Though the Congress desperately needs a turnaround, the party appears bent on committing political hara-kiri in Punjab in the run-up to the polls early next year.

The latest in a series of blunders by the party was the appointment on Sunday of senior leader Kamal Nath as its official in charge of Haryana and Punjab, which is going to polls early next year.

The appointment of Nath, who had been questioned by the Nanavati Commission for his alleged involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, has opened the floodgates of criticism for the Congress. It has also invited attacks from rival parties.

The massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs in 1984, triggered by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards, is an unhealed wound. Though Kamal Nath's involvement in the riots has not been proven, his the mere mention of his name ignites passion among Sikhs. Within hours of his appointment, candlelight marches were organised in parts of the state and Chandigarh.

Other parties could benefit

Nath’s appointment may shift the focus of political debate in the state from drugs, corruption and a weak economy back to the 1984 riots. This comes as an opportunity for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and its alliance partner the Bharatiya Janata Party, which have long been trying to divert attention state's problems.

What has shocked voters further is that Punjab Congress Chief Captain Amarinder Singh did not object to the appointment of Nath, to whom he is known to be close. In 1984, Singh had resigned from the Congress to protest Operation Bluestar, during which the Indian military, on Indira Gandhi's orders, stormed the complex of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to oust a group of militants led by Jarnail Singh Bindranwale.

According to reports, Singh said that the former Union minister had no role to play in riots and that he had not heard any criticism of Nath when he visited Delhi just after the carnage. "The fact of the matter is that 1984 riots are a 30-year old issue,” Singh said.

The appointment is the latest in a series of self-goals by the Congress in Punjab. The prolonged infighting in the state between Singh and former state chief Pratap Singh Bajwa showed the party in a bad light last year. In April, Singh and other senior leaders went on a three-week tour of North America despite opposition by party strategist Prashant Kishor. The tour had also invited criticism from the opposition.

Nath’s appointment came just a day after the Centre, at the behest of the Akali Dal, announced a Special Investigation Team to reopen at least 75 cases related to the 1984 massacre. The move was seen as an attempt to deal a blow to the Congress – some of whose leaders had been named in the riots cases.

The verbal backlash

The Congress’ announcement invited strong criticism from leaders of rival parties as well as on social media.

“This appointment on the eve of the visit of Rahul Gandhi to Punjab is an unbelievable brazen act of insensitivity towards Sikhs and crass and vulgar disregard of national opinion on the guilty of the massacre,” Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal said. “I just cannot believe a political party can be so brutally insensitive to the sentiments of the Sikh community".

AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal asked Singh to clarify his stand on Nath, while lawyer and his party colleague HS Phoolka, who had been fighting cases relating to 1984, said that by appointing Nath, the party "has tried to rub salt on the wounds” of victims. He said that Nath was “the one leader” who had been named by the media in consecutive reports for “leading the mob at Rakabganj Sahib".

During the hearings before the Justice Nanavati Commission investigating the attacks in Delhi, a witness, Mukhtiar Singh, had testified to seeing Nath lead an armed mob that demolished a gurudwara in Rakab Ganj.

Delhi police commissioner Subhash Tandon and Additional Commissioner Gautam Kaul had confirmed Nath's presence at the site, as had Sanjay Suri, who was a reporter with the Indian Express during the riots. Suri had had testified that Nath was "controlling the crowd". which was “looking to him for directions”. However, Nath said he had gone to Rakab Ganj to control the violence. The commission eventually let Nath off owing to inadequate evidence of his direct involvement in the attack.

It had observed that his testimony was “vague” and "not consistent with the evidence" but said that “in absence of better evidence it is not possible for the Commission to say that he had in any manner instigated the mob or that he was involved in the attack on the gurudwara".

However, in the public mind, Nath is still linked to the 1984 riots and his appointment is likely to revive old ghosts.