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Sarabjit case: The Congress will pay a heavy political price

May 03, 2013 11:35 IST

While the Congress party’s popularity is on the wane, an aggressive Akali Dal is moving in quickly to encash on the hurt feelings of the Sikh community and pitch itself as the only party which works for its interests, says Anita Katyal.

The violent death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in Pakistan and the acquittal of former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case has stuck a strong chord in the Sikh community and reopened old wounds, for which the Congress would have to pay a heavy political price.

The angry reactions to both these developments and the outpouring of grief over Sarabjit Singh’s death early on Thursday in Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital has placed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in the eye of a storm once again as its political rivals and the Sikh community have been quick to come down heavily on the ruling coalition for its ineptitude.

Reports coming in from Punjab and other Sikh-dominated areas indicate that there is simmering anger in the Sikh community over the government’s handling of Sarabjit Singh’s case as also Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal by a Delhi court two days ago.

“Sikh sentiment has been well and truly roused,” remarked Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral, adding that there is a strong public sentiment against the Congress for betraying the community. The Sajjan Kumar case has brought back memories of the anti-Sikh riots which were presumed to have been forgotten, he said.

This is bad news for the Congress. Having lost the support of the Sikh community after the 1984 riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the grand old party had managed to mend fences with the community over the past few years. The party formed a government in Punjab and has been winning handsomely in Delhi which has a sizeable Sikh population. However, the Sarabjit Singh case and the Sajjan Kumar issue, has once again alienated the community from the Congress.

In fact, the party could end up paying a heavy political price first in the Delhi assembly elections later this year and in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “I don’t think any Sikh is going to vote for us,” remarked a glum-faced Punjab Congress leader attending Parliament, stating that the party had lost the advantage it gained over the years.

His colleagues agreed with him, saying the Sikh disillusionment with the Congress was evident in the recent Shiromani Gurudwara Prbandhak Committee elections in Delhi when the Akali Dal ousted the grand old party from this religious body. The capital has witnessed angry street demonstrations by members of the Sikh community to protest against Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal in a 1984 riots case. The families of the victims, who have been running from pillar to post for justice for the last 29 years, are particularly enraged as they feel that political leaders involved in the riots were getting away scot free.

While the Congress party’s popularity is on the wane, an aggressive Akali Dal is moving in quickly to encash on the hurt feelings of the Sikh community and pitch itself as the only party which works for its interests. For instance, Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal stole a march over the Congress when he lost no time in declaring Thursday morning that Sarabjit Singh would be accorded a state funeral and that his family members would be given government jobs.

“All over Punjab and especially among the peasantry, there is a growing feeling that the Akali Dal is the only party which takes care of its interests,” said an Akali Dal leader.

While the opposition parties tore into the government for not pursuing Sarabjit Singh’s case aggressively with Pakistan, the UPA government also went into damage control mode. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement this morning, describing Sarabjit Singh as a “brave son of India” and called for action against those involved in the murderous attack on him inside a Pakistani jail where he was serving a sentence for the past 22 years for his alleged involvement in a series of bomb attacks in 1990 in which 14 persons were killed.

At the same time, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Congress vice-presdient Rahul Gandhi showed unusual alacrity when they called on Sarabjit Singh’s family members this morning. But it is unlikely to assuage the hurt feelings if Punjabis?

Anita Katyal