O n August 9, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi arrived in Srinagar for a two-day visit of the Kashmir valley. Although his itinerary included the inauguration of a new party office in Srinagar, a ritualistic visit to holy shrines and a wedding event at the residence of Ghulam Ahmed Mir, president of the party’s Jammu and Kashmir unit, the tour had a wider political significance. It is no coincidence that the visit was scheduled at a time when the government is planning to kick-start the electoral process in Jammu and Kashmir and the Congress is shrinking in terms of appeal, size and action against the backdrop of internecine strife and its ideological see-sawing vis-à-vis the Union Territory.
It is clear that the Congress is unable to decide whether to offer a sustained challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) raucous Hindu nationalism, reiterating its own commitment to secular ideals and pledging support for the rights of the minorities, or focus solely on the government’s failure to deliver on its economic promises while making overtures to the majority community. In this context, Rahul Gandhi paying obeisance at the Mata Kheer Bhawani temple in Ganderbal coupled with a public reminder of his Kashmiri Pandit origin, not so overtly done since the Rajiv Gandhi years, are important indicators of the grand old party’s politics in Jammu and Kashmir, and perhaps how it is looking to brace up for the larger battle in 2024—at least for the moment. The Mata Kheer Bhawani temple has been a magnet for Kashmiri Pandits since the 1870s when Maharaja Ranbir Singh frequented the shrine. Every year thousands of Pandits flock to the place to participate in an annual fair.
Rahul Gandhi, soon after inaugurating the new party office premises, invoked memories of his Kashmiri roots. Addressing party workers at a function in Srinagar, he said, “My family lives in Delhi. Before that my family lived in Allahabad. And before Allahabad, my family lived here. I can tell you that I understand you, my family must have drunk water from the river Jhelum. Kashmiriyat , the culture and thought process must be in me too. When I come here, I feel like I am coming home.”
Also read: Kashmir: Centre’s iron hand in velvet glove
Countering the BJP’s attempt at Hindu consolidation of the BJP in Jammu, which the Sangh Parivar has nurtured as its laboratory for Hindutva experiments, is a daunting task. The Sangh Parivar, with the help of its well-oiled Internet machinery, has been successful in blaming the Congress for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits three decades ago and their exile ever since − a narrative new to a whole new generation. What is conveniently overlooked is the fact that the BJP was a share-holder in power at the Centre in 1990 with the Janata Dal’s V.P. Singh as Prime Minister.
Gandhi’s “temple-run” can set the optics, but to recover ground across the Pir Panjal range in the Hindu-dominated belts, gruelling grass-roots politicking is needed. The BJP is likely to amplify its call for a Hindu Chief Minister. If Rahul Gandhi’s overtures to Kashmiri Pandits are anything to go by, the grand old party may be gearing up to emulate that model.
That begs an important question: Has the Congress surrendered to the BJP as far as the latter’s political incursions in Kashmir are concerned? Will it choose to remain a mute spectator even as the Sangh Parivar goes all out to stifle the political voice of a salient Muslim population? Rahul Gandhi was careful not to critique—even mildly—the August 5 decision of the government in 2019. That was in sharp contrast to the party’s principled stance in Parliament at the time when its senior leader P. Chidambaram warned that “history will prove you [the Modi government] to be wrong”.
Rahul Gandhi focussed on restoration of statehood, a line that the party veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad also articulated when he briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the latter’s meeting with leaders from Jammu and Kashmir on June 14 in New Delhi. Azad said after the meet: “We kept five demands in the meeting: restoration of statehood, Assembly elections for restoration of democracy, rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir, release of political detainees and domicile guarantees.”
This reporter had learnt from reliable sources that Azad skirted any talk on the abrogation of Article 370 in the June 14 meeting on the grounds that the matter was sub-judice. A leader of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), who was present in the meeting, told this reporter that he confronted Azad over this in private. Azad told him: “I did not prepare the draft representation all by myself. There were feedbacks.”
With Rahul Gandhi avoiding mention of Article 370 in Srinagar, it was clear where the “feedbacks” came from. “Statehood should be restored and then the democratic process should be started, that is election [to the State Assembly],” Rahul Gandhi said.
It was not that Rahul Gandhi did not question the Modi government’s iron-fisted policies in Kashmir, but the articulation was not forceful. Perhaps, this was deliberate. He accused the BJP of ruining the progress that was made in Kashmir under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). “When we were in power, we started lots of programmes like panchayat elections, Udaan [skill development], etc. We also brought in industrialists to invest in Jammu and Kashmir. We were trying to unite and join. They [the BJP] have attacked it,” he said. But he stopped short of detailing the uptick in human rights violations, the assault on press freedom, widespread apprehensions against the ongoing delimitation of constituencies, and the routine hounding of political leaders by investigating agencies.
As the Congress chases realpolitick imperatives, it will be interesting to watch how far it is prepared to go. Sources in the party told Frontline that for some time the high command had been scouting for a Hindu face to represent the Congress in the erstwhile Himalayan State. The party had high hopes of Vikaramaditya Singh, son of Karan Singh, once heir to the throne of Kashmir. The Congress fielded him from the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency in 2019, but he lost to the Hindutva juggernaut that dominated the post-Pulwama general election.
Currently, the party is witnessing a power tussle between the camps loyal to Ghulam Ahmed Mir and Azad, who until recently looked determined to end the Gandhi family hegemony within the Congress with his group of 23 leaders. However, given the fact that Azad and Rahul Gandhi headlined a party event together, one assumes the intra-party rebellion is averted for now.
For now, Rahul Gandhi seems more focussed on countering the BJP in Jammu. He has declared his intent of touring both Jammu and Ladakh soon. The underlying strategy is to consolidate in Jammu and then look for post-election permutations and combinations to form the next government in alliance with the National Conference.
It is next to impossible for any Srinagar-headquartered party to secure a majority of its own. If the Congress is able to thwart a BJP sweep in the Hindu belts, the anti-BJP axis can take off. But with factions warring in the party, the absence of a Hindu leader of any great stature in the organisation, and the BJP’s aggressive push for a Hindu Chief Minister, will Rahul Gandhi’s soft Hindutva find any takers in Jammu? One has to wait and see.