The quiet execution of Ajmal Kasab on Wednesday morning may have triggered off celebrations in Mumbai, the scene of the brutal killings on 26/11, “robbed” the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of an issue and perhaps sent out the message that India will not tolerate acts of terror committed on its soil.
But spokespersons of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Congress alike stressed that the hanging was the logical end result of the due process of law. They sought to underplay the event, stripping it of its emotional content, instead framing it in constitutional rather than political terms.
So even as speculation raged in political circles that the decision to execute Kasab, and its timing, had been taken to change the narrative on the eve of what promises to be yet another difficult session of Parliament and the Gujarat assembly elections slated for next month, top Congress leaders publicly – and privately – chose their words with care.
Whether it was home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, or Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan or Congress spokesperson PC Chacko, they were all at pains to underscore that the hanging of Kasab was “not a political decision”.
“It is not a question of political realities,” Mr Khurshid told NDTV, adding, “You have to keep yourself aloof from anything extraneous from what is essentially a moral, legal and constitutional obligation…We take decisions that are just and fair, you might see them as strong or soft.”
Echoing the same line, Mr Chacko said, “It is not a governmental decision or political decision.” Responding to questions on the “delay” in hanging Kasab, he riposted, “There is no one blocking the process at all. There is nothing wilfully done or not done… we will be denigrating the office of the President of India if you say the hanging of Ajmal Kasab was delayed deliberately.” To a question on the possible fallout of the execution, he said, “Pakistan has reacted that it will not tolerate terrorism.”
India had also sent out a tough message against terrorism, MoS for home R.P.N.Singh said, stressing, “It is also a demonstration of the triumph of the Indian legal system which even provides a terrorist with all avenues to legally defend himself. Simultaneously, we hope that this will bring some closure for the families of the martyrs.”
Party leaders and ministers clearly wanted to keep the tone sombre and serious, eschewing even the slightest hint of triumphalism.
Privately, the furthest a government insider was provided to go was to say the execution of Kasab demonstrated that this was a government that could act when it was required. So, even as the hanging is being described as a message for the terrorists, it is also clearly part of a series of events through which the government wishes to demonstrate that it is in charge – from the spate of economic decisions to the cabinet reshuffle to the endorsement of FDI in retail at a public rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to the execution of Kasab in Pune.
Of course, Kasab’s hanging has predictably pushed the BJP to press the government to now send Mohammad Afzal Guru, the convict in the attack on Parliament in 2001,to the gallows as well Mr Chacko, responding to the BJP’s demand, said it would have to await the completion of the legal process, while general secretary Digvijaya Singh sought to neutralise the opposition party’s demand by making it himself.
Indeed, President Pranab Mukherjee recently sent back seven mercy petition files, including that of Afzal Guru, to the Union home ministry asking it to re-look at its opinion. Government sources said the President had sent back the petitions to give the new home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, the opportunity to reconfirm the recommendations made by his predecessor, P Chidambaram. It is not unusual for a President to send back all pending mercy petitions for a re-look in case of change of the Union home minister.
The government will, doubtless, judge the fallout of Wednesday’s execution in Pune before taking the next call. But government sources told The Hindu that “sooner rather than later” Afzal Guru will meet Kasab’s fate.