In London last week, Rahul Gandhi spoke of the targeted killings of Sikhs in the capital and elsewhere, after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, as a “tragedy” and a “painful experience”. It was not just that he described the crime, for which there is still no justice, as a disembodied event, with victims but no perpetrators. The Congress president went on to explicitly deny Congress accountability: “You say that the Congress party was involved in that. I don’t agree with that.”
Those statements have touched off aftershocks his partymen are still trying to contain. P Chidambaram insisted his party chief was not trying to absolve the party. And Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has swung between protesting Rahul’s own innocence, literally — he was still in school when 1984 happened, Singh pointed out — and blaming (dead) Congressmen to exonerate the Congress. But Rahul Gandhi’s statements, or evasions, on 1984 are notable not just because they put his partymen in a spot. They are most remarkable for the unhappy things they say about a once-dominant party trying to rebuild itself after plunging to an unprecedented low.
On 1984, the facts are well known: The Congress was in power when the killings took place and its Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sought to justify the violence; in 2005, another Congress Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, apologised to the Sikh community in Parliament and Jagdish Tytler, one of the Congressmen named by the Nanavati Commission report, had to resign from his cabinet; in the run-up to the 2009 LS polls, the Congress had to withdraw tickets given to Tytler and Sajjan Kumar after protests by Sikh groups and later, in 2016, roll back Kamal Nath’s appointment as general secretary in charge of Punjab. Rahul Gandhi’s comments in London now show that the Congress is still unwilling to face up to its past as it tries to move ahead.
They show that even as the party takes on the BJP for its complicity in communal violence, it has ceded the moral high ground. And that though Rahul Gandhi himself speaks with striking compassion and empathy about violence — he spoke in London about being affected by his father’s assassination but also by the humiliation in death of V Prabhakaran, chief of the LTTE, accused of Rajiv Gandhi’s killing — he seems less sensitive to the need for closure on 1984.
In Hamburg, before London, Rahul Gandhi had made another set of controversial remarks, linking the “anger” emanating from a joblessness created by the “destruction” of small businesses by demonetisation and a poorly implemented GST, to the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits. He also connected the dots between the “exclusion” of tribals, Dalits and minorities from the “development process” and a possible ISIS-like situation in India. If his comments on Punjab tried to strip the crime scene of the criminal, the remarks in Hamburg were problematic for seeing far too many smoking guns. As the supreme leader of a party faced with the enormous challenge of reviving itself before an important election, Rahul Gandhi must know he needs to be more careful. His words matter, they have consequences.