New Delhi, Nov. 21: Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde wasn’t willing to share his hour of glory with anyone — not even UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Shinde claimed that his “police background” helped him keep information about Ajmal Kasab’s hanging from not only all his cabinet colleagues but also the Prime Minister and the UPA chairperson.
Many may be sceptical but Shinde would like the country to take his word that the Prime Minister came to know from television channels that Kasab had been hanged.
Shinde, who had initially come across as unsure trying to fill the “very large shoes” of his predecessor P. Chidambaram at the home ministry, displayed a newfound chutzpah at the media conference that marked his “OBL (Osama bin Laden) moment”.
“The Prime Minister and others got to know from television this morning,” he said, adding that “the UPA chairperson was not part of the decision. This is the department’s work, my routine work. It is my nature to keep (my) work a secret, I have a police background.” Shinde was a constable in Maharashtra police before he joined politics.
Shinde’s two junior ministers and senior bureaucrats at the home ministry have also quickly revised their opinion of the former cop’s abilities. That they didn’t get a whiff of what was cooking between Shinde and home secretary R.K. Singh and that the minister didn’t find it prudent to share the information with them was too much of an embarrassment for most to admit.
Such was the secrecy that a little over a dozen decision-makers, ministers and officials at the Centre and in Maharashtra knew that Kasab was to be hanged on November 21. (See chart)
Shinde’s junior ministers R.P.N. Singh and Mullappally Ramachandran were kept out of the loop.
But Shinde had nearly let the secret slip when he returned from Rome after attending an Interpol meeting on November 7. Shinde, coming out of his chambers that evening, told reporters that he would surprise them with a piece of news that would make a sound louder than any Diwali firecracker when the monthly report card was out a few days later. But the report card was a tame affair.
Sources said national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and the Intelligence Bureau advised all in the loop to observe the highest levels of secrecy.
The government felt that a law-and-order situation or protests from human rights groups were possible if the news leaked. A minister said the Intelligence Bureau and RAW were also apprehensive of the security of Indian diplomats and staff at missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There was also a possibility that round-the-clock news coverage would glorify the terrorist, said a highly placed source. “We didn’t want a situation where round-the-clock news coverage before the execution of the sentence made him into a hero. It could have inflamed passions and created law-and-order problems. Secrecy, therefore, was essential for the operation to be successful,” he claimed.
Sources said the Diwali holidays and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s death also deflected media attention and helped keep the operation a secret.
Neither Shinde nor his junior ministers conceded that the move was orchestrated to steal the Opposition’s thunder on the eve of the winter session.
“There is no question of mileage-taking. It was already decided,” he said. His junior minister R.P.N. Singh said it was “extremely unfortunate that Kasab’s hanging was being interpreted as a political move”.
But Shinde, with help from President Pranab Mukherjee, displayed political acumen in jettisoning the earlier policy that mercy petitions would have to follow a queue system.
Mukherjee’s predecessor Pratibha Patil had refused to reject any mercy petition, putting off decisions. Shinde’s predecessor Chidambaram would cite the “queue system” as a cardinal principle when dealing with death sentences and mercy petitions.
But between Shinde and Mukherjee, the terrorist’s mercy petition was fast-tracked and the “queue system” was done away with.
That Kasab’s death sentence didn’t involve any domestic political conundrum — unlike in the case of Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru — had made the decision easier.
But Shinde’s hour of glory also portends more complex challenges like the question of Guru’s death sentence, a decision which is fraught with political and law-and-order consequences, particularly in Kashmir.
Kasab’s hanging is the second swiftest in independent India after that of Ramchandra alias Raoji who was hanged within three years of killing his family in Rajashtan. Raoji was executed on May 4, 1996, barely three years after killing five of his family, including his pregnant wife and three children.