A Shrinking Empire

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah

On June 11, 1939, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah converted Muslim Conference into National Conference to give it a pan J&K appeal. While the party has shrunk in terms of vote politics, Hamidullah Dar analyses how the state’s oldest political party is being limited to Kashmir valley.

The upcoming parliament elections have uniquely poised coalition partners in Jammu and Kashmir government – National Conference (NC) and Congress – on the opposite sides of J&K’s geographical divide. The parties are fighting elections in an alliance, but bastions they chose reflect how National Conference is losing ground while trying to appease a partner with lesser presence in the legislative assembly.

Congress resisted fielding any candidate from Kashmir valley and instead sought safer constituencies in Jammu and Ladakh, dealing a dual blow to NC. First, the task of competing Peoples Democratic Party in their stronghold has been left for National Conference to do. Second, a party that boasts of a wider appeal and regional projection has been deprived of an opportunity to portray itself as a representative of all the three regions.

“New Delhi wants confinement of (Kashmir) dispute to the valley as they did in Assam which was divided in seven states to kill the separatist sentiment there,” says Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain of Kashmir University’s Law Department. “It is New Delhi’s will to localise the political parties in this state which unfortunately the politicians of valley accept wholeheartedly.”

Senior leaders in National Conference, however, disagree that fielding candidates for parliament elections is an indication of a shrinking area of influence. “Coalition ethics demanded that both parties had to be accommodated. We should not draw conclusions so fast. NC got seats from all the three regions of the state in the assembly elections” says Ali Mohammad Sagar, senior National Conference leader.

But Sagar doesn’t completely brush aside that coalition pressures put NC in a tight spot. “We had conveyed to Congress that it will be in the best interest of the coalition that NC contests the Ladakh seat. They did not agree,” he says.

Prof Gul Wani of Political Science department at Kashmir University too sees coalition compulsions behind the seat-sharing pattern. “NC can’t afford to fight a parliamentary election at its own due to coalition compulsions. Besides, the presence of another regional party PDP has reduced its bargaining power which compelled it to be content with fielding candidates from valley alone and leaving Ladakh and Jammu for Congress,” Wani says.

Congress and National Conference have a strange love-hate history in J&K. It starts with the friendship of Sheikh Abdullah with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Combined with the impact of Congress’s apparent secular outlook, the personal relations were instrumental in converting Muslim Conference into National Conference. Later, when Sheikh personally flew to Delhi just to be a behind-the-curtain approver of the signing of accession, Nehru’s influence fetched him the job of emergency administrator of J&K’s in 1947 in wake of the tribal raids.

The two friends signed the Delhi agreement in 1952. A year later, Nehru’s SOS sent him to the jail thus paving way for Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. Bakhshi took over Sheikh’s party that Congress had hijacked. After Bakhshi was Kamrajed out, his stooge Shamsuddin installed the holy relic agitation that made G M Sadiq the executive of the state. All these leaders were Congress surrogates using the NC masthead. It was Syed Mir Qasim who formalised the system and converted the proxy National Conference into Congress in January 1965.

Between 1953 and 1975 – “the 22 years of wilderness” – the real NC (plebiscite front) sowed the anti-Congress seeds so widely and repeatedly that it triggered social crisis in which people divorced wives on political grounds. The ‘insects of the dirt’, as NC would term the Congress, was so responded by the society that the Sheikh die-hards would not even join the funeral prayers of their opponents. Later, in wake of Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975, Sheikh became the chief minister as head of a Congress house.

But political pundits term it a win-win situation for Congress. “With its plank of greater autonomy for J&K, this party suffered at the hands of New Delhi right from 1947. In 1953 Sheikh Abdullah was dethroned due to his assertion for autonomy. In 1975 also there was no proper accommodation of viewpoints,” says Prof Gul Wani.

In 1977, Abdullah won the polls. After his death, his son Farooq Abdullah was toppled by Congress who aided Gul Shah in the succession battle. Farooq found an informal accord with Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 as the only way out to get power. The coalition contested 1987 polls together and rigged it. Within a year, an armed rebellion surfaced.

After a two-third majority in 1996 assembly elections to the single largest party in 2002, NC chose to be on Congress side again. But the relationship has always been strange. NC has supported the Rajya Sabha nominations of many Congressmen including Dr Karan Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad several times.

In the current bargain, NC reaped fewer benefits than is expected of the single largest party in the state. After the coalition government was formed, except for Omar bagging the chief ministership, NC was made to forego ministries like tourism and horticulture which have a major focus on Kashmir valley. Even in the nominations for upper house of state legislature, Congress managed four while NC bagged 5 though Congress has only 17 members against NC’s 29.

Sagar says that compromises were made for a larger gain. “We have ensured that Omar Abdullah remains chief minister for a full term of six years,” he says. The race by Congressmen to match their NC counterparts is such that deputy CM, Tara Chand, even raised a question about a false decorative ceiling in CM’s office. Insiders say that the deputy CM, while seeking an explanation from estate officials why his office shouldn’t have a false ceiling suggested that the ‘difference between a CM and his deputy is just an additional Bolero car.”

Analysts say that the developments would cost the party dearly in coming days as well. “It was already a Kashmir centric party and assembly elections in 2008 rendered it Srinagar centric” says Dr Showkat. In 2008 polls it finished second only after the PDP. “NC does not behave even like a regional party while asserting its weight like Lalu Yadav, Biju Patnaik or Sharad Pawar over seat-sharing with coalition partner.”

Prof Gul Wani sees many reasons for the fall in popularity graph of NC. “Being a regional party, it has serious differences of the manifesto with centrist parties like Congress and BJP regarding Kashmir,” he says. “NC leadership faced a crisis as Centre avoided to bail it out many times which diminished its stature in public domain.”

Wani, however, believes that militancy also took a heavy toll on the middle and lower rung of party workers which disarrayed the party as other workers could not mobilise and galvanise support base. Besides, Wani says, there is a dynastic element in its leadership and Abdullah family has major say in party apparatus which choked the inner-party democratisation resulting in many seasoned politicians leaving the party. Rise of PDP as a regional actor and its usurpation of NC’s ideological plank have also weakened the party, analysts observe.

“It is always centrist party that has the upper hand in bargaining when there are many regional parties vying for sharing power with it. With its immediate rival (PDP) waiting to grab the opportunity, NC lost hard bargaining power with Congress. It was clear even when the decision to make Omar Abdullah chief minister came from a quarter other than National Conference,” Wani says.

Adds Dr Showkat, “The survival of the political parties in Jammu and Kashmir depends on the goodwill of New Delhi rather than preference of voters. Politicians here perceive themselves as an extension of New Delhi and do not want to be seen as representing the sentiment of those who elect them.”

Amid this, can NC again push for its political agenda and restore its widespread appeal. “Greater Autonomy is our manifesto and the Government of India is bound to consider it. After all, it was passed as a resolution in Legislative Assembly,” says Sagar.

Sagar, however, leaves enough room for New Delhi to act according to its taste. “How and when the Government of India gives autonomy to the state, that they will have to decide. It does not have to give autonomy to NC. It is for the people of the state not a party,” he says. But is Congress that once talked about “Sky is the limit” (for autonomy) willing to concede the demand now. Nobody knows. In fact, the ruling coalition is unique because despite having differences on issues it still rules the most sensitive state without a common minimum programme.

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