A turning point

Print edition : November 18, 2005

Despite the lack of obvious celebration in Jammu and Kashmir, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad's appointment as Chief Minister marks a historic break in the region's politics.

in Srinagar


`HISTORIC' is a word devalued by its indiscriminate use in descriptions of events in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, the appointment of Ghulam Nabi Azad as the State's new Chief Minister cannot be described as anything but that: a radical break with Jammu and Kashmir's unhappy political past.

Up the road from the Congress(I)'s decrepit office on Srinagar's M.A. Road, there was some sign of political life: a dozen cadre from the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, an Islamist women's group, desultorily protested against the detention of their leader, Asiya Andrabi. Inside the building, no one had bothered to dust the tables or brush the dirt off the carpets. Truckloads of policemen had parked themselves outside the building to protect the throngs of activists they had thought would gather to celebrate the Congress's decision to designate Ghulam Nabi Azad as Jammu and Kashmir's next Chief Minister. Few showed up, and some of those who did showed more interest in the India-Sri Lanka cricket match played at Mohali that day than in the unfolding political theatre. A loud bang sparked off hopes that the customary festive fireworks had begun, but it turned out to be an improvised explosive device that had been defused by the city's bomb squad.

On the streets of Srinagar, history seemed to be evoking only a whimper. In years to come, though, historians might well describe the events of October 27 in seismic metaphors: a day when the character of politics in Jammu and Kashmir was fundamentally transfigured. Media commentary has pointed out several reasons why Azad's coming to power is of special significance. He grew up in the Doda region of Jammu, it has been noted, and is therefore the first Chief Minister of the State from outside of the Kashmir province.

He is the first leader of a party, often reviled for its record of political machination in Jammu and Kashmir, others have observed, to take power in circumstances that are not contentious. An ethnic Kashmiri, he is also the first Chief Minister to have acceptability in both the major regions of the State.

All of these reasons are of course of no small significance, but the most important reason of all has remained largely unnoticed: For the first time in the political history of Jammu and Kashmir, power has been decided by the balance of elected representation in the State, not back-room machination driven by fears about its relationship with the Union of India.

ALMOST no-one in either New Delhi or Srinagar had expected the late-evening Congress announcement of October 27, through which the party laid claim to the Chief Minister's seat for the next three years. Speaking to confidants that afternoon, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed felt that he was certain to be given a three-year extension in office. Congress leaders, the Chief Minister said, had offered a short extension of the initial three-year term the alliance partners had agreed on after their victory in the 2002 Assembly elections. Sayeed had rejected the deal, saying it would leave him with his administrative authority eroded and his image amongst voters in Jammu and Kashmir reduced to that of a supplicant before the Delhi durbar.

He, and other People's Democratic Party (PDP) leaders who had held discussions with the Congress, were in no doubt about the outcome before the talks. Jammu and Kashmir's Chief Secretary, Vijay Bakaya, had even invited friends home to celebrate the extension of the Chief Minister's term in office. And then, just before 7 p.m., the phone rang at the Sayeed residence. Sayeed was told that the Congress had decided to stake its claim to office. A few minutes later, party spokesperson Ambika Soni went on air with the news, leaving the PDP with no time to shape a response. All Sayeed would tell reporters who called was that he had no comment to offer on the development - a graceless response. An extraordinary rebellion by Congress and Congress-affiliated independents seems to have helped the party's long-dithering central leadership make up its mind. On October 26, as many as 21 Congress and Congress-affiliated Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) - including key Cabinet figures such as Power Minister Mohammad Sharif Niaz, Health Minister Suman Bhagat, Roads and Buildings Minister G.A. Mir, Minister of State for Finance Babu Singh, Minister of State for Sports Yogesh Sawhney, Minister of State for Revenue Ramesh Kumar, Minister of State for Forests Thakur Puran Singh, Minister of State for Transport Raman Bhalla, Minister of State for Housing Abdul Majid Wani and Minister of State for Tourism Jugal Kishore - let it be known that they submitted their resignations to the Speaker. Although the group later denied that their act was intended to put pressure on the party's central leadership, that is precisely what it achieved.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.-NISSAR AHMAD

The strategic defiance by the party's MLAs, inconceivable in the Congress even a decade ago, casts an interesting light on the changes in the relationship between the central leadership and the State unit. For the Congress leadership in New Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir meant little. Against the potential costs of having to take direct responsibility for day-to-day governance in the troubled State, the potential sacrifice of two Lok Sabha seats from the province of Jammu seemed minimal. Efforts by senior Left and independent leaders to persuade the Congress of the importance of change seemed to be having little effect. PDP envoys to New Delhi, as well as the party's supporters amongst the policy establishment in New Delhi, seemed to have succeeded in their campaign to influence the Congress' central leadership. As events show, however, the assumption that the State unit could be kept in line by fiats emanating from New Delhi was flawed: the State unit had power, and proved able and willing to exercise it.

Azad's own intentions, contrary to some ill-informed media commentary, were evident from the middle of this year. In July, he addressed a public meeting on the occasion of Martyrs' Day, a commemoration of a 1931 uprising against the Dogra monarchy that occupies a central role in ethnic-Kashmiri political consciousness. Although the 1931 uprising gave enormous impetus to the independence movement in Jammu and Kashmir and drew the all-India Congress into the anti-monarchy struggle, the State party had not organised a Martyrs' Day function in three decades. As such, Azad's decision to hold a Congress function, rather than share a platform with the PDP, was of obvious significance. To Congress cadres within Jammu and Kashmir, it signalled that their most likely Chief Minister-designate was committed to playing a direct political role in the State rather than watching events from New Delhi.

Leaders of the PDP responded to the challenge with two major arguments in favour of the status quo. In a meeting with Congress leaders in New Delhi, PDP representatives argued that the ongoing dtente process between New Delhi and Islamabad demanded continuity in Srinagar. A change of regime in Jammu and Kashmir, it asserted, would add one more potentially destabilising variable into an already fraught trans-national negotiation. Second, the PDP claimed, the rise to power of the Congress, representative of predatory Indian power, would alienate ethnic Kashmiri political opinion. By contrast, a regional party would be able to mobilise public pressure behind the peace process, it claimed. Over time, the PDP leadership believed, this pressure would lead significant elements of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to commit themselves to democratic politics.

IN 2002, these very arguments had helped the PDP win Congress support for Sayeed, and placed him in the Chief Minister's chair. Why, then, did they fail in 2005?`After me, the deluge', Louis XV is believed to have said before he died in 1715, amidst the bankrupt ruins of the French empire. To two generations of politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, and their counterparts in New Delhi, the sentiment was only too familiar: the prospect of a deluge has haunted Indian policy-making in Jammu and Kashmir from 1953 onwards.

From Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah onwards, New Delhi saw the leadership of Jammu and Kashmir as corporeal hosts of the State's accession to India. Jammu and Kashmir's future in the Indian Union was seen as deriving legitimacy from the influence of often authoritarian ethnic Kashmiri leaders, rather than from democratic institutions and processes. Sayeed's claims to be a repository of an authentic ethnic-Kashmiri sentiment - and the PDP's warnings that chaos would follow if he was replaced - drew on this long tradition of representing leaders as the sole defence against secession.

While such claims might have flown a decade ago, the elections of 2002 made clear no one political force - and most certainly not the PDP - could speak for the province of Kashmir. Although it won 16 seats in the Kashmir valley, the PDP picked up just 25 per cent of the popular vote, to the 15 per cent won by the Congress and the 24.5 per cent taken by independents and others. The National Conference won only two seats more than the PDP, but took 35 per cent of the popular vote.

If anything, the results demonstrated strong sub-regional divisions within Kashmir itself. The PDP was the largest political force in the central district of Badgam and the southern districts of Pulwama and Anantnag, while the National Conference had more support in the district of Srinagar and the northern districts of Kupwara and Baramulla.

More important, the 2002 elections made clear that the ethnic Kashmiri domination of Jammu and Kashmir politics was at an end. Given the rise of a truly competitive politics within the Kashmir valley, no party could form the government without the cooperation of a partner from Jammu. Congress politicians, who had fought the 2002 elections promising to install a Chief Minister from Jammu if they came to power, had been less than delighted at the prospect of allowing the PDP to hold power for the first three years of alliance rule. With an eye on his ethnic-Kashmiri support base, Sayeed had resisted making major concessions to Jammu, notably the demand for greater devolution of powers to the region. To Congress MLAs from Jammu, another three years of PDP-led government would have meant political annihilation - a prospect they were, quite simply, unwilling to countenance.

Troops rush to secure a site in Srinagar where militants suspected of killing Education Minister Ghulam Nabi Lone on October 18 were holed up.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

To some in New Delhi, the prospect of a revival of the Bharatiya Janata Party in two Lok Sabha seats may have meant little - just two Lok Sabha seats were at stake, after all. Many of the Congress' security affairs advisers, however, were also sceptical about the PDP's claims that it would be able to play a meaningful role in furthering the dialogue process. While several key figures in the PDP had set up lines of communication with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen in the build-up to the 2002 elections, the arrangement had proved to be little other than a short-term tactical alliance against their common enemy, the National Conference.

Although local Hizb ul-Mujahideen commanders proved only too willing to make tactical deals with politicians, the organisation's top leadership showed no inclination to engage in direct talks with New Delhi. Then, despite Sayeed's advocacy of engagement with the APHC, his hopes that significant elements within the secessionist coalition would prove willing to join the democratic process had turned out to be misplaced. Put simply, the PDP had held out a post-dated cheque to the Congress: future credit for a successful peace process, in return for power now. To local Congress leaders, though, there was no potential payoff - and some in the central leadership were less than convinced that they cheque would not bounce.

WHERE could Jammu and Kashmir politics head from here? For the PDP, the position it finds itself in poses considerable challenges. Congress leaders are likely to focus state patronage on their areas of core influence - the mountain regions of northern Kashmir and the province of Jammu. As such, the PDP's campaign to consolidate its bases of support will become that much more difficult. At the same time, the PDP has no real option other than to go along with the situation, at least for the time being. It has the numbers to bring down the Congress, but little to gain from such an enterprise. Even if the PDP were to increase its numbers in Kashmir by forcing an election, it would still need an alliance partner in the powerful Jammu region. None other than the Congress is likely to present itself in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, PDP leaders in north Kashmir, such as Law Minister Muzaffar Beig and Ghulam Hassan Mir, could well rebel if they felt an election was being forced on them.

One possible indication of future PDP tactics has come at recent meetings held by the top PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, the Chief Minister's daughter. She has been telling audiences that the PDP could not deliver all it hoped to because it did not have a mandate to rule on its own - an argument targeted at those in Kashmir who were disappointed at the party's failure to terminate offensive counter-terrorism operations and to open dialogue with terrorist groups. Neither Mehbooba Mufti nor her father is likely to participate actively in government, and both have rejected offers of a position in the Union Cabinet. Clearly, the PDP understands that it needs to protect its flanks from a resurgent National Conference, which has sought to appropriate the Islamist platform which cost it the last election. In recent months, National Conference president Omar Abdullah has been claiming that his party would have opened negotiations with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen had it remained in office.

More likely than not, the new Congress-led government will be judged in the short term on the basis of issues it has only a secondary role in - questions to do with security, notably, as well as the India-Pakistan dtente process. One major concern will be the course of the Union government's dialogue with the APHC. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were scheduled to meet after their recent visits to the United States. Although several weeks have passed, however, no dates for a second round of dialogue have been announced.

At least one APHC leader, Bilal Gani Lone, has been bitterly critical of the Prime Minister, and has said no further talks are possible unless the government scales back counter-terrorism operations and releases prisoners. Some believe the Hurriyat Conference is afraid to push ahead towards the inevitable electoral test of its own legitimacy, in which case the Jammu and Kashmir government may well have to consider initiating a broad-based dialogue on autonomy within the State to keep the political momentum going.

Security challenges to the new government are also likely to be intense. Pakistan's ultra-Right jihad organisations have won a new lease of life in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir because of their well-organised earthquake relief effort. In contrast, General Pervez Musharraf's regime and the Pakistan military have faced intense domestic criticism for their handling of the crisis. In months to come, Musharraf could find it increasingly difficult to rein in jihad groups further, or to limit their fundraising and recruitment activities. A welter of high-profile terrorist attacks on top politicians, notably the assassination of Education Minister Ghulam Nabi Lone in a suicide-squad assault that also almost claimed the life of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, could be a sign of things to come. With the Congress in power, attacks in Srinagar can be represented as defiance of New Delhi - an opportunity terror groups are unlikely to pass by.

All of these issues, however, will be secondary: over the next three years the record of Azad's regime will have to be measured against its success in annihilating the ugly fiefdom model which has characterised Jammu and Kashmir politics ever since independence. Half of Jammu and Kashmir's annual plan expenditure today, to give just one example, is disbursed at the discretion of the Chief Minister, a system which reduces elected representatives to something not dissimilar to courtiers at a feudal durbar.

Over the last three years, as incredible as it might seem, the Jammu and Kashmir Cabinet has not collectively debated one single issue of real importance. Questions of provincial autonomy, the contentious legal dispute over who constitutes a permanent resident of Jammu and Kashmir, the creation of new administrative units, or even the expansion of secondary school education: all these matters were handled by individual Ministers or bureaucrats. Reversing the de-institutionalisation of democracy after two generations of decay is no small task; no more can be expected than just a beginning. Three years ago, though, Jammu and Kashmir's voters gave their representatives a mandate to do so, and they are therefore entitled to insist that the pledge be now redeemed.

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