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November 19, 1998

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'84 riots are the biggest hurdle for Congress

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George Iype in New Delhi

Six days before the Delhi assembly election, what is haunting an upbeat Congress led by chief ministerial aspirant Shiela Dixit is not the number of rebels in the fray, but the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

Sikhs play a crucial role in Delhi politics. They can determine the results in at least 12 traditionally Punjabi constituencies like Tilak Nagar, Hari Nagar, Jangpura, Gandhi Nagar, Janakpuri, Saket, Rajendra Nagar and Kalkaji and influence the outcome in several others.

Therefore, Congress president Sonia Gandhi's refusal to publicly apologise for the 1984 massacre in the wake of prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination is proving to be a huge problem for the party's candidates across the city.

Adding to the embarrassment of the Congress are the public statements by a number of Sikh organisations exhorting the community to vote for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

"If we lose the election in Delhi, the main reason will be the Sikh community's aggressive mood against the Congress," admitted a local Congress politician. He said it is "embarrassing" that the bogey of the 1984 riots is haunting the party 14 years later.

"Sonia carries the stigma of being anti-Sikh in Delhi politics. This could undo the advantage the party has garnered in the past few months vis--vis the BJP," the Congressman told Rediff On The NeT.

Congress strategists accuse Sonia of mishandling "the Sikh issue" and distancing top Sikh politicians through the "Ahluwalia episode."

First, she failed to rein in former Union minister and Rajiv Gandhi acolyte S S Ahluwalia who abruptly raised the 1984 riots issue and pushed for an apology from the Congress president.

Though Gandhi has gone out of her way to be soft and conciliatory to the Sikhs since the time she began campaigning for the Congress in the general election earlier this year, her decision to discipline Ahluwalia by serving a show-cause notice is seen by many partymen to be a risky course.

Secondly, despite protests from the Sikh community, she went ahead and named Har Kishen Lal Bhagat as head of the Congress campaign committee, with Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and Dharam Dass Shastri as the other members. All four Congress politicians are alleged to have played varying roles in the 1984 riots.

Bhagat's selection so angered senior Congress Working Committee member R K Dhawan that he has refused to campaign for the party in any of the Sikh-dominated constituencies.

Thirdly, the Congress has been embarrassed by Sonia's failure to visit Punjab even though she has been publicly promising to pay an official visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar. In fact, the party leadership has re-scheduled her proposed visit five times in the past five months.

What she did instead was address a thinly attended Sikh function in Delhi last week where she expressed "heartful anguish" for the 1984 riots and stated how the Congress is keen to "re-establish bonds" with the community. But there too she stopped short of issuing a formal apology.

According to the Sikh Forum president, Lieutenant General (retired) J S Aurora, if she did not want to apologise to the community, the best course of action would have been to visit the Golden Temple before the election.

"But it is painful for Sikhs in the city to see the Congress campaign being spearheaded by leaders like Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Tytler," he told Rediff On The NeT.

He said the Sikhs and other minority communities in the capital would vote for the BJP. "It will be disastrous if a Congress government consisting of the 1984 accused rules the city," he said.

Congress poll managers are also cut up with the leadership for not meeting -- after the Ahluwalia episode -- representatives of the top Sikh gurdwaras like the Golden Temple, Anandpur Sahib, Huzur Sahib, Damdama Sahib and Nanded Sahib.

Assembly Election '98

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