In an earlier column, I had explained the reasons behind Congress president Rahul Gandhi's move to launch election campaigns from foreign soil. Apart from giving him the space to target Prime Minister Narendra Modi on specific issues, the interactions with overseas students, academics, policy wonks and business leaders are aimed at casting him as a "thought leader". These "events", the Congress hopes, may give Rahul the intellectual validation he lacks.
Although it is a useful strategy to earn some publicity and address the dynast's chronic "image problem", the move is not risk-free. It is not always possible to control the narrative. Often, as we have seen in the past, the Congress president is forced to face uncomfortable questions during these interactions and is left struggling to control the narrative. Unprepared, he cuts a sorry figure.
Rahul's controversial remark on the 1984 pogrom denying the Congress' involvement in the massacre of Sikhs, or his predicament on the Doka La issue, further highlights the pitfalls of this strategy. On Friday, during a two-day tour of the United Kingdom, CNN-News18's Sanjay Suri asked Rahul a question on the Congress' role in the massacre. His statement was in response to that question.
The Congress president hemmed and hawed before denying his party's involvement. "I have no confusion in my mind about that. It was a tragedy; it was a painful experience. You say that the Congress party was involved in that. I don't agree with that. Certainly, there was violence, certainly there was tragedy," Rahul offered during the UK Parliament meeting in London on Friday.
In his bid to whitewash history, Rahul seemed to be tying himself up in knots. "I think any violence done against anybody is wrong. There are legal processes ongoing in India, but as far as I'm concerned, any wrong done during that period should be punished, and I would support that a 100 percent," he said.
Rahul's statement — removing the banal observations on universal truths — is remarkable. He claims violence is "wrong", professes to support punishment against the perpetrators and yet fails to acknowledge that his party had anything to do with the pogrom. If the Congress was not responsible, who choreographed the massacre? Is Rahul suggesting that the 1984 carnage was a "spontaneous" uprising against innocent Sikhs? What does history say?
The Congress was in power at the Centre when former prime minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. It is an indisputable fact that in the aftermath of her assassination, 8,000 Sikhs were butchered in India — 3,000 in Delhi and Haryana alone. The party's involvement in the pogrom is also an indisputable fact. In Delhi, for instance, murderous mobs were on rampage for three days before the army was called in. They thrashed innocent Sikhs and roasted them alive by sprinkling kerosene and placing burning tyres over their necks. The mob raped women, indulged in arson and looted and plundered the homes and shops of Sikhs, while the police — ostensibly under instructions from the top — looked the other way. Many Congress leaders were later accused of orchestrating the violence.
Shekhar I was then in Rashtrapati Bhawan. PV Narasimha Rao, then Home Minister, was untraceable even when Pres Zail Singh repeatedly sought HIM. It took full day for him to return calls. Any doubt protection to rioters was coming from The Top ? https://t.co/23JCyLMBD2
— K. C. Singh (@ambkcsingh) August 26, 2018
On the largest mass lynching in India's post-Independence history, foreign policy analyst Akhilesh Pillalamarri writes in The Diplomat: "There is significant evidence that the riots were aided and abetted by members of India's government and the Congress party. For example, the Delhi city police were said to have looked on passively as rioters murdered and raped Sikhs. Rioters somehow acquired voting records that enabled them to identify and mark the houses of Sikhs with large X signs. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son, who became the next prime minister, was reported to have said nonchalantly that 'when a big tree falls, the earth shakes'."
Yet Rahul claims that his party was "not involved" in the pogrom. It is not difficult to imagine his motive. In an experiment with post-truth, the Congress is trying to appropriate the facts and brazen out a new narrative. The Gandhi family dynast had previously tried to dilute the Congress' role in the massacre, during an interview to a TV channel in 2014, but on that occasion, under persistent questioning from the interviewer, he had eventually admitted that "some Congress men were probably involved".
Now that he has taken over the mantle of his party, Rahul felt compelled to change the narrative. The question is, why is he trying to deny history? It is possible that Rahul believes public memory is short, and three decades is enough time to take the millstone off the Congress' neck. The party may have calculated that a denial in 2018 would cause less outrage and little backlash, given the fact that a large chunk of the electorate was born well after the shameful chapter was scripted in 1984.
The other motivation behind Rahul's brazen denial could be an attempt to carve out a moral superiority over Modi, whom he considers his prime target. If the Congress' greatest sin can be painted with obfuscation, it leaves Rahul free to pontificate on India's biggest instance of genocide without any real culpability. This is such a lucrative proposition for the Congress that it appears ready to risk courting even a "short-term" opprobrium for it.
It is in the nature of public discourse that even the most blatant lie generates increasingly lesser outrage if repeated ad nauseam until such time that it puts even the truth in doubt. It is a time-tested Goebbelsian tactic, named after Joseph Goebbels who was Hitler's propaganda minister from 1933 to 1945. Rahul has floated the denial, and now, it will be up to his foot soldiers in the party and ecosystem to hammer it home.
But the Congress president has a problem. The 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom remains one of the most well-documented crimes, even though justice has eluded the victims, so far. There are many eyewitness accounts in the media space and beyond, and the truth shall not be easily rewritten.
Hardeep Singh Puri, the mild-mannered former diplomat, author and current Union minister, posted a series of tweets to express his outrage over the Congress president's attempts to take liberties with the truth.
Rahul Gandhi’s denial on the role of members of Congress party in the most gruesome anti-sikh pogrom in '84 is truly beyond comprehension. All the more surprising that in an interview to #ArnabGoswami in 2014 he has clearly admitted to the role of congressmen in the killings(1/3) pic.twitter.com/aCFpEtZEXp
— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) August 25, 2018
I was in Colombo then, which though a conflict zone, ironically seemed safer than Delhi. But my parents, who were here, went through a harrowing time. When targeted, they had to escape & find shelter with our Hindu friends. So my blood boils when I hear this blatant denial. (2/3) pic.twitter.com/amnsXzc4IH
— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) August 25, 2018
As trials dragged on for decades,Congress shielded the culprits. Now, when the wheels of justice are grinding slowly but surely he knows the perpetrators of the crime will not be safe for long, so he has begun denying any role of his party colleagues in that pogrom. (3/3) pic.twitter.com/d7hNk8qKW6
— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) August 25, 2018
In his article "Congress was involved in 1984 anti-Sikh riots – I saw & reported it", senior journalist and founder of The Print Shekhar Gupta writes: "It wasn't a communal riot in the classical sense; there was no mass upsurge, no widespread frenzy. It was just three days out for the looters, rapists and killers, given a furlough by the police and the local government, and of course, the Congress party."
In his piece "Congress, Culpability And Kamal Nath", Hartosh Singh Bal writes in Outlook, quoting Avtar Singh Gill (petroleum secretary in 1984) that "the day after Indira Gandhi's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi's associate, hotelier Lalit Suri, had come to his office and told him to stay at home for three days. 'Clearance has been given by Arun Nehru for the killings in Delhi and the killings have started. The strategy is to catch Sikh youth, fling a tyre over their heads, douse them with kerosene and set them on fire.'"
Incidentally, Nehru was the cousin of Rajiv and former internal security minister. Bal surmises: "Arun Nehru enjoyed Rajiv Gandhi's complete confidence and acted on his behalf. This would indicate that the party's institutional involvement in the violence went all the way up to the top."
CNN-News18 journalist Suri, who posed the question to Rahul in the UK on Friday, was a crime reporter with The Indian Express in 1984 and had covered the violence extensively. He had subsequently filed affidavits before the Misra and Nanavati commissions. In his book 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence and After, Suri recounted how Congress leader Kamal Nath had "appeared to be controlling the crowd outside Delhi's Rakab Ganj Sahib gurudwara".
In an interview with The Indian Express, Suri recalled: "When I went to Rakabganj Gurdwara, there were crowds outside, and they were surging. Two Sikhs had already been burnt alive. I saw a crowd on the road surging again and again towards the gurdwara. By the side of this crowd was Kamal Nath. The crowd move forward, he raised his hand and they stopped. You could see this two ways — he stopped the crowd. My question is, what is the relationship between him and them that he only had to raise his hand and they stopped?"
Rahul's revisionism may prove to be counter-productive. His words on 1984 have drawn fresh blood from old, unhealed wounds. The details are still fresh in memory. Tarlochan Singh, the then president Giani Zail Singh's press secretary, was quoted as saying by The Indian Express in another report that the riots were "orchestrated and sponsored".
"The president wanted to speak to the prime minister about the large-scale arson and violence in Delhi. The prime minister did not get back to the president. All night, he tried over the telephone. Nobody responded. In the morning, he tried to speak to (then) home minister Narasimha Rao. He was told that we are all busy making arrangements for the funeral… The whole of next day, neither the prime minister nor the home minister took any interest in defusing the situation or helping the victims," Tarlochan was quoted as saying.
The 1984 pogrom is not the only instance where Rahul has been caught on the wrong foot in recent times. His astounding comments on Doka La adds to the impression that he is frequently out of depth in his vocation.
When asked how would you have handled Doklam differently after having criticised the government for it, Rahul Gandhi fumbled and said he didn’t have details, so can’t comment... One wonders then on what basis has he been criticising? pic.twitter.com/ksBPlqQAYw
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) August 24, 2018
Rahul is a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, which was briefed on the various aspects of last year's crisis in granular detail. The Gandhi dynast also met Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui in July 2017 and had tweeted that it was his job to remain informed on critical issues.
As Devirupa Mitra points out in The Wire: "The draft report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs on Sino-Indian relations, including on Doka La, provides a detailed account of the government's view on the unfolding of the 72-day standoff, with the help of testimonies from former foreign secretary S Jaishankar and his successor Vijay Gokhale, as well as Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra."
And yet Rahul claims, when questioned on how differently he would have tackled the Doka La crisis, that he has "no details". It is evident that despite the Congress party's best efforts to rev up the image of its president, "Brand Rahul" isn't getting the right kind of traction.
Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 21:12 PM