India’s Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde (Picture: Lok Sabha biography)
I do not recall any other home (interior) minister in India who expedited two high profile and politically charged hangings in the first six of his tenure in office the way Sushil Kumar Shinde has done.
Not that it is a badge of honor but it is certainly indicative of a man asserting his image as someone decisive. For Shinde the politician it is a fortuitous coming together of circumstances that after taking over as India’s home minister In August, 2012, he had on his desk the death sentence files related to two terrorist convicts.
The first was Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone surviving gunman out of the 10 involved in the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror carnage. Shinde dispensed with his hanging on November 21, 2012, barely within four months of his taking office. The operation was carried out with rare secrecy.
Shinde has now followed that up with another, equally secretive hanging of Afzal Guru, one of the key plotters behind the 2001 terrorist attack on India’s parliament. In both cases the bodies were buried within the prison, premises , Kasab in the Yarwada Jail in Pune and Guru in the Tihar Jail, Delhi.
I knew Shinde reasonably well early on in his career as a politician in Bombay and found him to be unencumbered by subtlety and nuance in the matter of enforcing the law of the land. As a former policeman, Shinde does tend to view these matters as acting on what is on the statute books without getting too much into the moral debate surrounding it. I had asked him once how his former career in the police informed his career as a politician. He had said something to the effect that in the police it is generally about taking decisions on the spot and he carried that mindset into politics as well.
I see some parallels between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in America and the Congress Party, to which Shinde belongs, and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Democrats had long been seen/projected as being soft appeasers, almost bleeding hearts, when it came to national security issues,while the Republicans were seen/projected as take-no-prisoners hawks on national security. That image has radically changed under President Barack Obama whose weapon of choice is the much dreaded drone. In India, the Congress Party has long been seen as wimpy appeasers of minorities always ready to compromise for a vote or two. The BJP on the other is seen/projected as chest thumping patriots who happily stomp on political toes when it comes to national security. These are reputations/perceptions and not necessarily rooted in reality.
With the two hangings, which by some genuine twist involved two Muslim men, Shinde has not only challenged his party’s reputation as political trucklers but in the process may have earned some points for himself. Hanging Afzal Guru had for long been the BJP’s talking point which Shinde has abruptly taken off the table. It is not my case that the two hangings were carried out with an eye on the 2014 parliamentary elections, which may see the BJP project an unabashed hawk like Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate. However, the hangings can only help counter any likely BJP assertions that the Congress is soft on national security issues.
In both cases, the mercy petitions by Kasab and Guru were promptly rejected by President Pranab Mukherjee, a lifelong insider to the Congress Party before he rose to the non-political office of the president. The optics of a party which cleared two hangings in rapid succession can only be useful politically even if the Congress chooses not to exploit them openly.
In a sense the BJP’s dilemma is somewhat akin to the Republican Party’s because it has been out-hawked on two signature hangings. Being a politician Shinde could not have been unaware of the fact that there was nothing to be lost politically, and perhaps everything to be gained, by hanging Kasab,a Pakistani citizen who was part of perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack of its kind. In so far as Guru was concerned he too was seen as an outlier to the larger constituency of Muslim vote politics which the Congress Party has for decades benefited from.
The calculus in both hangings was rather straightforward because neither had any significant downside. It would not surprise me to know that at his personal level Shinde merely saw it as a law and order issue like a policeman and took the logical decision on the spot. At the same time though he has spent too many years in politics not to know its obvious benefits.