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Political Pitch

The Kasab conundrum

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HANGING ON: Protesters hang Kasab's effigy at Mumbai's CST, which had come under attack in 2008. (Below left) Terror was high on the agenda of the Manmohan-Zardari meeting in Tehran

The Kasab death sentence has wedged the Congress and the government into a very tight corner. Its political as well as diplomatic ramifications are complex and may end up delaying an execution for which there is public clamour.

With the Supreme Court confirming Ajmal Kasab's death sentence, the top-of-the-mind question exercising a nation seeking closure on the horrific 26/11 terror strike in Mumbai was: when will the gunman from Pakistan hang for a heinous crime that left over 200 dead? The answer to the question is far more complex than union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde made out with an off-the-cuff remark suggesting that it was merely a matter of speedy disposal of a mercy petition.

There are two dimensions to the Kasab conundrum which may end up delaying an execution for which there is growing public clamour. One is domestic. The other is diplomatic. Domestically, it presents the Manmohan Singh government, and the Congress, with a dilemma on the politically toxic issue of Afzal Guru's execution. If Kasab is to hang, then what about Afzal? The latter was given the death penalty for the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament but he remains on death row because his mercy petition has been pending with the President's secretariat for seven years. The petition is caught between the vacillations of a divided Congress, which can't seem to decide whether Guru was a pawn in the tangled security paradigm of Kashmir or a dreaded terrorist, and the BJP's ultra-nationalist sloganeering which equates militancy with terrorism.

Diplomatically, there are vexed implications on the Indo-Pak front and they have split the government down the middle with Kasab emerging as a key factor in the perception battle between India and Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. While one section believes that his execution will send a strong message through the country and across the world, especially in Pakistan, of zero tolerance for terrorists, another feels that there is strategic value in keeping him alive. Kasab, according to this section, is a potent weapon in India's hands to put Pakistan in the dock for state-sponsored terrorism. This opinion is reflected by retired diplomat K C Singh, who was also India's coordinator for counterterrorism. "We will be playing into the hands of the jehadis if we execute him, " he says. "That's exactly what they want. Kasab will go down as a martyr and become a symbol for future recruitments in their war against India. "

The Kasab storm could not have come at a worse time for the government. With the Congress pitted against the BJP in a slew of state elections over the next eighteen months, starting with Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the end of the year, the political temperature has risen sharply. The BJP has already upped the ante on corruption with a high-pitched campaign on Coalgate that threatens to wipe out the monsoon session of Parliament. And now it's dusting out its nationalism plank for a pincer attack to force the government's hand, not just on Kasab, but on Afzal Guru as well.

"It becomes a political issue if Kasab is hanged and Afzal Guru is not, " says BJP Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra. "Afzal Guru's crime was as heinous as Kasab's. There is no justification in delaying his execution. We hope the government will decide to hang them together. "

Naresh Gujral of the Akali Dal was more forthright on the consequences for the Congress if it drags its feet on the issue. "The BJP will have the Congress for supper, " he warns. "( Gujarat CM Narendra) Modi will make it an issue in the Gujarat election campaign. The Congress is stuck. It goes down badly with the Indian public if Kasab doesn't hang. But if Kasab hangs, the government will have no option but to execute Afzal Guru too. "

Within the Congress, there is discomfiture that the chickens are coming home to roost. Most party leaders are acutely aware of public sentiment on the Kasab issue. "As a political activist, not a minister, I would say that the Supreme Court has given a verdict that the people of India have waited long enough for, " says Union information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni. "The Constitution allows mercy petitions, but there should be no mercy for those who declare war in the nation. "

So while Congress leaders acknowledge public mood on Kasab, opinion on Afzal Guru varies sharply. There is a vociferous section in the party that even today insists that Afzal Guru must be spared and his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. A Congressman who did not want to be named said that Afzal's execution would have serious repercussions in Kashmir where many believe that he was a victim of games played by the security establishment and the state police. He refers to the court judgement in the case which talked of satisfying the "collective conscience" of the nation. He felt that these words suggested that the evidence against Afzal Guru was not watertight. "The decision on his mercy plea will have to take these things into consideration. We cannot equate Kasab with Afzal Guru. One is a Pakistani who came to India to wage war. The other is a Kashmiri, one of our own, " he says.

Obviously views such as this one have stayed the Manmohan Singh government's hand on Afzal Guru but now, with the Kasab issue coming alive, the pressure is on. Soni refuses to comment on what Afzal Guru's fate would be in the light of the Kasab development, but she did admit that it was necessary to fine tune the law on mercy petitions. "All mercy petitions must be disposed of within a specified time frame, " she says.

Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh echoes her words. "There can't be different standards for different people. We must lay down clear rules on mercy petitions, " he declares, recalling that he had consistently demanded that Afzal be hanged without further delay.

Afzal's mercy plea is one of the 11 petitions pending with President Pranab Mukherjee. All are a legacy from the past as several successive presidents have been reluctant to sign death warrants. Mukherjee is still settling into his new role as President of India but he will soon have to apply his mind to the issue and hold consultations with the government for a decision.

This is where the diplomatic dimension comes in. If it were just a domestic question, perhaps the dilemma would be resolved sooner than later. But there are enough pulls and pressures within the security and foreign policy establishments to muddy the waters and compound the confusion. KC Singh points out, for instance, that Kasab is a crucial witness in the 26/11 terror investigations and trial which are still going on. "We arrested Abu Jindal recently and presented him to Kasab for identification. If we make another such arrest in the future, after Kasab is executed, there won't be any eye witness to confirm his identity and role, " he says.

But hear the other side whose argument is reflected by another former diplomat G Parthasarathy, who prides himself as a hawk on Pakistan. "What does Kasab have left to tell us?" he asks. "We've got everything we need out of him. He must be executed quickly to send a strong message to the rest of the world. We shouldn't make an Afzal Guru out of him. "

Parthasarathy also warns of another danger in keeping Kasab alive. "Suppose some terrorists take people hostage and demand Kasab's release? It could be a repetition of the Indian Airlines hijack which led to the release of (Jaish-e-Mohammed founder) Masood Azhar. Can we afford that?" he asks.

As the debate rages, it is obvious there are no quick and easy solutions to the dilemma Kasab poses, both for the government and the Congress. Electoral compulsions and populist politics will be weighed against diplomatic nuances. The likely consequence of the imbroglio is delay. Surely Kasab, Afzal Guru and the others waiting on death row deserve a decision, one way or another.

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