Promises to keep

Print edition : November 01, 1997

One year since Farooq Abdullah's National Conference came to power in Jammu and Kashmir, levels of violence have declined and more tourists are seen in the valley, but the Government has yet to address the real challenges facing the State.


I remembered that you could walk without a bodyguard, ride a motorbike, talk to people. I remembered that you could go to the centre of town without Black Cats and have a cup of tea by the river at a local shop. I could sit on the parapet of the Chashme Shahi road and just watch the world going by.

- Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, speaking to Frontline a day after he was sworn in Chief Minister for the fourth time in September 1996.

THE heaven of peace has not returned - at least not yet. But Farooq Abdullah has confounded the many observers who suggested in September 1996 that his Government would either collapse in six months or lead the State into a crisis worse than it was already in. Nothing of the kind happened. Tourists, some from Maharashtra and West Bengal, are visiting Kashmir again. Crowds of picnickers relax in Srinagar's gardens or along the lakeside boulevard until late in the evening. Children play cricket, banned years ago by terrorist groups as a frivolous diversion from preparing for the jihad. And, for those who want further proof, the Chief Minister on occasion drives his own car unannounced. At least on one occasion he went to a cinema in Jammu.

Critics, however, remain unconvinced, and it is not hard to discover why. The agenda of the National Conference (N.C.) remain unaddressed, with many promises made by Farooq Abdullah for his fourth term in office being unfulfilled. Although the N.C. promised to ensure that vacancies for 26,000 government jobs would be filled within three months of coming to power, nothing of the kind happened. A year on, only some 8,000 jobs have been sanctioned. The Chief Minister responded to criticism with a bizarre promise to allow each MLA to make a certain number of discretionary recruitments, an arrangement which would have been illegal had it been formalised. As a consequence, the belief that jobs are being secretly hawked at a price has become widespread, whatever the accuracy of such claims might be.

In core areas where employment could be increased, the Government has done little. Much of the fruit processing infrastructure destroyed after 1989 has not been replaced. Although plans have been announced for the construction of 19 fruit and agricultural markets, support policies for fruit growers remain adverse compared to States such as Himachal Pradesh. Private sector industrial investment has begun to revive, with several proposals, including one for a Rs. 1,600-crore fertilizer plant, having been submitted to the State Government. Private investment in the State, however, suffers from serious regional disparities, with much of the benefit going to the Jammu region. State Government interventions, such as the establishment of an industrial park at Budgam, are unlikely to alter this long-term pattern of skewed development.

The anti-terrorist operations stand in some contrast to this picture. Although some claims have been clearly farcical, in particular the hyped withdrawal of the Army from Anantnag and Baramulla, which never had operational Army units in the first place, much has in fact been achieved. The revival of the Jammu and Kashmir Police has been exceptional. But several recent developments suggest that this has taken place despite the Government rather than because of it. Although levels of violence have declined, the seriousness of the task before the State cannot be underestimated. Petty political squabbles do little for an efficient security structure.

There has seldom been a State Government in India that came to office with such goodwill. Successive prime ministerial visits to the State have led to a financial commitment of some Rs. 8,000 crores. Funds, however, are useless without governance. Although Farooq Abdullah's is in no way a uniquely corrupt regime, his party has failed to engage with the enormity of the challenges to come. Few MLAs and Ministers spend any real time in their in their constituencies, often citing exaggerated security concerns as the reason for their inactivity. Widespread complaints on everything from about the Public Distribution System to schools and drinking water are rarely heard - and almost never acted upon. What little political activity there has been, notably the wresting of the Muslim Auqaf Trust from the control of a venal cabal of fundamentalists, has taken place at the level of policy, not grassroot-level interventions. The lack of action by democratic politicians gives legitimacy to the rantings of both Jammu's Hindu revanchists and the Valley's Islamic fundamentalists.

In the months to come, the N.C. could face the consequences of its complacency. Panchayat elections scheduled for March 1998 should lead to a mobilisation of rival political forces. At a broader level, the Autonomy Commission is scheduled to release its preliminary findings on the future relationship of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian Union shortly. Its suggestions are likely to be explosive, and provoke assault from many positions on the political spectrum. The N.C. has survived a year in which its legitimacy as a party of power was never in question. Over 12 months, Chief Minister Abdullah has left little doubt on that issue. The party will now have to establish that it can exercise the authority it has acquired from the people with purpose and integrity. Only after that might Farooq Abdullah once again be able to sit at Chashme Shahi and watch the world go by.

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