On December 21, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party passed a resolution in the Delhi Assembly to establish fast-track courts for trying cases related to the 1984 Sikh massacre. It also demanded that Rajiv Gandhi be stripped of his Bharat Ratna for making remarks that allegedly justified the violence. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister when the carnage took place and he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour posthumously in 1991.
The resolution not only drew outrage from the Congress, it also caused a division within AAP. To contain the fallout, the party claimed the demand for withdrawing Rajiv Gandhi’s award was not in its original resolution. While the denial helped quell internal dissension, it may not be enough to mollify the Congress. In fact, the fiasco may well have jeopardised a possible alliance with the grand old party for the 2019 general election.
It is not yet clear if AAP and the Congress have discussed the possibility of an alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019. But this row is set to overshadow any such talks, said the former senior AAP leader Mayank Gandhi. “Without Congress, AAP has no future in Lok Sabha elections,” he explained. “They barely have a presence outside of Delhi, except in Punjab where they may get a seat if they align with the Congress. After an incident like this, the Congress may not want to adjust with AAP. Anyway a very large number of people in the Congress do not want an alliance with AAP.”
‘Individual handwritten proposal’
AAP leaders said it was Somnath Bharti who proposed withdrawing the award from Rajiv Gandhi. He mooted the idea while fellow legislator Jarnail Singh was discussing the original resolution that described the 1984 carnage as “a genocide” and asked the Centre to include crimes against humanity and genocide in domestic criminal law. The move was opposed by another AAP legislator, Alka Lamba, who walked out in protest. She later said Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had told her to resign for not supporting the resolution.
On Saturday, Congress workers led by the party’s Delhi chief Ajay Maken staged a protest against AAP, demanding that it withdraw the resolution and apologise.
As the row escalated, AAP came out firefighting. The party’s spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj claimed the original resolution did not mention Rajiv Gandhi. It was an “individual handwritten proposal by MLA Somnath Bharti” that could not be passed in such a manner, he added.
Then, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia clarified his party’s position. “We do not believe Bharat Ratna should be taken from Rajiv Gandhi,” he was quoted as saying by India Today. “There was no resolution passed.”
Sisodia also denied that Kejriwal had asked Alka Lamba to resign. “No resignation is happening,” he said.
Following this, Lamba said she was happy her party was now supporting the Bharat Ratna for Rajiv Gandhi and that she won’t resign.
Scroll.in tried contacting Sisodia, Bharadwaj and Bharti for comment, but none of them responded to phone calls or text messages. An AAP leader who asked not to be identified said the party has directed its members not to speak to the media on this subject.
‘Gross political faux pas’
Mayank Gandhi described AAP’s demand for withdrawing Rajiv Gandhi’s award as “an amateur way to try and get votes from Sikhs”.
Praveen Rai, of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, termed it “a gross political faux pas and a manifestation of Kejriwal’s claim of being a self-proclaimed anarchist”.
It could hurt the party in more ways than one, Rai argued. “Firstly, it will lead to a mass desertion of the Sikh support base,” he claimed. “The raising of this issue not only rubbed salt into the wounds of the 1984 victims but also the community at large. AAP will now be perceived as using them for vote bank politics. Secondly, it has hurt sentiments of a large section of non-Sikh voters who idolise Rajiv Gandhi as a leader, and they will certainly vent their anger by voting against AAP in the Lok Sabha election.”
Kamal Chenoy, who teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University, accused AAP of displaying “sectarian behaviour”. “This was very stupid of them,” said Chenoy, who was associated with the party for a year until 2015. “They are not being very ‘election wise’. On the face of it, the resolution doesn’t seem so bad, but bringing Rajiv Gandhi into it was the worst thing for them to do…they cannot take away a posthumous decoration.”
He also argued that the episode will likely damage AAP’s chances of allying with the Congress. “Kejriwal has still not publicly stated that what happened was wrong,” he explained. “He should do it. Otherwise, they will face a pushback. The Congress and even other parties won’t be too keen on aligning with AAP. It is a complete mess, and not too redeemable.”