Interview: Ghulam Ahmad Mir

‘Congress, N.C. to continue tactical understanding’

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Congress’ J&K president and candidate from Anantnag Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

Interview with Ghulam Ahmad Mir, president, Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress’ president and candidate for Anantnag, is hopeful of winning the seat with a comfortable margin and defeating the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. In an interview to Frontline, Mir said that the Modi factor was gradually receding in the Jammu region and that the Congress and the National Conference (N.C.) were likely to have a tactical understanding in the next Assembly elections and emerge stronger. Excerpts:

The turnout in Anantnag district in phase one of the three-phased election to the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat was lower than expected. It was 13.61 per cent.

We were apprehensive about a low turnout. Even when Mehbooba Mufti contested the Assembly byelection in Anantnag after becoming Chief Minister, the turnout was poor. The Burhan Wani episode [the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander] had not happened then and the Kashmir Valley was relatively peaceful, but there was anger against the unholy alliance between the PDP and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. Today, that alienation is several notches higher, given the Centre’s militaristic policies vis-a-vis Kashmir and its outright refusal to hold dialogue. This is the first election in Anantnag in the post-Burhan context. We had hoped that at least in Anantnag district the turnout would be around 30 per cent. But the security preparedness was not up to the mark. There was total intelligence failure on polling day. People were ready to vote but all of a sudden, between 9 am and 10 am, disruptions started across the district, at Dooru, Kokernag and Bijbehara. There was no tactical handling of the stone-throwers. The forces started shelling and retaliatory firing, and this led to people confining themselves to their houses. We discussed this with the police, and they assured us that they would try their best to avert a repeat of this in the April 29 and May 6 phases.

Do you see any match-fixing in Anantnag?

In my Assembly constituency, Dooru, PDP supporters were mostly behind the stone-throwing incidents since their own voters did not turn out to vote. When the PDP saw that the Congress was gaining a lead, they politically engineered the stone-throwing incidents to prevent people from casting their votes. The forces also resorted to firing immediately. I would not make any assumption on match-fixing in this constituency, but we did not get the lead that we expected as there was voter suppression due to the motivated stone throwing.

Are you expecting any lead in the first phase?

In Anantnag district, most of the turnout was recorded in the six segments where the Congress is strong. Kokernag, Dooru and Shangas have given the Congress the upper hand. The PDP could not mobilise its voters even in Mehbooba Mufti’s ancestral place, Bijbehara, which saw only a little over 2 per cent turnout.

The poor turnout is reminiscent of the 1996 election. Whom would you blame for the shrinking of the electoral space in Kashmir?

The PDP and the BJP are to blame. It was the responsibility of Mehbooba Mufti, who was then Chief Minister, and the Centre led by Narendra Modi to deal with the situation that emerged in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s encounter in July 2016. When we were in power, irrespective of the unrest, we managed a staggering turnout. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the turnout was more than 49 per cent in the State. That was owing to our policies. Mehbooba Mufti did not take any accountability for the violence that took place under her watch. Her arrogance is responsible for the mess in Kashmir. When Ghulam Nabi Azad was Chief Minister, there was a similar agitation over the encounter in Pathribal. But Azad saab took the matter seriously. An inquiry was held; four or five senior officials are still in jail for that. Mehbooba Mufti did not send any signal of reassurance even when a two-year-old girl in Kashmir was blinded by a pellet. Instead, in order to save her chief ministership and placate the BJP, she made that infamous toffee remark in her joint press conference with Home Minister Rajnath Singh in August 2016.

The Assembly elections in the State are yet to be announced.

On June 19, 2018, when the PDP-BJP government fell, the then Governor asked us whether we would like to make any attempt to form the government. We told him clearly that we were unable to stake claim since there was no combination with a majority mark. I believe the Governor should have dissolved the Assembly and started the process for election. After three months, a new Governor came and even he did not dissolve the Assembly, leaving the space open for horse-trading.

When we made the N.C.-Congress-PDP combination, the House was suddenly dissolved. We demanded simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and the Assembly. That would have ensured a good turnout. The Election Commission [E.C.] sent three special observers recently, and after taking our opinion they said they would announce the holding of Assembly elections while announcing the date for the Lok Sabha election, although the State election would be held in June. We fail to understand why the Governor, the security apparatus and the E.C. cannot announce the date now and hold the elections before the commencement of the Amarnath yatra [in June].

Will there be any alliance between the Congress and the N.C. for the Assembly elections?

See, every political party wants expansion. That aspiration is common to the Congress and the N.C. We may see a repeat of the current tactical understanding in the Assembly election, too. We will make an assessment of the constituencies where a division of votes between the N.C. and the Congress would benefit a third party and have an understanding in those seats. In constituencies where we are evenly placed, it is unlikely that either of us will back out. There will be an understanding, but I don't think there is much of a chance for a formal alliance.

The BJP continues to polarise the electorate. Will it not give the party a lead in Jammu when the Assembly election is held?

Ever since he came to power, Modi has been making monumental claims of development. Why doesn't he quote statistics to back his claims and seek votes for development? His reluctance to talk about development makes it evident that there hasn’t been any development. He is either hiding behind a nationalistic discourse woven around Balakot or appealing to people to vote on communal lines. For that he is not shying away from recalling grisly episodes from riots witnessed in the past. Each time he talks about Balakot and Muzzafarnagar, he is accepting his leadership failure, his governance failure. But the fact of the matter is that the Modi fever is receding, and in the Assembly elections he cannot hope to consolidate the majority community’s votes in Jammu.

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