The Congress' penchant for creating unnecessary problems for itself was again in evidence in the messy episode involving two of its candidates for the parliamentary polls who have long been suspected of involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Yet, it took the hurling of a shoe by an angry Sikh journalist at Home Minister P. Chidambaram for the exoneration of one of the accused, Jagdish Tytler, by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to force the Congress to backtrack.
The entire matter showed the party in extremely poor light. First, it displayed a deplorable lack of political judgment along with a contemptuous disregard for morality by nominating the two controversial politicians, Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. The party should have known that despite the passage of a quarter of a century, the ghastly killing of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards has continued to shock the conscience of the people in Delhi and elsewhere.
Like the anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom of 2002, the attacks on Sikhs in Delhi had the backing of political elements, mostly Congressmen, while the police showed a curious apathy to deal with the murderers and arsonists.
Of the three locally prominent Congressmen who were accused of instigating the mobs, H.K.L. Bhagat has died while Tytler and Sajjan Kumar have been facing court cases. But, it is the CBI's clean chit to Tytler which fuelled Sikh anger all over again.
The centre's hidden hand was suspected behind the investigative agency's description of the witnesses against Tytler as unreliable.
Since it is widely believed that the supposed autonomy of these official organizations is a myth, the centre should have known that the fig-leaf of the CBI's decision would convince no one. Besides, it isn't only a question of what can, or cannot, be proved in a court of law. Political morality demanded that when the names of the two men have remained under a cloud for all these years, the party should not field them.
Had the investigative and legal processes in India been above suspicion, an accused with a political background could have been let off without a public uproar. But since the system is not flawless, the parties will have to keep in mind the fact that a political price may have to be paid if they are suspected, first, of shielding the guilty via the manipulation of the official machinery and, second, of thrusting them on the people as candidates in utter disregard of their sentiments.
It took a flying shoe and angry demonstrations to make the Congress realize its mistake. But it may be already too late for it to retrieve the situation where the Sikh voters are concerned. The party might regret alienating the community all the more because opinion polls were suggesting that its position was improving in Punjab, where the Congress's opponents - the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - are currently in power.
This entirely avoidable blunder was made by the Congress at a time when several of its allies were charting courses of their own. One of them - Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - finally gathered enough courage to attend a meeting of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Left, two of the Congress' opponents, in Orissa.
Pawar had stayed away from an earlier meeting after the Congress had expressed its disapproval, addressing it instead via his mobile after claiming that he could not attend it because his aircraft had developed a snag. But, if the NCP leader displayed more boldness on the second occasion, it might have been because the Gujarat chief minister, the BJP's Narendra Modi, had taunted him by calling him a 'darpok', or a coward.
However, Modi himself had stayed away from a meeting in Kandhamal in Orissa on the unconvincing plea of fading light. As is known, this was the area where the saffron storm-troopers of the BJP's affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal had attacked Christian villages and burnt churches last year. It was these murderous assaults which persuaded Naveen Patnaik, the BJD chief minister, to break his decade-old ties with the BJP.
Modi was also declared a virtual persona non grata by another of the BJP's allies, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), who has refused to share a dais with his Gujarat counterpart. Evidently, the latter is yet to live down his reputation as a man who aided and abetted the Gujarat riots by his acts of omission and commission.
Nitish Kumar's explanation for avoiding Modi was the need for maintaining communal harmony in Bihar. It is this compulsion which also made the JD-U leader castigate the BJP's new poster-boy, Varun Gandhi, for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has landed him in jail.
He is not the only one, however, who is in trouble. An FIR (first information report) has been lodged by the police against Railway Minister Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for vowing to crush Varun Gandhi under a road roller. Since then, the RJD leader has backtracked by saying that he meant the roller of law. Lalu Prasad's wife, former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, is also facing court proceedings for making derogatory remarks against Nitish Kumar.
In a more serious development in Tamil Nadu, V. Gopalaswamy or Vaiko, leader of the MDMK, has been booked for sedition for threatening a "bloodbath" in the state if the rebel leader of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is harmed by the army.
Vaiko was jailed earlier for his utterances in favour of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by none other than his present electoral ally, Jayalalitha of the AIADMK. She was the chief minister then.
As the weather becomes hot in India, so does the election scene as the country goes to the first phase of the five-phase polls on April 16.
(11.04.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)