Afzal Guru hanging: Congress move puts BJP on the defensive

The UPA government seems to be taking bold decisions with alacrity, with elections in plain sight. A decision that seemed so difficult ever since the Supreme Court confirmed the death penalty for Afzal Guru in 2005 and rejected his review petition in 2007, has now become a simple “legal and constitutional issue.”

This is perhaps the most crucial political decision taken by the UPA and the Congress party in UPA-2. The timing has already become a subject of intense speculation ahead of what promises to be a stormy budget session starting two weeks from now. In the budget session, the BJP is widely expected to target Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on his Saffron terror remarks and for claiming the BJP and RSS were running terror camps.

The hanging comes just ahead of elections in three north-eastern states, and later in Karnataka, where the Congress expects to do better than its chief political rival.

A demonstrator hangs an effigy depicting Mohammad Afzal Guru. Reuters

A demonstrator hangs an effigy depicting Mohammad Afzal Guru. Reuters

With the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the December 2001 parliament attacks, the core leadership in the Congress could be working on two things to begin with: shake off the stigma of being a government soft on terror and be prepared for early polls with electorally strong talking points.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, an outside supporter of UPA-2, has been talking of early elections by September this year. He claimed he had information that the Congress would go for early elections after the budget session. Given Mulayam’s own track record vis-à-vis the UPA, not many outside his party, and some even within the SP, took him seriously.

Unlike Pratibha Patil, who appeared ever more inclined to sign clemency petitions for death-row convicts, President Pranab Mukherjee seems to have taken a clear stand on terror-related executions. This is one reason why both Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru were hanged, though the decisions basically relate to the home ministry.

Logically, Guru should have been executed before Kasab, but the UPA waited for Patil’s exit from Rashtrapati Bhavan and the onset of the Gujarat elections to fast-forward Kasab’s hanging. Once that experience had been taken into account, deciding on Guru became easier, even though the fallout from Guru’s hanging in Kashmir will be watched with concern.

It is clear that the UPA is now moving with some speed after goofing up in its assessment of political costs and assessments earlier. The government lost out badly when it moved with leaden-footedness after the Delhi bus gangrape. Having reassessed its options, it then announced an ordinance on rape laws just ahead of the parliament session. Congress President Sonia Gandhi along with party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi visited the home of the deceased rape victim to emphasise that the Congress was alive to people’s concerns.

Since September, the UPA government has been in overdrive to emphasise that it has not lost the will to govern. Apart from moving ahead on FDI in retail, the government has managed to change the discourse from corruption to economic reform. The decision on the anti-rape ordinance and the hanging of Afzal Guru will help it reinforce the change in perceptions.

The soft state perception had again come into vogue after  the incident of the beheading of the Indian jawan on the line of control (LOC). The execution of Guru should counter that perception.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde can now face Parliament without being apologetic to the BJP on his Saffron terror remark - a clever move that will force the BJP to rework its strategy. This morning Shinde held his first press conference after his Saffron terror remark at the Jaipur AICC conclave. He told newspersons that he had cleared the Guru file on 4 February, a day after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his mercy petition on 3 February.

The BJP has, for now, chosen to sound more mature, welcoming the decision to hang Afzal, but raising mild questions on the six-year delay. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said: “For reasons which the government has been unable to explain the execution was delayed. But finally the law has taken its own course. Public opinion has compelled the government to act and enforce the law. India must today speak in one voice and give a clear message to the world that India is not a soft state.”

Janata Dal (U) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also spoke of the delay. “The issue was of the gravity of the crime he committed; it should have been done earlier”, he said. Narendra Modi, for his part, came out with a simple one-liner, “better late than never.”

The UPA government has once again surprised the opposition, particularly the BJP. The Congress think-tank is working on a predetermined script, and it seems to be working.

But trouble looms in the next parliament session, where there could be reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) exposing scams in the farm loan waiver scheme and the MGNREGA implementation.

The Congress will also have to make a move on Mayawati’s demand for reservations in promotions, on which the BJP is divided – with the UP unit up in arms for the party’s support for the Bill in the Rajya Sabha.

But for now, the Congress has made one point clear: it has not lost its political instincts for survival.