The Congress’s optimism in the last Uttar Pradesh assembly elections was based on one serious presumption that Muslims were deeply disenchanted with the Samajwadi Party.
This belief was manifested by the defeat of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav in the Ferozabad parliamentary by-election by Raj Babbar, a turncoat from SP to Congress. That too on a seat vacated by Akhilesh Yadav. Incidentally, this was also around the time that Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh had been raising the pitch of on Batla House encounter, calling it fake and demanding a judicial inquiry.
Subsequent to the Ferozabad poll result (November 2009), the noises in Congress on the fake encounter became even louder and Digvijaya floated the idea in January 2010 that Rahul Gandhi should visit Azamgarh in UP. After all it was the Azamgarh module of Indian Mujahideen that the Delhi Police was claiming to have busted in what had been a coordinated effort by police forces of various states and Intelligence Bureau.
Rahul’s campaign for Raj Babbar was believed to have the changed the game for Congress vis-à-vis the Samajwadi Party and it was only befitting, some thought, that he should go to Azamgarh to make the people at large and the aggrieved Muslims in particular, feel that he stood by them.
In an interview with Times of India, Digvijaya then said “we discussed the issue in the party and it was decided that I go there….During my visit (to Azamgarh), they told me that Rahul Gandhi should visit the place. When I met the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, I conveyed their sentiments. She said she would speak to Rahul.” The idea sparked off a furious debate and for some reason Rahul Gandhi did not go then.
Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Azamgarh when it did happen, came two years later, to the famous Shibli National College while the Congress scion was campaigning in the two-month-long seven phase UP elections.
A fortnight prior to Rahul’s visit to Azamgarh the Congress led UPA government at the centre had announced reservation of of 4.5 per cent for minorities within the larger 27 percent reservation for OBCs. The centre had also announced a Rs 6000 crore package for weavers, most of whom belonged to the minority community. A combination of these made Congress leader believe that they would ride high on a tidal wave of Muslim support.
Rahul stayed in a guest house in the campus and was met with protests of various kinds. Amid heavy security he could speak only to some girl students. Two days later however, the same Shibli College campus gave a warm welcome to Akhilesh Yadav who in turn converted the guest house into a de facto office for the three days that he stayed there.
This correspondent had gone to Azamgarh, for an on-the-ground perspective of how the Muslim community was expected to vote, what impact Rahul’s visit had made and how much Digvijaya’s sound and fury on the “fake” Batla House encounter had helped the Congress.
One expected that given the situation, Digvijaya Singh would be perceived as a trusted, supportive, friendly leader and Congress would be the preferred party hands down.
But the response from odd members of community of varying strata was surprising. Digvijaya was hugely unpopular. The vocal Congress general secretary was in fact, almost a hate figure.
Also a few days prior to Rahul’s visit, then Home Minister P Chidambaram had snubbed Digvijaya's demand of a judicial inquiry into Batla House by saying it was a genuine encounter.
It didn't take rocket science to understand which way the wind was blowing. Yet the Congress seemed to be totally detached from the ground reality.
Some time later Salman Khurshid addressed a rally in Azamgarh and revealed that Sonia Gandhi “cried bitterly” on seeing the Batla House pictures, and added that a judicial commission could be set after elections. "I was not a minister at that time but still took the issue of the Batla House encounter to Sonia Gandhi. When we showed photographs of that incident to Mrs Gandhi, she wept bitterly," he said, adding, "She asked me to go immediately to the Prime Minister to discuss the matter. I talked to the PM and it was decided that the matter would be further investigated and even the decision to appoint some retired chief justice of the Supreme Court to look into the matter was taken. Everything was ready, however due to election time, we could not do something as some people were in opinion that at the time of election, this thing could not be done".
The assembly polls results established where Congress stood and how much Muslim support Digvijay or Salman Khursheed’s shrillness on Batla House and centre’s quota within quota announcement could bring.
Now that the much awaited judgment on Batla House has come, the politics encounter should have stopped but it is not to be.
The Congress party took the position that the party ruling the nation should take and also made it appear as though it was warning Digvijaya Singh.
Party spokeman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said "this judgment, subject to whoever has right of appeal should put an end to controversy and doubt. While nobody has been stronger and more strident and clear than the Congress in condemning fake encounters, it is equally important that after a judicial verdict, after a trial and with reasons when a judgment has come, all parts of society should try and avoid politicization of the issue. Otherwise, we would be undermining the fabric of our democracy including the judicial system and would be acting irresponsibly".
But the moment Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi finished making his statement, there were doubts that Digvijaya would ignore the directive and the party would let that happen since the influential general secretary could address a social constituency that felt aggrieved about what happened in Batla House.
True to his reputation Digvijay shortly came out blazing, snubbing his own party spokesman and reiterating his earlier stand for judicial inquiry into Batla house encounter.
The judgment comes at a time when Congress is attempting to position the upcoming Lok sabha elections around the Secular-communal divide to take on Modi. The issue will impact the political discourse, which has already become bitter but more than that, it has the potential to impact Congress prospects in the country’s most populous state which sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha.