An abiding memory of the Jessica Lal murder trial that initially saw the acquittal of all accused was a newspaper headline: Nobody killed Jessica Lal. In similar vein, the turn of events in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case tempts one to deduce that everybody killed the former premier.
Rajiv’s murder was exploited to the hilt by Jayalalithaa in the 1991 polls. But the indecent haste she showed to set the convicts free – after the apex court commuted their death sentence — is the ultimate insult to the legacy of the leader whose death she had pretended to mourn when it suited her.
For the Tamil Nadu chief minister, expediency apparently is the name of the game, not any show of the statesmanship expected of her. The irony is compounded by the fact that relief is sought to be extended to the former prime minister’s killers by a person with barely-concealed ambitions to occupy the same office.
Jayalalithaa’s decision to let the convicts walk free unleashed a bandwagon effect in Tamil Nadu where most regional parties, including her arch rival, the DMK, backed the move. It was heartening nevertheless to see the BJP on the same page as the Congress in lamming into the opportunistic twist to the relief the court gave to the convicts. They were spared death penalty in lieu of the 11-year stay in the death row awaiting a decision on their mercy pleas. The blame for this lapse has to be taken by the Centre where the Congress ruled for all but one year.
In a strongly worded but nuanced statement, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley justified death penalty, describing as “unconscionable” the (court driven) relief to Rajiv’s killers. He did not name Jayalalithaa — widely perceived as the BJP’s potential post-poll ally — but rejected attempts to make perpetrators of terror as symbols of identity politics.
“Nothing more can hurt national security. Terrorism is an offence against the country. It must attract deterrent punishment,” Jaitley said. His remarks marked a rare Congress-BJP consensus on one aspect of combating terror.
The jurisdictional aspect will be handled by the judiciary. The question before the political class isn’t as much in whose remit — that of the centre or the state — are the powers to order remission of life sentence. Of greater import is the issue of propriety, of the rule of law.
Rahul Gandhi went to the core of it with the poser: “If the prime minister’s killers are being released, what kind of justice should the common man expect?” The answer came with howls of protests against Jayalalithaa by the kin of several others who perished in the suicide bomb attack on Rajiv at Sriperumbudur 23 years ago.