National Conference woes

Print edition : December 09, 2000

THE bright smile plastered across Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's face at his public appearances testify only to his well-known histrionic abilities, for Abdullah has little reason to share in the cheer which pervades the State this Ramzan season. The c easefire which has generated so much optimism through Jammu and Kashmir has presented the National Conference with serious political problems. Most worrying of all, the processes surrounding the ceasefire have convinced Abdullah's advisers that the Union government is sharpening its knives to sacrifice its coalition ally.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.-NISSAR AHMED

In public, N.C. politicians have welcomed the ceasefire and called on terrorist groups to engage in dialogue with the Union government. However, such a dialogue would constitute a serious threat to the N.C.'s control of power. Should elements in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Hizbul Mujahideen choose to join democratic politics, the N.C. would then face a formidable Opposition platform. Given Abdullah's record of governance, there is little doubt that a credible Opposition platform w ould have a real political opportunity.

Many observers believe that the panchayat elections, scheduled to begin in January and run until May, will shape the N.C.'s agenda. The elections will be held on a non-party basis. This may give APHC figures like Abdul Ghani Lone, as well as elements of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen, the opportunity to test their prospects without compromising their stated ideological positions. The prospects of a wider anti-N.C. coalition, including People's Democratic Party leader and former Union Mini ster Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, might also be explored. Should this platform perform well, Abdullah will have to give serious thought to just how the N.C. should respond.

Early signs of an N.C. mobilisation are evident. Senior party leaders have sought to appropriate human rights issues from the Opposition. The demand for judicial investigations into the killings at Chattsinghpora and Panchalthan earlier this year has gro wn. Home Minister Mushtaq Lone recently claimed to have forwarded a request for judges to head the investigation to the Supreme Court after Justice S. Ratnavel Pandian declined the job. Curiously, Justice Pandian had told Frontline he had received no request just days before Lone's statement was made. Along with attacks on the security forces, N.C. politicians have been critical of the Union government on issues such as funding for the State and autonomy.

How intense these efforts to distance the N.C. from New Delhi become will depend on the Union government's negotiations with the APHC and the Hizb. It is clear that any agreement with the APHC would have to be predicated on the secessionist platform, or at least elements from within it, forming the government. The principal obstacle to the dialogue process so far has been that the Indian government appears unwilling to concede anything other than an autonomy package to the APHC. APHC leaders, in turn, b elieve that such a deal would alienate their core constituency, and make them vulnerable to critics who would ask why they had endorsed violence for so long. The APHC is also aware that it has neither a campaign apparatus nor a dedicated cadre.

N.C. leaders believe that any deal would take time to materialise, and say that it would probably coincide with the 2002 Assembly elections, due when the current government completes its six-year term. "Rather than give time to the APHC to build its cadr e," one senior politician told Frontline, "it may make more sense for the N.C. itself to pre-empt any deal the Union government makes, and go for an early election." The politician pointed out that it would be near-impossible for the Union governm ent to dismiss a democratically elected government to make way for a fresh election after this. Abdullah, sources say, is considering revamping his party, and bringing in several younger politicians into leadership positions.

Should the N.C. in fact go for an early election, its prospects might well be better than what most people imagine. Even in the unlikely event that APHC leaders like Lone and Yasin Malik contest early elections, their prospects of forging a united front are minimal. Internal dissension, and the lack of a party apparatus, would give the N.C. a distinct edge. Although public discontent with corruption and poor administration are only too evident, the N.C. has put in place a structure of patronage that has kept its rural ranks secure. And, most important, the party could win further legitimacy by claiming to have called the election on a point of principle, like New Delhi's failure to negotiate federal autonomy with the State government.

It is here that one of the less evident problems with the dialogue process now under way in Jammu and Kashmir lies. By intent or otherwise, the Abdullah regime is being pushed into a corner. That, in turn, has forced it to adopt increasingly reckless pos tures on sensitive issues like the Chattsinghpora massacre, and to harden its maximalist claims for autonomy. New Delhi's sustained efforts to include the Islamic Right and the APHC in Jammu and Kashmir politics have thus pushed the N.C. to compete with their politics. Those who know Abdullah say that he is certain to reject efforts to push him out of Jammu and Kashmir, even if offered a sinecure position at the Centre. In its search for birds in the bushes, the Union government could end up losing the one it has in hand.

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