When the Congress party officially criticised the Supreme Court’s decision to release A G Perarivalan — one of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case who has already served over 30 years in prison — earlier this week, it raised many eyebrows as the members of the Gandhi family had made statements in the past suggesting that they have forgiven Rajiv’s killers.
And when the party’s ally DMK welcomed his release and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin met Perarivalan and hugged him, many in the Congress were reminded of 1997 when the party withdrew support to the then United Front government led by I K Gujral over his refusal to drop the DMK ministers from his Cabinet after the Jain Commission, which investigated the conspiracy angle in the Rajiv assassination case, indicted the Dravidian party in its interim report.
The Congress’s silence over Stalin’s warm welcome to Perarivalan is telling. The DMK and Stalin are now closer to the Congress than ever before. In fact, Rahul Gandhi mentions the DMK whenever he accuses the Narendra Modi government of “assaulting” the country’s federal structure and the states’ distinct identity.
The opposition of the Congress to Perarivalan’s release despite the Gandhi family’s contrary stand seems to be deliberate positioning. The Congress leaders say the party has to take “institutional” stand on such issues. They argue that the Gandhi family can pardon Rajiv’s killers — they respect their sentiments — but the party’s position on combating terrorism and release of terror convicts is different. There is no contradiction in it, they say.
In fact, Gandhis’ position on the Rajiv assassination case has also evolved since 1991. The first signs of discord between Sonia Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao during the latter’s prime ministership surfaced over the Jain commission probe. Sonia, who was not in politics then, was unhappy with the slow progress in the panel’s inquiry. In 1995, she even went public over it while on a visit to Amethi, expressing her agony. Both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra used to attend the panel’s hearings. Rao’s detractors in the Congress also played a role in fuelling her animus against him. Rao was sidelined once the party lost power in 1996.
When the Congress pulled the plug on the Gujral government leading to his resignation at the end of 1997, Sitaram Kesri was the Congress president. The Congress took several days for this move as a party section was against a withdrawal redux within months. Earlier that year, the party had withdrawn support to the H D Deve Gowda-led United Front government too.
The signs of Sonia’s hostility against the LTTE was visible even in 1999 but active politics mellowed her down since. In April 1999, she met the then AIADMK supremo late J Jayalalithaa over tea famously, after the latter withdrew support to the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government. The two reportedly discussed the then M K Karunanidhi-led Tamil Nadu government’s failure to check the LTTE’s activities in the state.
But in 1999, Sonia reportedly wrote a letter to the then President K R Narayanan, urging him to commute the capital punishment awarded to Rajiv case convicts including Perarivalan, Santham, Murugan and his wife Nalini Sriharan. In 2000, Nalini’s death penalty was commuted to life by the then Tamil Nadu governor on the basis of the state cabinet’s recommendation and Sonia’s public appeal. Sonia’s letter, written after the apex court confirmed their death sentences, was included as part of a petition filed in the Madras High Court against the President’s decision rejecting their clemency pleas in August 2011.
The equations between the DMK and the Congress too changed in 2004. The Congress fought the 2001 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections as a constituent of the AIADMK-led alliance. But in 2004, the DMK became a partner of the Congress-led UPA coalition at the Centre. In fact, it was Karunanidhi who suggested that this coalition be called a progressive alliance.
In March 2008, Priyanka met Nalini at Vellore Central Jail. Priyanka had then said it was a personal visit “that I undertook completely on my own initiative” and “I would be deeply grateful if this could be respected”. “I do not believe in anger, hatred and violence and I refuse to allow it any power over my life. Meeting with Nalini was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced,” she said.
Rahul had expressed similar views, too. In 2018, during an interaction in London, he had said, “I have seen people whom I loved being killed. I have also seen the person who killed my father being killed. And I can say that when I saw Mr Prabhakaran (the LTTE chief) lying on the beaches in Jaffna and when I saw him being humiliated, the way he was being humiliated, I felt sorry for him because I saw my father in his place and I felt sorry for him because I saw his children in my place… So, when you are being hit by violence, when you understand it, it has a completely different impact on you.”
The Congress leaders have maintained the party respects the Gandhis’ position but as an institution it has to take a stand on the release of terror convicts. “We cannot pick and choose according to our likes and dislikes. It is a party position. There is no contradiction. The family has a personal view. The party has a view. They also understand that,” a senior leader said.
Significantly, Gandhis have not commented on Perarivalan’s release so far. “They have let the party take a position. Randeep Surjewala could not have said what he said without getting a clearance from the top,” a senior leader said. In fact, the AICC’s communication in-charge Surjewala’s press conference came after a meeting of AICC general secretaries and state in-charges in which Priyanka was present. “The Supreme Court ruling came when the meeting was on,” a leader said.
“We are deeply saddened by the decision of the Supreme Court. If those guilty of terrorism, assassination of a Prime Minister are going to be released like this, then who will uphold the majesty and the integrity of law in this country?” Surjewala told reporters. He said Rahul and Priyanka had “in their own humane way as individuals came forward and said that they harbour no ill-will for the murderers of Rajiv Gandhi. As a Congressman and as a citizen I feel the family may harbour no ill-will…but that does not change the law and Constitution of this country. And the responsibility today to implement the law of the land was that of Prime Minister Modi”.
It might be seen as a win-win situation for the party, which, on one hand, projects Gandhis’ pardon as a noble gesture, but takes a contrary, political position on the other.
As regards the Congress’s silence on Stalin’s meeting with Perarivalan, some party leaders are said to be unhappy but the party leadership realises that it cannot join issue with the Dravidian party now. Stalin and Rahul share a warm relationship. In fact, it was Stalin who had, in 2018, first proposed Rahul as the Opposition’s Prime Minister candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Rahul also mentioned the DMK while participating in a conference in London Friday. While arguing that his remarks on regional parties, made at the Congress’s Chintan Shivir, was “misconstrued”, he said what he meant was that there is an ideological battle with the BJP-RSS and “it is a national ideological battle which means that, of course, we respect… for example the DMK as a Tamil political organisation, but the Congress is the party that has the ideology at the national level”.