Appointment of senior leader Kamal Nath as Punjab affairs in-charge has come as a bolt-out-of-the-blue for Congressmen desperately looking for a magic wand to brighten chances of the party in election-bound state.
Nath, facing allegations of leading a mob near Gurdwara Rakabganj in Delhi during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, is a controversial face in Punjab. The state unit of the party has reacted with shock and disbelief at his appointment in Punjab where 1984 riots is an emotive issue.
With the party, being in opposition for last two consecutive terms, struggling to garner votes and counter Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is finding itself on the defensive since yesterday ever since Nath’s appointment was made. The political rivals have already launched a scathing attack on the party with AAP , SAD and BJP terming the party as a “sympathiser” of accused of riots against the Sikhs.
Considering the general sentiment in the state that has kept alive the memories of 32-year-old riots, only a handful of state leaders have hailed his appointment and the rest of the Congress camp has preferred to keep quiet. Those welcoming his appointment include Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh, former PPCC president Shamsher Singh Dullo and a party MLA, considered close to Amarinder, Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi.
A few senior Congress leaders today conveyed their reservations about Nath to AICC Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who was in Jalandhar today to lead a dharna against drugs.
Amarinder, who has not issued a pubic statement yet has defended Nath while speaking to the Indian Express. He said, “Nath had no role to play in riots. I was the only leader from Punjab to visit Delhi post the riots. I heard names of five leaders to be responsible for the riots. Nobody named Nath then. The issue was raised only after the Sikh for Justice leader, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun sought a ban on his entry o the US in 2010.”
Amarinder and Nath are considered close and have a Doon School connection. Compared to his predecessor, Dr Shakeel Ahmad, who was replaced by the party following Rajya Sabha election fiasco in Haryana, Nath is considered an effective and expeditious leader. Also, the party strategist, Prashant Kishor, it is learnt, was in favour of Shakeel’s removal.
His constructive role in Rajiv-Longowal Accord for peace in Punjab and his efforts to construct a peace-corridor from Batala (Punjab) to Kartarpur Sahib (in Pakistan) as Union Transport Minister were apparently considered his qualification by the party to lead the state unit of the party.
His appointment has, however, sparked off a controversy. Not just the political observers but the party leaders alike expressed their disbelief at the appointment, “How could the party do so? I am shocked at the decision. Do they seriously want us to win?” asked a senior party leader.