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Snatching nationalism back from the BJP

May 20, 2017 13:24 IST

'The UPA was never soft on Pakistan, terrorists and even China, but Sonia Gandhi's Congress rightly earned a "soft" image on issues of hard national interest, leaving the field open for Modi to take it and wrap it around with his implicit Hindutva,' says Shekhar Gupta.

At a public conversation with me last month, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said several things that wouldn't have made his party happy.

The first was his reply to a question on his party's suspicion of electronic voting machines -- that if these could be rigged, 'some Badal' would be sitting there, not he.

It was on a day when his party president and vice-president had led a protest at Rashtrapati Bhawan (on the issue of alleged EVM tampering).

Next, he said his victory showed that national parties now must accept the importance of having strong regional leaders.

People needed to know who they were electing to lead them, he said, and that times when national leaders could come and get you votes were over.

Third, he said one reason the Congress did so well in Punjab this time was also because he was given a free hand to choose the candidates.

Last time, he said, he was allowed to pick only 46 of the 117 and the party lost against the run of play.

None of these statements would please his party's non-electable darbaris.

I am not sure how his party would have reacted. However, the most headline-making statement he made was a frontal, no-holds-barred, Sikh Regiment (in which he served)-style assault on the Sikh radical sympathisers in Canada, particularly those in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's much-admired Liberal government.

He said he would not meet the Canadian defence minister, a former colonel and an Afghan war hero of sorts, Harjit Singh Sajjan, on his visit to Punjab for his 'Khalistan links.'

All four of the Sikh ministers in Canada are Khalistani sympathisers, he said.

He was as uncluttered as only a Punjabi or a soldier can be -- and he is both.

He said he wanted to go to Canada and speak to the Punjabis there and it was under pressure from 'these Khalistan activists' that he wasn't allowed.

He said he shared the worldwide admiration for Trudeau's liberalism, but why did he then deny him his freedom of speech by barring his entry into Canada?

That the Canadian government reacted immediately, defending its ministers and stating that Amarinder was welcome to visit Canada was only a side story, although the only reason our usually breathless warrior media has not hailed it as a brilliant diplomatic success is partly because Amarinder is not from the Bharatiya Janata Party, and partly because Punjab is so out of sight, out of mind.

But what if the BJP were to rise to the occasion now and welcome his courage and forthrightness in supreme national interest and lend heft to his criticism of foreign Sikh radical groups?

Surely, Amarinder was provoked by the fact that a large number of wealthy, foreign Sikh radicals descended on Punjab to help his main rivals, the Aam Aadmi Party -- 'mostly from Canada and some from Australia,' he said.

They tried reopening the wounds of 1984. But he was also raising a point any Indian patriot, especially the leader of a pan-national party, should have been making.

His own party was too somnolent to respond to such situations, and probably also nursed a bad conscience over its own role in that past. But the BJP?

In his keenness to reach out to world leaders, to attract their admiration for India and himself, did someone as astute as Narendra Modi also miss a trick?

Why did he not attack these Khalistanis-come-lately types in the election campaign for the threat they represented?

Why did his government not raise at least a point someplace, reminding Canada of the antecedents of its new Sikh ministers and seeking a clearer assurance that they had got over that fantasy?

The fact is, at least three of these ministers have dodgy pasts from India's point of view.

Sajjan's father was one of the founders of the controversial World Sikh Organisation. He is an Afghan war veteran who also, subsequently, ran a Vancouver-based private intelligence consultancy that advised allied forces.

Another minister, Navdeep Singh Bains, is the son-in-law of Darshan Singh Saini, who used to be the spokesman of the banned Babbar Khalsa and his own past leanings were never hidden.

Yet another minister, Amarjit Singh Sohi, was, in fact, incarcerated in India on terror charges and then released by courts, as nothing could be proved.

Private assurances have been given to India by Ottawa, but there has never been an unequivocal statement that this old campaign is over.

It is a further surprise, therefore, that neither the BJP nor the Congress had so far raised this red flag, even though radical forces from Canada were funding and campaigning for their adversaries.

Amarinder Singh might sound too blunt and un-diplomatic like a bash-on-regardless infantryman, but he is a pucca politician.

As I was seeing him off after the conversation, I complimented him for the clarity, especially on the Canadian issue.

'Thanks,' he said, 'now tell me, how will the BJP deal with this Sajjan? I have called him a Khalistani.' How will they roll out the red carpet now to a Canadian Sikh minister he had outed like this?

This was political point-scoring at one level. But if you analyse it a bit more deeply, it also underlines a deeper political issue.

For more than a decade now, his party has ceded nationalism to the BJP.

The United Progressive Alliance was never soft on Pakistan, terrorists and even China (it didn't back off in spite of Chinese threats when the Dalai Lama visited Tawang in 2009) but Sonia Gandhi's Congress rightly earned a 'soft' image on issues of hard national interest, leaving the field open for Modi to take it and wrap it around with his implicit Hindutva to build an unbeatable popular appeal.

Remember how Digvijaya Singh ruined his own party's case by raising doubts over the Batla House encounter -- in which a police inspector was killed, was decorated with the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime gallantry award, by his own government.

Or how Binayak Sen, convicted under sedition laws for support to Maoists, was helped along with a reprieve, which was one thing, but then also lionised by being appointed on an important committee of the Planning Commission, completely convincing the voters that the party was in cahoots with the Maoists, had given up Indira Gandhi's old hard line on national security and started thinking like an NGO.

Amarinder Singh, its own leader, created an opening to embarrass the Modi government over such an emotive 'national security' issue.

The Congress probably thinks: Isn't this guy talking too much?

Knowing how sharp Narendra Modi is, he would have made a mental note and would grab the first possible opportunity to raise this, get some kind of a solemn assurance or clarification and use the opening provided by Amarinder Singh to his advantage.

The Congress is now so brain-washed that it is incapable of seeing nationalism as being distinct from Hindutva, and something no political party, least of all a national party, can afford to abandon. It shows in their electoral fortunes.

IMAGE: Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Photograph: PTI Photo

Shekhar Gupta
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