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Congress(I)'s experiment

Print edition : Nov 22, 2002

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It has been a difficult choice for Sonia Gandhi to let go of the Chief Minister's post, but in the long run it may well be worth the wait for the party.

MAKING a virtue out of necessity. This is what the Congress(I) has done in Jammu and Kashmir. Senior party leaders are hailing its abject surrender to the People's Democratic Party, despite the fact that it is the larger of the two parties in terms of legislative strength and deserved to hold the Chief Minister's post, as a "sacrifice in the larger interest of the nation". The Congress(I)'s unique three-year rotational arrangement with the PDP to lead the government was one born out of sheer political compulsions: otherwise the party would have had to face the prospect of yet another National Conference-led government. But the party's crisis managers in the Congress(I) are trying to make this politically expedient move appear to be a supreme example of moralistic politics that only the Congress (I) was capable of following. Seeking to give the situation of helplessness a moralistic sheen, its general secretary Oscar Fernandes said:

"We could have formed the government on our own. We had the numbers. But we wanted to carry everyone along, We wanted to have the PDP with us because there was some indirect understanding between us on the anti-N.C. plank. We had deliberately not contested in 10 constituencies in the Kashmir Valley in order to facilitate the victory of PDP candidates."

"Magnanimity of the big brother towards a younger sibling" is how he described the Congress (I)'s agreement with the PDP. It is being generally seen as an instance of succumbing to blackmail by the PDP, but the Congress(I) is trying to give a moralistic hue to its defeat at the hands of the PDP but only after days of tough political bargaining. The fact that the Congress(I) simply could not form the government without the PDP's support, especially after it became clear that there was no sign of the PDP splitting as the Congress(I) leaders had hoped until the last moment, is being sugar-coated.

"We wanted to send out a signal that we treat even smaller partners as equals. Oscar Fernandes said: "Although we could have formed the gov<147,1,7>ernment without the PDP, Congress president Sonia Gandhi wanted to show that the party could even sacrifice the Chief Minister's post to accommodate the other point of view in the larger national interest." He was trying to explain the party's grand climb-down after a massive stand-off with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Meanwhile, fire-fighting measures are on as the party struggles to explain to its cadres at the grassroot level its decision to foresake its claim to the Chief Minister's post. "Our basic intention was to respect the people's mandate. The people had mandated against the misrule and injustice of the National Conference government and it was our foremost duty to ensure that the National Conference did not come back to power," party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy tried to explain.

"In order to respect the people's mandate, sacrificing the Chief Minister's post in the larger national interest was only a small contribution," he said. The decision to give up its claim to the chief ministership should not have come as a surprise because "the Congress president's ultimate aim was to ensure such a solution so as not to fritter away the people's mandate," explained Ambika Soni, political adviser to Sonia Gandhi. Congress(I) leaders also take pride in the fact that a tough political problem was resolved with grace and there was no bickering , except for some initial murmurs of discontent within the party. "Responding to a query, the Congress president had said that she will solve the Jammu and Kashmir problem with grace, and that's exactly what she has done," Oscar Fernandes said. This is notwithstanding the fact that State party president Ghulam Nabi Azad, the man chiefly credited with the party's spectacular performance in the Assembly elections and a chief ministerial aspirant, reported "sick" the day after the announcement was made that Mufti would be the Chief Minister. Azad refused to meet the press, and subsequently left for Jammu.

Not withstanding the political compulsions involved, the rotational system is a novel experiment for the Congress(I). "No doubt it is a novel and bold idea. It goes miles to prove the statesmanship of the Congress president," said Motilal Vora, senior Congress(I) leader.

Across the political spectrum there is unanimity that the Congress(I)'s move is indeed a departure from the party's past resolve against entering into coalition arrangements. It had declared that it would try to form governments on its own wherever it could since coalitions have failed to deliver.

The case of Uttar Pradesh provides supporting testimony to Congress(I)'s go it alone approach. A firm commitment by the party to support a government led by Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav could have ensured the installation of a non-Bharatiya Janata Party government there in the earlier instance, but the Congress(I) went backstage when the S.P. was waiting for its crucial response, with the result that a Bahujan Samaj Party-BJP coalition government came into being in Lucknow. But even now as Mulayam Singh continues to hope for support from the Congress(I), which will enable him to unseat the Mayawati-led government, the Congress has preferred to remain non-committal. Considering this track record, the Congress(I)'s experiment in Jammu and Kashmir is indeed different. Maybe it is an indication of the shape of things to come when the party is able to make a bid for power at the Centre. In such an eventuality, it would expect a return of favours extended in the past. "We want to give out the signal that we treat our junior partners with equal respect, that we treat them as equals,"Oscar Fernandes said. This is a politically rich statement with wide ramifications.

With this halo of martyrdom and confidence of moral victory, Congress leaders hope to make political capital out of the Kashmir experiment in the times to come. "With this move we have shown that we are the only truly national alternative to the National Democratic Alliance government. We have proved that we believe in carrying all sections of people along," said Vora.

One thing, however, goes without saying. The Congress (I)'s decision to accommodate the PDP has evoked a general sigh of relief in the State and an unmistakable feeling of euphoria. There is hope in the air that things will change for the better in this trouble-torn region. "Inshah allah, better days seem to be lying ahead. We are looking forward to those good old days when film shooting can once again become the order of the day in our beautiful valley," said a senior State official.

Indeed, a look at the common minimum programme (CMP) arrived at by the two parties, shows that their hope is not misplaced, provided the promises are fulfilled. For example, the CMP has given top priority to "restore the rule of law" in order to complete the political process, which was initiated by the holding of elections, and persuade the Centre to hold unconditional talks with the members of legislatures and "other segments of public opinion in all the three regions of the State, to evolve a broad consensus on restoration of peace with honour in the State." It goes without saying that "peace with honour" is the crying need in the State. Only after peace is restored can the process of healing the psychological, emotional and physical wounds of the past 14 years of militancy begin.

Rightly enough, the CMP lists as its second priority, "ensuring safety of lives and properties, restoring dignity and honour of all persons" along with full cooperation with the Government of India to contain and combat cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan.

If the coalition government manages to achieve just these two objectives, the rest of the 31 promises in the eight-page CMP become natural corollaries because containing corruption, stopping misuse and overuse of coercive laws, protection of human rights and providing relief and rehabilitation, can only be thought of once there is peace, security and safety. Other points regarding development, creation of job opportunities, special assistance to women who have suffered the most due to militancy, a transparent and fair administration with the right checks and balances, all spell hope, but can only follow if the first two are achieved. The biggest immediate relief to the people of the State, however, will come if the promise of the reorientation of the much-maligned Special Operations Group and the decision not to implement the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the State are realised. The SOG, the CMP promises, will be amalgamated with the State police and given a human face, an idea that has been welcomed . Similarly, there was unanimity that enough laws existed to tackle terrorism and that POTA was not required for that purpose. The promise of its non-implementation has been welcomed.

There is optimism in the Congress(I) too that the rotational arrangement, unlike a quasi-similar arrangement that was in palce in Uttar Pradesh, would become a success and set a new political trend. As they say, well begun is half done. If the CMP is anything to go by, then good days are ahead for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Although the Congress(I) may have suffered a setback in losing the chief ministerial post, it has earned people's goodwill, not only in the State but all over India. This could pay rich dividends for the party in the long term.

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