ANYONE who had just tuned in might find it impossible to believe that the National Conference (N.C.) and the Bharatiya Janata Party are allies.
Consider this: on July 27, BJP general secretary Rajnath Singh arrived in Jammu to proclaim that the government of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had failed "to create faith in itself among the people". On demands from the Hindu Right to divide the State into three, a plan bitterly opposed both by Abdullah and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh said that the BJP "neither supports nor opposes the idea". And many of the BJP's State-level leaders do not let a day pass without calling for the N.C. government's dismissal.
At the other end of the fence, the N.C. has been busy poaching from the BJP's ranks. At least one of the BJP's eight Members of the Legislative Assembly is believed to be ready to cross over to the N.C., and two others, party sources say, are considering the jump. The move would strengthen the N.C.'s representation in the BJP's Jammu heartland during the Assembly elections scheduled for September. Shortly after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) Giriraj Kishore and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief K. Sudarshan asked Muslims to "amend" passages in the Koran, Abdullah accused them of helping "anti-national elements". It is reasonable to ask, then, if this unhappy political marriage is finally on the rocks.
Informed sources say that the alliance seemed to be ticking along well even until June. Despite differences over the Union government's effort to rope in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference to join the elections, the N.C. played along, knowing that its electoral position was secure. And, when the Union government decided that it would take Central rule to demonstrate the credibility of the coming elections, the N.C. played along. The party leadership believed correctly that it would win the elections anyway, with or without the APHC's participation.
On June 26, informed sources told Frontline, Union Minister of State for External Affairs and N.C. heir-apparent Omar Abdullah met Governor Girish Chandra Saxena. He is believed to have told Saxena that he would recommend the dissolution of the Assembly immediately after taking over as Chief Minister. The move was expected after Farooq Abdullah's return from a vacation.
Within days, however, the party changed tack. It came to be persuaded that it just could not trust the Centre to hold the elections on time. Any delay, senior party figures argued, would cost the party dear on polling day.
It is here that the legacy of mistrust between New Delhi and Srinagar came into play. The problems really began during the Ramzan ceasefire of 2000-2001, when former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat initiated covert contact with the APHC and some terrorist leaders. The idea was to strip terrorist groups in the State of their political legitimacy, and bring elements from the secessionist formation into mainstream politics. The N.C., predictably enough, was less than happy at what it saw as an effort to prop up its opponents. The insult hurt all the more since the Union Cabinet had summarily rejected the State Assembly's call for negotiations on greater federal autonomy.
As the negotiations process dragged on, the mistrust on both sides increased. What remained of the relationship fell apart when the National Democratic Alliance decided against nominating Abdullah as its candidate for the President or Vice-President of India. BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley's appointment to discuss devolution came far too late, and was in any case undermined by the hostile posture of the party on the autonomy question. Meanwhile, terrified by the N.C.'s encroachment into Jammu during the February Lok Sabha elections, the State BJP, egged on by the VHP and the RSS, began to take an increasingly hostile posture against the Abdullah regime. The N.C., now conscious of the fact that winning seats in Jammu could be crucial in the next Assembly, responded by redoubling its efforts in the region.
BUT none of this means that a full blown New Delhi-Srinagar spat is in the offing. Indeed, in some senses Abdullah has been remarkably circumspect. In June, he announced a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the alleged killing of five civilians at Panchalthan near Anantnag. He blamed the State police force for the killings, and subsequent efforts to tamper with forensic evidence. In fact, the killing, a first information report and other documents published by Frontline show, were executed by the Indian Army (Frontline, April 12). Interestingly, on July 27, State government doctors and officials earlier suspended on charges of having tampered with DNA samples were quietly reinstated suggesting that whoever attempted fraud, it was not the State police.
Nor, for all his angry polemic against the RSS and the VHP, has Abdullah actually acted against the Hindu Right. Several statements by senior leaders from these groups have been inflammatory. VHP vice-president Ashok Singhal, for example, has repeatedly threatened collective reprisals against Muslims for terrorist crimes against Hindus in the State. It would have been open to Abdullah, had he wished, to file charges for incitement to communal hatred. The move would also have won him considerable support among Muslims in the State, who are increasingly incensed with the Hindu far Right's activities. Yet, mindful of the political consequences, Abdullah has not done so.
How events pan out after the elections is far from clear. Whether the senior Abdullah or his son rules in October, they know there is little to be gained by adopting a confrontational posture against the BJP after the elections. Whether they will be able to contain the damage done to the relationship in what seems to be a bruising campaign, is another question altogether.