The presidential green signal for the hanging of Khalistani militant Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar has put Congress in a spot, with the party’s Punjab chief Amarinder Singh seeking a stay on the execution of death sentence and putting the spotlight on what could be the start of a cut-throat race for next year’s state elections.
Barely three days after the President rejected Bhullar’s mercy petition, former chief minister Amarinder Singh demanded that the death sentence be commuted to life term.
Though Amarinder’s demand follows Akali Dal’s call on similar lines, the competitive politics for sympathy centered around next year’s state elections was evident.
Khalistan remains a sensitive issue in the state’s past with Akalis long seen as soft on the hardline cause. Amarinder only seems to be trying to match the Akali pitch ahead of the tough election he is expected to win for Congress.
Party leaders felt that the key issue had political consideration and could again turn the clock back on the frozen mercy petition which only moved last week after Supreme Court’s observations.
That it will bring about charges of politicking was upper most on the party’s mind when it chose to skirt the issue after Amarinder’s demand. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said, “Congress does not believe in dealing with or commenting on the clemency petition, expect the same from the Akali Dal. But if some organisation chooses to do so, then it is between them and the constitutional process.”
A party leader said any sustained focus on Bhullar’s hanging could revive the mercy petition and put the issue back in the deep freeze. “Mercy petition can always be repeated,” an MP said.
The mixing of death sentences and local sensitivities is not new to Congress. A party manager reminded that health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, as J&K chief minister, was the first to seek a stay on Afzal Guru’s hanging after he was convicted in the Parliament attack case.
Afzal’s Kashmir background and the apprehension of his hanging provoking unrest in the turbulent state were behind Azad’s intervention.
However, as Congress sees a tough time in negotiating the Bhullar case, it is sure that rival BJP will not be in any better position. BJP is running a joint government with the Akalis but has a long history of anti-militancy stand. The saffron party, according to Congress estimates, will have to balance pragmatism on Bhullar with its political compulsions. “Let us see what the BJP does,” a Congress MP said.
At least this time, the party hopes BJP will not be in a position to make a political campaign like it did on Afzal Guru.