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Sam Pitroda's 1984 riot remark shows how easily Rahul-helmed Congress walked into Modi's Rajiv Gandhi trap

Congress overseas unit chief Sam Pitroda is puzzled. For the life of him, he cannot understand why the BJP has made Rajiv Gandhi an issue in this election. Pitroda is not alone. The entire Congress party was caught on the wrong foot when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the former prime minister “Bhrashtachari No.1 (corrupt No.1)” and challenged the Congress to fight the remaining phases of elections in Delhi, Punjab and Bhopal in his name.

“My open challenge to Congress. Fight elections in the name of the former PM associated with Bofors in: Delhi and Punjab, where innocent Sikhs were butchered in his reign. Bhopal, where he helped Warren Anderson flee after the infamous Gas Tragedy. Challenge accepted?” posted the PM on Twitter.

 Sam Pitrodas 1984 riot remark shows how easily Rahul-helmed Congress walked into Modis Rajiv Gandhi trap

File image of Sam Pitroda. AFP

Pitroda was upset. In a recent news conference in Punjab, the Gandhi family loyalist told reporters “Modi-led BJP government has unnecessarily brought in Rajiv Gandhi into the picture. People like me, who have worked with Rajiv Gandhi, are very upset.”

Pitroda became more upset when the BJP tweeted an old video clip of former prime minister Rajiv telling a crowd soon after the 1984 state-sponsored pogrom against Sikhs, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes a little.” Rajiv, of course, was referring to the assassination of his mother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh bodyguards following which a carnage took place against followers of Sikh faith. Around 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the riots, many more were displaced and became refugees in their own country. The issue remains a festering wound on India’s body politic.

Rajiv’s comments were interpreted as an indication of ruling party’s collusion in the massacre, and the Congress has still not been able to get rid of the albatross around its neck. Pitroda, who was among Rajiv’s closest friends and now plays mentor to his son Rahul, was even more upset when the BJP again stoked the fire, this time alleging that “instructions to kill” came from the then Prime Minister’s Office in 1984.

The Congress’s overseas unit chief blew his top. In answering a question on this issue, a furious Pitroda told news agency ANI: “I don’t think so, this is also another lie (referring to PMO office instructions), and what about 1984? You speak about what you have done in the last five years. It happened in 1984, so what? (1984 hua toh hua). (Ab kya hai ’84 ka? Aapne kya kiya 5 saal mein, uski baat kariye. ’84 mein hua to hua. Aapne kya kiya?).

Pitroda should have known better.

Not for the first time has the BJP laid an elaborate trap and the Congress obliged by walking straight into it. It takes a special kind of insensitivity to show such arrogance while talking about a massacre in which so many Sikhs were killed, maimed, raped and displaced. And to think that these comments were made just two days before Haryana, Punjab and Delhi goes to polls — places dominated by voters who follow the Sikh faith — it is evident that the Congress is bent on political suicide.

It took just hours for Pitroda’s “hua to hua” (so what?) on 1984 riots to become a red-hot political issue and push Congress on to the backfoot. Pitroda started tweeting old pictures of him at Golden Temple, perhaps an effort at damage control. The Grand Old Party appears clueless on mitigating the crisis. It wants the poll narrative to focus on quotidian issues such as jobs, economy, rural distress, Modi’s “failures” and its own pet scheme “NYAY”, but finds itself beleaguered by a narrative over which it has little control.

Modi isn’t the one to let this opportunity go. When the rival political party which has been accused of orchestrating a genocide of Sikhs in 1984 tells people during polls “so what if it happened”, it would be foolish not to take advantage of the mistake. And Modi isn’t a fool.

He told a rally in Rohtak, Haryana, that these comments by one of Congress’s most senior leaders, one who is perceived to be one of the closest to the Gandhi family, exposes the party’s “true face.”

While Modi raked up the issue in election rallies, his party hit the streets to keep the controversy alive. This is a deliberate and organised attempt to push the adversary on backfoot by capitalizing on a momentous blunder. It could be argued that the BJP is trying to politicise the issue, and that’s exactly the point. The unfolding of the controversy and the handling of its aftermath tells us something about the incredible amount of detail that goes into BJP’s poll strategy and its execution. Some of it is not easily apparent.

It might be tempting to imagine that Modi made good use of the opportunity that came his way. After all, he wouldn’t have foreseen Pitroda’s blunder. While the Congress has obliged the BJP, it also says something about the meticulous planning that BJP had undertaken.

In the inordinately long poll campaign stretched over one and a half months, the BJP did not utter a word on Rajiv Gandhi, the 1984 riots, the Congress-ruled government’s role behind Bhopal gas tragedy or Rajiv’s contentious “vacation” in Lakshadweep archipelago. These issues were raked up and hammered home only when the time was ripe: just ahead of the sixth-stage polling in Bhopal, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. This is taking campaign strategy to next level.

The BJP may have hoped that targeting Rajiv would bring “dividends”, and Congress made BJP’s plan successful by reacting exactly in the way the saffron unit would have wanted it to. The Rahul-helmed party and its entire ecosystem burnt in indignant outrage over Modi’s charges against Rajiv and created such a hue and cry that Congress’s own campaign strategy went out of the window. In some ways, the BJP is perhaps fortunate to have Rahul’s Congress as its chief national adversary. We shall soon know.

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Updated Date: May 11, 2019 19:18:42 IST