The Congress is not the Gandhis. The Gandhis are not the Congress.
That is one way of interpreting the position taken by the Congress on the AIADMK government's recommendation to release the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala made it clear that there can be no compromise on terrorism and terrorists, and that the assassination was a well-plotted terrorist conspiracy.
On Sunday, the Tamil Nadu cabinet had recommended pardon for the seven convicts — Perarivalan, Nalini, Murugan, Robert Payas, Santhan, Ravichandran and Jayakumar — who have spent 27 years in prison, convicted of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991 in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu during an election meeting. Fourteen others, among them policemen and Congress activists, were killed in the bomb blast.
Under Article 161 of the Constitution, the President of India and the Governors of states have been given the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence. The move by the Tamil Nadu government came after the Supreme Court on September 6, lobbed the matter into the court of the Raj Bhavan.
In sharp contrast to the official Congress position is the stand taken by the Gandhis. Siblings Rahul and Priyanka have said they have forgiven the killers of their father. This is seen as the family position, a more humanitarian view of the long incarceration.
The argument being put forth is that as a political outfit, the Congress cannot take a sentimental view, more so when its own party president was the victim. There is also a concern that making the Gandhi line the party line would expose it to the charge that the Congress is soft on terrorists. Given the chest-thumping that the BJP indulges in on matters relating to terror and nationalism, the Congress fears this would be playing into the ruling party's hands.
The Tamil Nadu unit of the Congress is a house divided on the matter. Former TNCC chief EVKS Elangovan maintains there is no confusion in the Congress since the Gandhis have pardoned the convicts. Chennai-based Congress spokesperson Khushbu Sundar believes that releasing the convicts is the right move, but is suspicious of the pre-election timing. On the other hand, the state unit president S Thirunavukkarasar believes that the release will set a wrong precedent and is not in favour of the Governor accepting the cabinet recommendation.
The Congress party's official position interestingly is in sync with the BJP. The NDA government on more than one occasion, the most recent being on August 10, has said it is not in favour of the release of the convicts. Even in 2016, when J Jayalalithaa said she was ready to release the convicts, the Centre did not agree. The BJP argument has been that the case concerns national security, was an international conspiracy and that it will set a wrong precedent. It would make it seem that India is a soft state that is willing to forgive terrorists who killed a former prime minister.
There are other concerns, too, in the Tamil Nadu context. Who is to say that any of these convicts, if released, would not be feted and celebrated as heroes. The state runs the risk of new role models emerging for misguided youth.
The position taken by the two national parties pits them against the regional political diaspora. For the Congress, it is more delicate as its alliance partner, the DMK has supported the Tamil Nadu government's move. The DMK opinion is that jails are meant to also reform those who have wronged, instead of only punishing them for the crime.
The divergence in opinion runs the risk of revisiting the wounds of the Jain Commission report, which, in 1997, had held M Karunanidhi and the DMK responsible for encouraging the LTTE even after the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord and abetting Rajiv Gandhi's killers. It is significant that five of the seven convicts are Lankan nationals and some of them held positions in the LTTE and the DMK's position on the issue will under line its earlier sympathy for the terror outfit. Though, the DMK and the Congress have made up and even shared power in the UPA government at the Centre, in an election year, this can have an adverse effect on the alliance chemistry in Tamil Nadu.
The AIADMK government is keen on doing what its former chief Jayalalithaa had wished for. But it is also looking at the recommendation through the prism of elections as it believes this will make the party look like champions of the Tamil cause and having its heart in the right place.
Taking a humanitarian stand is a bit ironic because just this May, the state thought nothing of killing 13 locals of Tuticorin in cold blood merely for demanding clean land, air and water. One also wonders if the Tamil Nadu political parties would have shown similar concern if the convicts were not Tamils. It is obvious that all the Dravidian outfits want to woo the constituency that sees an affinity between the Tamilian in Tamil Nadu and the Tamilian in Sri Lanka.
But it is unlikely to be smooth sailing. Governor Banwarilal Purohit is more likely to go by the instructions given in this sensitive case by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Also, Rajiv Gandhi was not the only victim in the bomb blast. All it will take is a legal objection raised by the kith and kin of any of the other 14 victims for the case to go into another protracted judicial review.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)