The episode had posed an awkward problem for the ruling party. As a senior minister put it, "It embarrassed all of us and revived memories of the darkest chapter after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, when Congress leaders and workers indulged in the kind of violence we keep accusing the BJP of." For every Maya Kodnani—the minister in the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat who recently had to quit because of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots charges against her—there has been in the Congress a Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (another accused in the 1984 riots who has been given the ticket from South Delhi). Now, the Congress will certainly try to take a moral position on having made Tytler and Sajjan Kumar withdraw. The party will now raise the issue of the BJP fielding candidates like Manoj Pradhan, the man involved in the Kandhamal communal violence.
There had been hard calculation at work. Once the shoe was thrown, there was the immediate question of the electoral impact in Punjab. Jarnail Singh’s much-televised act, giving vent to the pent-up frustration of Sikhs at not getting justice for the 3,000-odd victims of the 1984 riots, catalysed the scene. But 25 years is a long time in the consciousness of a people. When the Congress gave out tickets to Tytler and Sajjan last month, it had presumed that the majority of Sikhs had by now become indifferent to the issue.
Tytler had been boasting of an impending clean chit to him from the CBI, which was to submit its report to a Delhi court after recording the fresh statements of two witnesses. That he was privy to the CBI’s intentions became evident on April 2, when the CBI sought closure of the case against Tytler on the ground that the statements of the witnesses were inconsistent and unreliable. Congress leaders in Punjab were embarrassed and found themselves having little to say when asked about the developments. This also raised suspicions of the CBI being "fixed" by the Congress to help an influential leader, just as the BJP had done with the Ayodhya cases when it was in power.
But this was election season. And even in normal times it is unlikely that an issue such as this would have gone unnoticed. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) seized on the emotive issue that had fallen into its lap. The BJP, in power with the Akalis in Punjab, issued statements on it every day. Protest demonstrations were organised in many parts of Punjab. A gherao of Sonia Gandhi’s residence in Delhi was also planned.
Had the shoe tilted the electoral balance in Punjab in favour of the beleaguered SAD camp? Not really. Most political observers believe the Congress fortunes are on the rise in Punjab and the Tytler episode was only a small hiccup. And now that the man has pulled out of the fray, the Congress may even eke out some goodwill. Many say that identity politics has ceased to be an issue in Punjab for some years now and the shoe and Tytler will remain just a talking point for a few days.
"At the hustings, it is the misrule of the SAD that will dominate the poll scene," says Dr Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political analyst. Echoing this is Kanwarpal Singh Bittu, secretary of Dal Khalsa, a radical Sikh organisation. He says, "Jarnail’s action is symptomatic of the frustration of Sikhs with the failure of India to give us justice. Yet, the sad truth is that people in Punjab today have moved on and will not vote on these issues. It is not just the Congress which is guilty of atrocities on Sikhs, but the so-called Sikh parties like SAD too have let us down. They have used the issue only to play politics all these years."
By Chander Suta Dogra and Saba Naqvi