Divided and ruling

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

IN SRINAGAR ON July 28, when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam addressed a joint session of the legislature, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig and PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. - NISSAR AHMAD

IN SRINAGAR ON July 28, when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam addressed a joint session of the legislature, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig and PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. - NISSAR AHMAD

Tensions leading up to Muzaffar Beig's resignation as Deputy Chief Minister put the Congress-PDP marriage to the test.

EARLIER this month, it looked like it would take an act of God to save the Congress-People's Democratic Party (PDP) government in Jammu and Kashmir: and, as if on cue, the driving rain that has devastated large parts of the State turned attention away from the deep strains in the alliance.

On August 31, the PDP demanded that Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig, the party's most visible representative in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's round table dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, be removed from office. For three days, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad refused to act on the PDP's demand, precipitating the most serious political crisis since the alliance government took power in 2002. Beig eventually resigned, preventing the feud over his office from precipitating the disintegration of the alliance.

Few politicians in the State now have time for anything other than dealing with the enormous hardships their flood-hit constituents are facing, but more than a few key players have begun to wonder just how long the Congress-PDP feud will stay submerged.

No coherent explanation of what prompted the PDP to act against Beig has emerged so far. The PDP president Mehbooba Mufti is thought to have been irate at Beig's breaking ranks with an ongoing offensive against Azad by her party. Whereas other PDP leaders viciously attacked Azad's handling of the dialogue process, and claimed that the human rights situation had deteriorated on his watch, Beig repeatedly showered praise on the Chief Minister.

Former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, on his part, was critical of Beig for failing to ensure the appointment of PDP-friendly police officers in key districts, notably Anantnag, and for his endorsement of the creation of new districts that will strengthen the party's opponents.

Many in the PDP, though, believe these arguments were pretexts for a tactical political project - building bridges with north Kashmir strongman Ghulam Hassan Mir, who is now the top contender for the Deputy Chief Minister's job. Mir had been suspended from the PDP in April after he turned against the party in the build-up to byelections to four Assembly seats held that month.

As a consequence of Mir's rebellion, the PDP's official candidate in Sangrama suffered a humiliating defeat - a disaster that demonstrated the rebel's potential to create problems for the party in northern Kashmir. Mir's rebellion was provoked by the party's decision to nominate Beig, a political lightweight who held out no threat to either Mehbooba Mufti or Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, for the Deputy Chief Minister's job. After the April electoral disaster, though, the PDP knew it had to pay the price demanded by their prodigal son for his return: Beig's job.

Whatever the truth, Azad responded with silence to the PDP's demand that Beig be removed. Again, no wholly plausible account of his objectives has emerged. Some in the Congress believe that the Chief Minister did not wish to see his authority eroded and note that the party made no attempt to tell the Mufti which portfolios Ministers should be assigned when he held the top job.

Azad, anticipating more battles in the future, may also have wished to signal to the PDP that he was willing to see the coalition fall rather than run an administration on terms dictated by the smaller partner. Azad was eventually summoned to New Delhi by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and bluntly told to accept the PDP's fiat this time.

Tariq Hamid Qarra, a confidant of the Mufti family, has been assigned Beig's responsibilities as Minister for Finance, Planning, Law and Parliamentary Affairs. Some in the PDP have been pushing for the nomination of Agriculture Minister Abdul Aziz Zargar, who succeeded Beig as legislature party leader, as the new Deputy Chief Minister. While Zargar would help the PDP rebuild its links with Islamist groups, his past makes it unlikely that Azad would be willing to give him the top job.

Investigations into the 2002 attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, determined that the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who carried out the attack had stayed in the Minister's home at Manzgam, in southern Kashmir. The Jammu and Kashmir Police are also investigating allegations that Zargar's official residence in Srinagar has been used by terrorists.

What has passed unnoticed is that Azad's August 29 Cabinet expansion, which sparked the PDP's calls for Beig to be stripped of his portfolios, also incensed many within his party. Jammu-based politicians like Yogesh Sawhney and Raman Bhalla, who helped organise the Congress revolt that forced the party's central leadership to appoint Azad Chief Minister, are irate at his failure to include them in the Cabinet.

So, too, are powerful independents like Usman Majid, who supported Azad despite having occupied important positions in the Mufti's Council of Ministers. For his part, Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh has made it clear that he was not consulted before the Cabinet expansion. Azad, it is clear, possesses few of the diplomatic skills that managing a fractious coalition demands.

In the short term, though, it is unlikely that this discontent will lead to the disintegration of the coalition. PDP leaders, with no significant bases outside southern Kashmir, know they cannot take power without a coalition partner. None is on offer bar the Congress. Moreover, the PDP's efforts to appropriate the Islamist vote through an alliance with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen have not led to an expansion of its electoral constituency.

The Congress, too, has few options. While the National Conference has offered to join with it should the alliance collapse, Congress leaders understand that the bargain would be a poor one. Unlike the PDP, the National Conference has political ambitions in the Congress' Jammu heartland and would also deny it space for expansion in the Kashmir Valley.

It would be facile to attribute the tensions within the PDP and the Congress, and the feud between them, to personal political ambitions. Significant issues of ideology are at stake, driven, curiously, by the dialogue process in Jammu and Kashmir.

Beig articulated his substantial differences with the PDP at a September 3 meeting with journalists, just before he submitted his resignation. The lawyer-turned-politician charged the PDP leadership with "befooling people by projecting their model of self-rule as the same as that of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, which would fetch azaadi [independence]". The Mufti and his daughter, Beig continued, "deliberately keep the terms of self-rule proposals vague, so that they can pretend they are working towards independence". "This," he said flatly, "is deception."

In fact, Beig argued, the PDP self-rule proposals he had helped author only suggested a restructuring of Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional position within India. "We need to tell people clearly that we are bound by the Indian Constitution," Beig continued, "and that what we are seeking are new guarantees." The former Deputy Chief Minister fleshed out the content of proposals made during Manmohan Singh's second round table conference in May. "Our concept," Beig said, "would leave unchallenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and the central Election Commission."

These ideas, significantly, fall well short of the National Conference's demands, articulated in the April 1999 report of the Jammu and Kashmir State Autonomy Committee. The SAC had argued that all amendments to Jammu and Kashmir's own Constitution made after a July 1952 agreement between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah ought to be repealed. If implemented, the proposals would strip Jammu and Kashmir's people of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, or the protection of the Supreme Court of India and the Election Commission. The State's financial relationship with the Union would also be left open. All these issues would then have to be renegotiated between Jammu and Kashmir and the Union of India afresh.

Both Beig and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami had been considered as possible consensus-building leaders for the round table committee that is discussing Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional future. National Conference claims that their leadership would be partisan forced Azad to appoint former Chief Justice of India A.M. Ahmadi to head the committee. Ahmadi, however, demanded that his appointment have formal legal authority. Uncomfortable at the prospect of the round table committee acquiring such status, the State government replaced Ahmadi with a former diplomat.

So far, neither the PDP nor the National Conference has made formal presentations to the committee. However, Beig's comments forced the PDP to issue a statement on September 6 asserting that its self-rule proposal "aims at finding a solution of the Kashmir problem without advocating the State's accession with Pakistan or diluting India's sovereignty". By contrast, it claimed, the National Conference sought to address "only, and partially, the constitutional and administrative relationship between Delhi and Kashmir".

According to the PDP, "self-rule proposes restoration of constitutional guarantees to the State that existed in original and undiluted form at the time of the adoption of the Article 370". However, the party has remained silent on the key specifics of its proposals - for example, the precise mechanics of the constitutional relationship and the role of the Supreme Court.

If and when serious deliberations on Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional future intensify, the disputes within the PDP and the enormous ideological gulf that separates it from the Congress will become more evident. In a recent interview to The Hindu, Azad described the PDP's calls for demilitarisation as "a publicity stunt". Politicians, he said, "cannot have bullet-proof cars and commandos and then talk about demilitarisation". He also dismissed proposals for self-rule, demanding instead that its advocates forge "their own road map".

Both the Congress and the PDP are trapped in a miserable marriage - but one that is politically profitable to both.

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