TIME OF AZAD

Print edition : November 08, 2002

At the core of the prolonged political impasse in Jammu and Kashmir after the State's most politically rich elections has been the People's Democratic Party's stubborn refusal to accept the inevitability of a government under Congress(I) leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Pisr-e-Nooh ba badaan kard nishast, Khandaan-e-Nabuwatash gum shud.

(As the son of Noah kept bad company, the prophet's family was destroyed.)

MOHAMMAD YOUSAF TAING'S use of Persian poetry did not dilute the acid content of his message. Taing, a senior National Conference (N.C.) leader and author of a seminal biography of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, echoed the widespread belief that furious voters had put a debased dynasty to the sword. Much media commentary took up Taing's theme, and blamed the N.C.'s defeat in the latest Assembly elections on everything from Farooq Abdullah's incompetence to Omar Abdullah's inexperience, and, in time-honoured Blame-the-Bahu tradition, even the supposed arrogance and interference of daughter-in-law Payal Abdullah. But the truth, as usual, is considerably more complex. The National Conference Ark might indeed be leaking, but those on board have more than an even chance of plugging the cracks with resin provided by its fractious opponents, and sailing on.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, after the election victory, in Srinagar-NISSAR AHMAD

A month after the most politically rich election ever in Jammu and Kashmir, efforts to create a new government have ended in deadlock. At the core of this political impasse is the stubborn refusal of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) to accept Congress(I) leader Ghulam Nabi Azad as the next Chief Minister. Interestingly, the PDP's insistence on the top job appears to have been something of an afterthought. Speaking to Frontline even as the results came out on October 10, party chief and former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said that the question of who would become Chief Minister was "a small issue", to be decided "by the game of numbers". It was only two days later that his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, insisted that the PDP could not allow a Congress(I) candidate to become Chief Minister, despite that party's numerical legislative superiority. Mehbooba Mufti argued that only an ethnic-Kashmiri Chief Minister would be able to address what the PDP believes is the State's core problem the alienation of the ordinary Kashmiri from the Indian state. None of the PDP's stated arguments against Azad appear to be anything other than trivial. Mediators, for example, pointed out that Azad, whose family moved to Doda two generations ago from Kokernag, was from a Kashmiri-speaking region and an ethnic-Kashmiri to boot. Mehbooba Mufti rejected this argument on the ground that Azad had projected himself as a representative of Jammu during the election campaign. But even if one admits the ethnic-chauvinist argument that nobody from Jammu is fit to be Chief Minister of the entire State, there is no persuasive explanation for why the PDP was unwilling to accept any of the Congress(I)'s five Kashmir-valley MLAs, or former MP Saifuddin Soz, as Chief Minister instead. Speaking to Frontline, Mehbooba Mufti said that "any Tom, Dick or Harry" could not become Chief Minister, but Sayeed himself has no experience of ruling a State. Nor was his tenure as Union Home Minister at the start of the violent insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir a particularly luminous one. Indeed, the PDP's claims that representatives of the Valley must rule are excellent arguments for the N.C. to take power, since that party commands more seats in the region than either of its opponents.

The PDP's recalcitrance may, instead, be rooted in its conviction that fresh elections are not far off. The party's three key demands unconditional dialogue with ethnic-Kashmiri terrorists, the release of terrorists held in jails, and the disbanding of the Jammu and Kashmir Police's Special Operations Group are all acceptable in principle to the Congress (I). The problem for the PDP is that all three demands will take considerable time to realise. Worse, given the experience of the Union government's dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000-2001, such dialogue may come to nothing. Should the PDP achieve little, its credibility with its constituency, much of it drawn from the ranks of the Jamaat-e-Islami, will be severely eroded. Under the circumstances, the party leadership sees it to be in its best interest to sit in the Opposition until elections come again. In this project, the PDP has the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which wishes to block the emergence of another Congress(I)-led State government at any cost. Indeed, the fact that the PDP's hardline posture emerged after an October 11 meeting between Sayeed and Home Minister L.K. Advani led at least some people in the Congress(I) to draw the obvious inference.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at a post-election rally in Ganderbal along with PDP vice-president Mehbooba Mufti, among others.-NISSAR AHMAD

IT IS probable that the Congress-PDP impasse that blocked the process of government formation will be resolved in the not-too-distant future, albeit with a sub-optimal outcome. The Congress(I) commands the tentative support of 14 independent MLAs, as well as of four MLAs from the Panthers' Party, two from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one from the Bahujan Samaj Party. The numbers put the party within striking distance of forming a government, should it manage to gain the support of PDP dissidents.

But this tactical impasse is merely a smaller part of a far larger deadlock in Jammu and Kashmir's political life. In essence, the neat division of political space between the N.C. and secessionist formations like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference has collapsed, exposing a rich pattern of fissures along both regional and ideological lines. If the N.C. before the elections was ambiguous in its position on terrorist groups, for example, the carnage inflicted on its ranks through the campaign has made fence-sitting near impossible. And in this collapse lies enormous possibilities of political regeneration and transformation.

Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah at a function in Srinagar.-NISSAR AHMAD

Consider, for example, the independents and the smaller parties that hold the balance of power in the now-suspended Assembly. Some, like the Panthers' Party, have power bases exclusively in Jammu, and see no benefit in supporting Sayeed. MLAs from Jammu, who beat back communal calls for the division of the State, understand that giving in to the PDP's chauvinist position will give renewed life to the now-decimated Hindu Right. Others, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have been at the receiving end of PDP campaigning led by Jamaat-e-Islami cadre and backed by Hizbul Mujahideen guns. "We want a broad-based coalition against the National Conference," said Mohammad Yakub, the CPI(M) candidate from Devsar, "but we cannot forget that that the PDP cadre made calling us heathen and unbelievers a centrepiece of their campaign. Mehbooba Mufti even said at a public rally that we had forgotten how to read the kalima (funeral oration)." Others like G.M. Sofi, the MLA backed by the secessionist People's Conference, have obvious reasons to reject the PDP's claims to represent Kashmiri Opposition sentiment exclusively. "I repeatedly told Sayeed that even if the Congress supported him, the independents were unwilling to do so," says CPI(M) state chief and Kulgam MLA Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, who held meetings with the PDP leadership on October 16, "but he just wouldn't budge from his stand."

Within the Congress(I), anti-Sayeed sentiment runs along two distinct tracks. Before October 12, the Congress(I)'s central leadership had been relatively open to the PDP's demands, hoping that some compromise could be arrived at. At his meeting with Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi that evening, Sayeed focussed little on the party's programme, insisting only that he be made Chief Minister. When party MLAs were confronted with that prospect, many of them reacted with fury. Congress(I) secretary Shatrujit Singh Gaikwad, sources told Frontline, even warned Sonia Gandhi of the prospect of a party revolt should the central leadership order them to accept PDP leadership of the alliance. Even the party's Kashmir Valley MLAs protested furiously. "We withdrew six of our candidates to help the PDP," said Dooru MLA Ghulam Ahmad Mir, "otherwise they would be nowhere. We did so even though the PDP did not reciprocate our gesture. Our sacrifice is being repaid with ingratitude." In the event, Tarigami and Sofi were asked to mediate with the PDP, but to little effect. A face-to-face meeting between Azad and Sayeed on October 17 also achieved nothing. After a series of discussions in New Delhi on October 19, former Union Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was pressed into service in Srinagar. He, too, had little initial success since Sayeed shot down suggestions that the PDP and the Congress(I) rotate the Chief Minister's post between them.

Governor G.C. Saxena.-NISSAR AHMAD

Given how far both the PDP and Congress(I) have committed themselves, it seems unlikely that a happy resolution can be arrived it. Should the Manmohan Singh initiative also fail, a split in the PDP would be the sole device through which the impasse can be resolved. Congress strategists have been engaged in a dialogue with Tangmarg MLA Ghulam Hassan Mir, whose efforts to stitch together a seat-sharing deal had been shot down by Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti. Mir, sources say, may be willing to ally his party with the Congress should it be invited to form a government, along with Shopian MLA Ghulam Hassan Khan and Homshalibugh MLA Ghaffar Ahmad Sofi. Two other PDP MLAs, senior party leader Muzaffar Beigh and A.R. Veeri, also oppose the Sayeed-Mehbooba Mufti rejectionist line on a Congress(I) Chief Minister. "The bottom-line in the party," says a senior PDP leader, "is on how to understand the mandate. Have we seen a pro-PDP vote or an anti-National Conference vote? Will the PDP benefit from staying out of office, or will it then loose ground to whoever takes power?" Since the PDP is registered as a political party but is not as yet legally recognised as such, the provisions of the anti-defection Act do not apply to its MLAs.

GOVERNOR Girish Chandra Saxena, however, seems determined not to allow the kind of deal-making a Congress(I) government would be premised on. "The Governor," says one of his legal advisers, "believes that giving an invitation to a party to form the government, in the knowledge that such an invitation would invite defections from another group, would be unjustifiable. If defections were acceptable, he might as well invite the N.C., since it is the largest single bloc."

Jammu and Kashmir State secretary of the CPI(M), Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, who was re-elected from the Kulgam Assembly constituency.-NISSAR AHMAD

Whatever the constitutional merits of such a line of reasoning, Saxena has so far acted by the book as he understands it. When independent MLAs signalled that they might seek to win over PDP dissidents, Saxena made it clear that he would invite a non-PDP, Congress(I)-led coalition unless it actually had the numbers. Then, on October 17, when Farooq Abdullah insisted that he would no longer stay in office since the term of the Assembly had expired, the Governor promptly imposed Central rule. For the moment, he has given no clear indication of what his future course of action might be. The fact that Saxena had not appointed advisers seemed to suggest that he saw the arrangement as a passing one.

Perhaps the only thing the new government will have going for it is that none bar the father-daughter duo who control the PDP see any real interest in precipitating fresh elections. The campaign saw almost a hundred cadre and candidates from all major parties eliminated in terrorist attacks, along with several times that number of civilians killed in enterprises to render free elections impossible.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi, for its part, has an obvious interest in blocking the formation of a Congress-led dispensation, but has no interest in forcing fresh elections either. "Frankly," says a senor Intelligence Bureau official in Srinagar, "none of us have the energy to go through the whole exercise again." That means independents and members of smaller parties are likely to keep some government, any government, in power, long enough to recoup their energies. And it is precisely on this fact that the N.C. is staking its political future. Farooq Abdullah's decision not to continue as interim Chief Minister was intended to precipitate President's Rule, a signal to independents that his party was ready to do business with them if the Congress(I) and PDP failed to resolve the deadlock.

Media focus on the Congress(I)-PDP feud has deflected attention from the fact that neither is, on its own, commanding players in post-election Jammu and Kashmir. Although its electoral defeat is a historic event, the N.C. remains the largest single party in Jammu and Kashmir, both in terms of seats won and its vote-share. Even in the Kashmir Valley, the focal point of its defeat, the party gained more seats and votes than its two principal rivals. Indeed, its vote-share was only marginally lower than the sum of the PDP's and the Congress(I)'s put together. Yet, the dramatic growth of the PDP's base in Kashmir, coupled with that of the Congress and independents in both this region and Jammu, did enough to dash the party's hopes of coming to power with the aid of a few independents. Now, the N.C. hopes that the inability of its opponents to put together an even reasonably stable government will give the party a shot at power in the not-too-distant future with the help of the very independents who ruined its prospects. "We don't want to be seen as being power hungry," says a senior party leader, "and will not stake claim to form a government. But we might back independents and small parties should any future government fall apart."

Beyond the deadlock, then, lies the political future of Jammu and Kashmir. For decades, politics in the State had been constructed in two dimensions with the N.C. pitted against an undifferentiated Opposition, hostile and servile in turn to an all-powerful Centre. That framework, and not the Abdullah dynasty, is what has truly been put to rest in these elections. It has been fashionable to blame the N.C. these past years for all of the State's problems, forgetting that the major contenders for power today have at one stage or the other helped shape its unhappy destiny. The Congress(I), led by that other great dynasty which still guides its course today, was responsible for the gross subversion of democracy which was to give legitimacy to secessionist forces. And it was Sayeed, as Union Home Minister, who laid the foundations for the past 14 years of terror. The nuanced alliances now being born represent an effort to remake this history. Whatever government is formed in coming weeks, the processes that led to its birth are certain to transfigure Jammu and Kashmir in ways which will long outlast its term in office.

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