Hours before Kamal Nath was to take oath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh on Monday, the Delhi High Court convicted his fellow Congressman Sajjan Kumar for his role in the 1984 Sikh massacre. Nath had been questioned alongside Kumar by the Nanavati Commission, which investigated the communal violence sparked by Indira Gandhi’s assassination, but was let off “in absence of better evidence”.

Nath has always denied any role in the carnage, which left nearly 2,800 dead by official estimates, pointing out that he has never been charged by any court. The allegations against him, he has maintained, are politically motivated.

But 1984 continues to haunt him. Unsurprisingly then, the High Court’s order has reignited the debate about whether the Congress should have made him the chief minister. Aside from the moral argument against elevating a man accused of inciting communal mobs to violence, there was the political case for the Congress to consider: could appointing Nath erode the party’s support among Sikhs, particularly in Punjab?

That isn’t likely to happen, say political observers. “I know of several Sikhs in Madhya Pradesh who voted hoping Kamal Nath would become chief minister,” said Professor Jagrup Singh Sekhon, who heads the political science department at Guru Nanak University in Amritsar. “If they do not have any problem with him, why would Sikhs in Punjab be bothered? Had that been the case, the Congress would never have come to power in Punjab after 1984. People only seek that justice is done.”

Punjab’s Opposition, especially the Shiromani Akali Dal, will certainly attack the Congress for Nath’s elevation, Sekhon said, but it is unlikely to do much damage. The Akalis have “lost all credibility”, he explained, largely because of their alleged inaction over the sacrilege of Sikh holy scriptures in 2015. The Justice Ranjit Singh Commission, set up to investigate the incidents of sacrilege and the police firing on protests sparked by them, has already indicted the Akali Dal’s Parkash Singh Badal, chief minister at the time, and his son and deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Still, the Akali Dal has come out all guns blazing, as has its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party. “It is Sajjan Kumar today, it will be Jagdish Tytler tomorrow, then Kamal Nath and eventually the Gandhi family,” said Harsimrat Kaur Badal, senior Akali Dal leader and central minister.

The Akalis are expected to employ Nath’s elevation and Kumar’s conviction to project the Congress as being anti-Sikh ahead of the 2019 general election. Whether they will succeed is another matter. “The Akali Dal is currently facing probably the worst crisis in its 98-year-long existence,” said Sekhon. “Several senior leaders have quit the party while those remaining are not allowed to enter their own constituencies. They are no longer in a position to exploit any development politically.”

‘Not a political issue’

Sekhon’s analysis was backed up by other observers who noted that the 1984 carnage was “an emotive issue” in Punjab rather than a political one. “The carnage happened in 1984 and the epicentre was Delhi,” said Jagtar Singh, a political commentator based in Chandigarh. “Still, Sheila Dixit was Delhi’s chief minister for 15 years and rarely did we see any protest against her Congress government by the Sikhs. People want justice and today’s verdict takes us closer to the closure of this long judicial process.”

Nath’s elevation, Jagtar Singh contended, was not a political issue in Punjab, where sacrilege, the Kartarpur corridor and drug abuse dominate the discourse. “And the Akali Dal leadership has no right to take a stand on communalism,” he added. “After all, they were the ones who wanted to use the sacrilege issue for political gain before the last Assembly election. If there is any evidence against Nath, the courts will look into it.”

Sekhon pointed that the Congress has won Punjab three times since the carnage. “After Beant Singh in 1992, Amarinder Singh won the elections twice, in 2002 and 2017” he said. “So, if there was much hatred against the Congress for 1984, this would never have happened.”

The Congress though did “commit a wrong” in 2015, Sekhon argued, when it chose Nath to oversee the party’s affairs in Punjab. “It was an ill-conceived decision,” he said.

The decision had invited a public backlash, forcing the party to replace Nath. “It gave the Akali Dal a golden opportunity to target the Congress,” Sekhon said. “But the issue was dealt with and people have forgotten about Nath.”

Pramod Kumar, who teaches at the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh, claimed the “Kamal Nath issue” will have no resonance beyond TV news studios. “There are more important issues to discuss in Punjab, especially the Sikh versus non-Sikh political polarisation that is gaining acceptance,” he said. “There is this fear of the radicalisation of politics which is leading to fringe elements getting bolder with each passing day.”

He said the Delhi High Court’s ruling could help restore people’s faith in the judicial system. “People are now hopeful justice will be delivered,” he said. “At least, this is a start, to fix accountability.”

The ruling should also help weaken the process of radicalisation in Punjab, Kumar said, but attempts to politicise it could prove counterproductive. “It is these sinister radicalisation plots that could again destabilise Punjab that we should pay attention to, not to whether Kamal Nath should have been made chief minister in some other state,” he added.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh welcomed the High Court’s judgement, saying, “Justice has finally been delivered. Sajjan was named by victims who I met in refugee camps then and I’d always maintained he should be punished.”

He, however, lashed out at the Akalis for dragging the Gandhi family into the matter “at the BJP’s behest”.