There is now little doubt that the early-morning hanging of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri who was convicted for the 2001 attack on Parliament, is an intensely political decision. Taken together with the earlier hanging of Ajmal Kasab, the 26/11 terrorist, last November, it shows that the Congress party has decided to shift the terms of the political debate for 2014.
While it is possible to claim that all hangings are political in nature and depend on popular sentiment to some extent, the Kasab and Guru hangings are indicative of a well-thought-out Congress strategy to fight the 2014 elections on an entirely different plank. There is no other reason why the Congress would dawdle over years on the hangings, and then decide on them in just a matter of days.
The common assumption so far has been that the Congress has much to lose in 2014, thanks to its complete mismanagement of the economy under an economist Prime Minister. This is why it is changing the goalposts.
There are several basic reasons for this shift in strategy.
The first is Narendra Modi. Now that it is crystal clear that Modi will be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the Congress knows it has a fight on its hands. It has, therefore, attempted to close off all opportunities for a political attack from the Right on the Islamic terror front by hanging both Kasab and Guru.
But unlike Guru and Kasab, where the negative political fallout for the Congress would have been limited, it is unlikely that the Congress will play the same hanging card with Balwant Singh Rajaona and Rajiv's killers, Santhan, Murugan, and Perarivalan. They come from politically more powerful states of Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
The Modi factor behind the hanging was obvious from the timing of Kasab’s execution in November – just a month before the Gujarat elections. The Guru hanging comes just before the Karnataka elections, where the Congress hopes to wrest the state away from the BJP. The BJP has now no chance of retaining the state, since even the floating BJP voter will find the Congress’s actions acceptable.
In carrying out the Guru hanging, the Congress has clearly written off the next election in Kashmir, but is calculating that losing an ally here or one or two seats in this border state is worth the stemming of losses somewhere else.
But one should see the hangings in the context of the Congress’ counter-attack on Saffron terror. This has put the BJP on the defensive on its hardline anti-terror stance. This is Sushil Kumar Shinde’s mastermove that seeks to not only change the government’s image of being soft on terror, but force the BJP to defend its own militant Sangh allies. It can also be seen as an attempt to retain the Muslim vote despite the hangings.
One can speculate that but for Modi’s candidature, the Congress would have preferred the soft option of wooing the minorities and sticking to its aam aadmi stance. But once it became clear that the Gujarat strongman would probably be the face of the anti-Congress opposition in 2014, it had no alternative but to counter Modi’s potential appeal to the Hindu urban voter base in some way.
The second reason for Congress move is to shift the focus of politics away from economic failure to emotive issues like terror. Elections are not usually won on just positive agendas, but also in pandering to popular sentiment and fears.
The Congress knows that it has no chance of defending its economic record in UPA-2, not least because Modi is now painting himself as a development messiah and the nation has been willing to buy at least some of the latter's achievements. Not only has growth slowed down, but inflation is making the life of the aam aadmi harder. The aam aadmi is angry with the government despite the UPA’s huge spending in his name. And the BJP and the regional parties were in a position to harvest some of this anger in 2014.
The hangings will ensure that the next election debate will not focus entirely on the economic performance of the UPA, but on harder political issues.
It is also an indirect acknowledgement that the Congress is not sure of direct cash transfers – “Aapka paisa, aapke haath” – as a vote-winner in 2014.
The third reason for the hanging is Rahul Gandhi. The Congress knows that Rahul is no vote winner. His wimpy leadership has neither enthused the Congress flock nor is it likely to provide any kind of counter to the virile attacks one can expect from Modi on the campaign trail.
The hangings thus provide the Congress a shelter to hide the weaknesses of their prime ministerial candidate.
However, this shift may come with a cost. The effort is to woo the Hindu vote that may be veering towards Modi, but it could also shift some Muslim votes away from Congress, possibly to regional parties. The question is whether the Congress can manage this balancing act cleverly in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
The fourth reason for the hangings has to relate to the widespread realisation that the Congress has completely lost the faith of the urban middle class – thanks to the various corruption scandals uncovered by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the government’s handling of the Delhi gangrape fallout.
The hanging appeases the urban middle class, which has been the biggest critic of the government’s weakness on terror. Most terrorist acts have happened in urban areas, and the government has had no answer to the challenge. This was one area where Modi’s appeal would have been strongest.
To be sure, the Kasab and Guru hangings will be forgotten long before we reach the 2014 elections. This should again raise the possibility that the Congress may want to call the elections earlier – maybe some time in October 2013, once the winds from Karnataka are clear – so that the economy does not come back to the agenda. But once can only speculate on that possibility.
But the hangings are interesting for another reason: till now, we thought the Congress would focus on the aam aadmi and wooing the minorities, while the BJP would focus on terror and development.
We now will have a BJP candidate talking about development and not terror, and the Congress talking anti-terror and not development.
2014 promises to be an interesting challenge. Both the BJP and the Congress have shifted to the other's territory.