Controversial decisions by the Congress since it won the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last month have given the Bharatiya Janata Party an opportunity to attack the party and its president Rahul Gandhi. This does not bode well for the Congress, with the Lok Sabha elections coming up in April or May.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has fired broadsides at Kamal Nath’s appointment as chief minister despite his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, his subsequent statements criticising migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and his decision to discontinue the monthly recitation of Vande Mataram at the state secretariat – only to change his tune later.

In Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has drawn flak for appointing police officer SRP Kalluri as the chief of the state’s anti-corruption bureau and economic offences wing even though he stands accused of human rights violations.

Madhya Pradesh muddles

The rash of controversial decisions started in December, soon after the election results were announced, when Gandhi picked Nath to head Madhya Pradesh over Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Nath had been served a notice by the Nanavati Commission asking him to explain his alleged role in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in Delhi. He escaped punishment for lack of evidence.

“No commission or judge has indicted Nath and this must have been the reason why the central leadership went ahead with his appointment,” said Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kumar Ketkar.

In 2015, the Congress was forced to remove Nath as the person in charge of its Punjab unit to avoid a backlash from the Sikh community in the run up to the Assembly elections in the state.

On January 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Gurdaspur, Punjab, launched a scathing attack on the Congress for appointing a riots-accused person as Madhya Pradesh chief minister.

Nath has not made it easy for the party since. Soon after he was sworn in, he attacked migrant workers from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for cornering jobs in Madhya Pradesh. He also announced incentives for industries that reserve 70% of their jobs for local residents.

The BJP picked up this too. On January 5, in Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Amethi, which lies in Uttar Pradesh, Union minister Smriti Irani criticised the Congress president for his silence on Nath’s criticism of migrants and asked Gandhi how he could look into the eyes of the people when he visited the state.

Last week, Nath caused a furore with his decision discontinue the 13-year-old practice of singing Vande Mataram in the state secretariat on the first working day of each month. As the BJP questioned the Congress’ patriotism, party president Amit Shah asked whether Gandhi had endorsed the decision.

Nath made a U-turn on January 4 when his government decided to restore the practice with a twist – a police band will join in the performance. “I have been saying from the start that I will give it a different look, I have announced it today,” Nath said. “The BJP, which doesn’t have a single freedom fighter, should not teach us nationalism.”

Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi blamed the BJP for misleading voters on the issue and said the Congress is only sticking to the promises it made during its election campaign. “We just want to improvise or revamp the process,” she said. “We did not want to stop the practice of singing Vande Mataram. We have a problem with its imposition. If someone does not want to sing it, we should not force them to do so. However, we feel this is a minor issue as compared to other issues on the ground.”

These controversies did not deter Nath from taking another contentious decision: to suspended pensions of people imprisoned under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act – an Emergency-era legislation – until their identities are verified. Under the scheme launched by the previous BJP state government in 2008, beneficiaries get Rs 25,000 per month.

The BJP has threatened to move court over the decision.

Controversial rehabilitation

In neighbouring Chhattisgarh, the state government has drawn criticism for its decision to give controversial former Bastar Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri an important position.

During his stint as Inspector General of Police in Bastar between 2014 and 2017, Kalluri was accused of extrajudicial killinsg, rape and assault. At the time, Bhupesh Baghel, who was then the Congress’ Chhattisgarh president, had demanded that Kalluri be jailed for his actions in the Adivasi-dominated region.

Kalluri was transferred from Bastar in February 2017 for allegedly backing members of vigilante groups that had barged into the home of activist Bela Bhatia, threatened her and her landlady, demanding that she leave the region. After being away from the limelight for more than a year, his comeback – not his first – has baffled both outsiders and members of the Congress party.

“It is certainly an embarrassing decision,” said a Chhattisgarh Congress leader requesting anonymity. “We are finding it hard to defend this decision of the chief minister. There are major disagreements within the party over this.”

At the same time, he attempted to shield the party and Rahul Gandhi from the controversy. “It is not a prominent position and he does not have an independent charge,” he said. “It is unlikely that Rahulji had any clue about this but it seems he will have to intervene to undo the damage caused by the decision.”