election discourses; Expel Sajjan from the party or ensure that he quitted on his own. The second option seemed more plausible given the unassailable position that he enjoyed in Delhi Congress and his proximity to Gandhi family, since such an expulsion would have generated more heat and dust.  If the party insiders are to be believed Sajjan was asked to resign and he willingly obliged without creating a fuss and rightly too as he wasn’t left with many options.

His resignation might have given some momentary relief to the Congress by taking the sting out of the BJP’s vitriolic attacks but the showdown is far from over. The first effect of his conviction and leaving the party is being immediately felt by the Delhi Congress. The party’s ongoing process of mobilising booth level workers for Lok Sabha elections has come to a standstill in most of the Outer Delhi areas as middle and lower rung leaders owing allegiance to Sajjan have expressed their inability to go ahead with the meetings under the prevailing circumstances. This has raised a question mark on Congress preparations for the elections in Delhi.

The decision to get rid of Sajjan, by seeking his resignation, was unambiguously taken by the Congress high command, perhaps sending a strong signal to its Delhi unit & to get back the focus on Lok Sabha polls of 2019. Given Sajjan’s organisational utility, Delhi Congress is sharply divided even today on whether he should have been “forced” to quit or not. They feel that the huge void created by his removal from scene four months before the elections would be difficult to fill. However, since the stakes for the Congress at the national level are far greater than Delhi, naturally the scales tilted accordingly.

None of the DPCC presidents, ever since, Sajjan acquired the strongman status, had ever visualised a Congress network without his presence or intervention. As a result all of them chose the easier way of relying on him rather than creating an alternative system. When current DPCC chief and former Union Minister Ajay Maken tried to get rid of certain stereotypes, his moves were appreciated by all those who had been made to look pygmies by Sajjan. Ostensibly, Maken soon realised the consequences of slighting or isolating Sajjan & he too mended fences with him, but in the process may have antagonised those who favoured a change I status quo.

Unlike Delhi, where Sajjan would be missed by the Congress for his organisational acumen, Congress shall have to do exceedingly well at the national level to be able to match or even surpass the battle of perception with BJP. BJP and its ally Shiromani Akali Dal will not let go this opportunity easily & they shall use every conceivable platform to paint Gandhi as perpetrators. Definitely, Sajjan factor would continue to haunt the Congress and the party’s first family for some more time to come, though in different modes and manner.