Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah puts Jammu and Kashmir in election mode by resurrecting the autonomy demand and distancing the National Conference from the National Democratic Alliance.
WITH the Assembly elections round the corner, there is a scramble among political parties in Jammu and Kashmir to raise issues that would appeal to the electorate. In this, the National Conference (N.C.) has taken a lead over others by raising the autonomy slogan on the occasion of the coronation of Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's son and Union Minister of State for External Affairs, as the party chief on June 23. Farooq Abdullah warned the Centre that there could be no peace in the State without autonomy. Adding an emotional tinge to the issue, Omar declared that the autonomy issue was a matter of the heart and not of the mind for Kashmiris and hence the constitutional provisions relating to the functioning of the State government had no meaning. "How is the Babri Masjid or Ram temple related to the functioning of the government?" he asked, implying that just as the issue of Ram temple was an important election issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party the autonomy question was important for the N.C. The State Assembly's term ends in October.
The fact that the Abdullahs have chosen to raise the issue once again despite the N.C. being a partner in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government smacks of political opportunism, especially since the Lok Sabha had rejected the demand with an overwhelming majority two years ago. However, the resurrected autonomy demand has undoubtedly put the State in election mode, setting the agenda for other political parties.
The autonomy issue has come in handy for the N.C. because its government does not have much to show by way of either development or governance in a State that has been grappling with terrorism for more than a decade now. Moreover, the Farooq Abdullah administration continues to be shaken by corruption charges. "It is nothing but a political gimmick. The father-son duo has nothing to offer to the people, so they are back to the much-beaten autonomy formula," said Pandit Mangat Ram Sharma, senior vice-president of the Congress(I) unit in Jammu and Kashmir. According to him, they have raised the demand knowing well that it will not be accepted by the Centre. The calculation, he said, was that whatever political mileage they got out of it would be useful at the time of elections.
This argument acquires credibility in the light of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's response that though the Centre would not accept the autonomy demand, it could consider greater devolution of powers. "Even minor concessions by the Centre would be a bonus for them," said Sharma. According to him, the N.C. faced a bleak electoral prospect. Having supported the NDA government despite the developments in Ayodhya and Gujarat, it had nothing else to offer to its Muslim constituency in the Valley, he said.
A senior BJP leader from the State, who did not wish to be identified, said: "Though the saner elements among the general public may not be lured by the idea anymore, there still are extremist elements who are talking of separatism, an independent Kashmir or a Pakistani Kashmir. The autonomy ploy has been adopted by the Abdullahs to address this constituency. They seem to be telling them that we too speak the same language as those you trust." The BJP has opposed the autonomy demand in no uncertain terms, saying the State had already been pampered enough. The BJP is even opposed to Jammu and Kashmir's special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. The BJP leader said the N.C., which had its base among the predominantly Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley, might have to compete electorally with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). In this competition, he said, the most that the N.C. could demand was autonomy, stopping short of the APHC's demand for an independent Kashmir.
A senior government official in Jammu and Kashmir said that the autonomy demand was influenced by electoral considerations. "Obviously this issue has been raised because elections are approaching. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that the N.C. continued to be a part of the NDA despite Parliament's rejection of the State Assembly's resolution on autonomy in 2000?" he said. According to this official, the majority of the N.C.'s seats in the 87-member Assembly came from the Valley where this issue has an emotive appeal. But it is also true that the issue has no takers in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region or in Ladakh, which has a mixed population of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims."
This political reality seems to guide the stands taken by parties like the Congress(I) and the BJP, which are struggling to create some space for themselves in these areas of the State. While the BJP is for abrogating of Article 370 and bringing the State on a par with other States, the Congress(I) wants Jammu and Kashmir's status to be in accordance with the Sheikh Abdullah-Indira Gandhi accord of 1975. Mangat Ram Sharma said: "It is impractical and unrealistic to believe that the pre-1953 status can be restored to the State. The folly of this demand was even realised by Sheikh Abdullah, who reached an agreement with Indira Gandhi in 1975. That agreement should be adhered to in deciding any controversy."
Interestingly, the divergence of the N.C. and BJP positions on the issue of autonomy has created a piquant situation. While the BJP was guarded in its reaction, dismissing the demand as "election rhetoric", the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has taken up cudgels against Farooq Abdullah on behalf of the Sangh Parivar. It has not only accused Farooq Abdullah of making attempt at the "Islamisation" of Jammu and Kashmir but has demanded that the State be divided into four parts - the regions of Jammu and Kashmir as two separate States and Ladakh and an enclave of Hindu migrants as Union Territories.
ALTHOUGH throwing tantrums at the Centre are not unusual for Farooq Abdullah, the intensity of his outburst on June 23 took everyone by surprise. He repeatedly referred to India as "you" and equated the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the VHP with cross-border terrorism. He said he had asked "them" (the Indian government) what "they" had done to rein in "these terrorists". "I also asked Singhalji (Ashok Singhal of the VHP) whether Ram belonged to Hindus alone or to the entire universe.... whether the followers of one religion liberated India or the whole Indian public was involved in the movement," he said. He also took the government to task for following what he called divisive policies which would result in the disintegration of the country. "If you want India to remain intact and as one unit, you need to live in peace and harmony with each and every community and sect of the people," he said, regretting that the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the violence in Gujarat had permanently scarred the psyche of an entire community living in the country.
Kashmir-watchers see these remarks as an indication of the N.C.'s attempt to distance itself gradually from the NDA in view of the Assembly elections. NDA insiders, however, maintain that Farooq's outburst was born out of his frustration at having been denied the Vice-President's post. According to them, he stepped down from the party chief's post in anticipation of his nomination. But the NDA's decision to field A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as its presidential candidate put paid to Farooq's chances.
This argument gains credence in the light of Omar Abdullah's comment that the Centre had treated his father shabbily by not nominating him as the vice-presidential candidate despite all his "sacrifices" for the nation. "Whenever I shall see Abdul Kalam as President I shall be forced to think what would have happened if the promise made to us had been fulfilled. What was promised to us was not given. It is true my heart breaks. But still we are ready to move ahead," he said. Omar said he had conveyed to the Prime Minister that in view of his new role as N.C. chief he would not be able to do justice to his Ministerial responsibilities now.
According to political observers, the N.C. has already started the process of withdrawing from the NDA. Farooq Abdullah has announced that the N.C. will go it alone in the elections, which are due in October. The leadership transition is also seen as part of the N.C.'s preparation for the elections. There are no two opinions about the fact that the young Omar Abdullah would appeal to the youth. His leadership qualities, which have been evident during his stint as a Union Minister, is expected to breathe new life into the N.C.
Political observers also note that Farooq takes a strident stance whenever the APHC shows signs of inching closer to a dialogue with the Centre. They see his latest postures in the context of the Centre's moves to talk to APHC leaders. (The Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed the autonomy resolution in a similar context, when the Centre had released Hurriyat leaders from jail.) APHC leaders have now offered to go to Pakistan and hold talks with the extremists there to end cross-border terrorism. The APHC had also suggested to the Centre that it could hold triangular talks with Pakistani and Indian authorities to try and find a solution to the Kashmir problem. There were also hints that the organisation might participate in the elections if the Centre invited its leaders for dialogue. Shabbir Shah, a former member of the APHC, said recently that the secessionist leaders could participate in elections "provided the Prime Minister personally invited us for talks". The fact that this offer has not yet been rejected is said to have unnerved Farooq Abdullah because the leaders of the APHC or other secessionist groups acquiring respectability would hit his electoral prospects in the Valley. Though political observers agree that the APHC has only a limited appeal in the State, it does not detract from the fact that Farooq Abdullah would be the loser if it enters the electoral fray in the Valley.
A senior State government official said: "If the process of dialogue (with the APHC) began, the moderate elements in it could persuade the hardliners to give up their approach and that would be bad news for Farooq. Hence he would do all he can to deflect attention form the APHC."
Observers say that although the N.C.'s political supremacy in the State does not face any major challenge, the electoral battle will not be an easy one for the party this time, especially because of the Congress(I)'s efforts to win over the people. Congress president Sonia Gandhi deputed party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad to the State to head its Pradesh Congress Committee. Reviving the party's fortunes in the State is a matter of political survival for Azad. A Congress(I) leader said: "It is clear that there will be a definite division of votes this time. It will not be a straight win for Farooq, and this realisation is making him resort to all these manoeuvres." Though Congress(I) leaders are under no illusion that they will be able to form the next government in Jammu and Kashmir on their own, they hope that their party will emerge as the single largest group in the State and will be able to cobble up a government with the help of smaller parties. Their hopes are based on the assessment that the Farooq Abdullah government is discredited and the people will vote for a change this time. They cite the example of Uttaranchal where the party scored a surprise victory in the Assembly elections.