A Tradition Survives

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The ‘bribe for berth’ case involving Kashmir’s first family is nothing new. It is just a standard practice of how politics has operated here for decades, a Kashmir Life report.

Show of Strength: Chief Minister Omar Abdullah with senior party leaders at a function held recently to celebrate NC founder’s birth anniversary.

Show of Strength: Chief Minister Omar Abdullah with senior party leaders at a function held recently to celebrate NC founder’s birth anniversary.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Politics in Kashmir, US Ambassador David Mullford cabled Washington in 2006, is as filthy as Dal Lake. Corruption always existed in Kashmiri politics, but in 2011, it seems to be at its peak. While the chief executive of the state, Omar Abdullah and his father Dr Farooq Abdullah, a minister in the Union Cabinet, are fighting a battle for survival in a ‘bribing for the berths’ case, the state’s right-wing BJP is almost decimated. Seven of its 11 lawmakers stand expelled by the party for cross voting, a move that led to the ruling coalition party’s victor in the April elections for the Legislative Council.

The race to secure a place in the state’s ‘house of elders’ started soon after the six vacancies were announced. Given the numerical strength of the parties in the assembly, it was clear that five seats would go to the ruling NC-Congress coalition, and one would go to the principal opposition PDP. There, however, was a possibility that if the entire opposition comprising PDP, BJP, PP and CPI(M) would have voted on a consensus candidates, the ruling coalition gains would have been reduced by one.

But on the day of polling, members voted as per the whips that political parties had issued. BJP lawmakers, however, voted in split. Its official candidate, Ranjit Singh, polled only four votes as seven others of the flock obliged the coalition – NC’s Choudhary Noor Hussain got four BJP votes, as three voted for Congress’s Yashpal Khajuria. For a party that got a historic mandate from Jammu after its successful agitation over Amarnath row and a subsequent economic blockade of Kashmir, Ladakh, Poonch-Rajouri and Chenab Valley, this development was the height of embarrassment.

After initial investigations, the BJP identified Prof Chaman Lal Gupta, India’s former Junior Defence Minister, as the kingpin; and expelled him from the party for six years. Soon, six BJP lawmakers announced their support to Gupta and the party literally split. BJP wrote to the Speaker Mohammad Akbar Lone suggesting the seven be expelled. They were named last week by the Speaker after a two-day ruckus by the Congress, but Lone refused issuing his verdict saying the case is still sub judice.

Prof Gupta said there was no money transaction involved in the cross-voting, but the statement he made in the assembly is against the general public perception. As he was making a statement, the opposition was shouting slogans suggesting they have taken money. This has been the worst case of horse-trading in the recent days. But it did help pluck another loophole that the lawmakers had left in the J&K Representation of the People Act. The same session amended this law, making the stamped ballot for Legislative Council elections a must. Prior to this law, the ballot was secret and the lawmakers could go against the whip at any consideration.

But this has not happened for the first time. During the PDP-Congress coalition, then NC ‘heavyweight’ transporter Trilochan Singh Wazir was elected a member of the Legislative Council, despite his party lacking enough votes. Then, according to an insider, he got eight votes from the ruling coalition (then Congress-PDP-Panthers Party combine) and became a member. All these votes, people in the corridors of power insist, were actually purchased from the ‘floating electrons’ of other parties.

Singh is currently in custody and facing trial in a sensational murder case that had eluded police for a long time. In September 2006, unknown assailants killed a cement manufacturer, Rajinder Bhushan Chopra, along with his wife Madhu, teenage daughter Solani, a domestic servant and driver, leaving absolutely no clue, not even a fingerprint. While legs of three males had been tied, their mouths gagged before killing them with rods, Solani was strangulated to death and Madu was killed by suffocation using a pillow.

NC's lawmaker T S Wazir, accused in a series of murders, being taken to the court.

NC’s lawmaker T S Wazir, accused in a series of murders, being taken to the court.

Both the females had burn injuries on various parts including breasts and FSL (Forensic Science Laboratory) experts suggest a lighter was used. Chopra’s two sons had survived, as they were studying in Australia. After arresting and interrogating several people, it was finally in June 2011 that police detained Wazir, who worked as a lawmaker till April 18, 2011.

Interestingly, NC was willing to send him back to the Legislative Council. But at the last moment, the government was informed that the needle of suspicion in the sensational murder case is actually pointing towards him, his brother Ajab Singh and Raju Simbliya. The conclusive evidence came from Surinder Singh who was part of the gang that actually silenced the Chopras.

Corruption, says senior editor Mohammad Sayeed Malik, is not all about money. “Historically it has been inducement or even coercion,” he said. “In 1951, Sheikh Abdullah won an election and two years later Delhi helped Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad to change the government through artificial means; using inducements. All those who supported were made ministers, which then, was a huge concession.”

In 1963, Bakshi – who had the dubious distinction of being the best administrator and the most corrupt, was eased out within a year of winning an “election” through the Kamraj Plan to install Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq. Bakshi fought back. Using various means, he got signatures from a majority of the lawmakers and wanted to move a no-confidence motion. “On the eve of it, he was arrested by Sadiq under the notorious Defence of India (DIR) rules,” Malik, who has been witness to the most of the post-partition history, said.

The last infamous case was in June 1984, when Dr Farooq Abdullah’s elected government was dismissed after Indira Gandhi used her governments’ influences in the financial realm and beyond to purchase a number of lawmakers from his party. Gandhi wanted to avenge Dr Abdullah for hosting an opposition conclave in Srinagar and taking a strong anti-Congress stand.

The party ensured Dr. Abdullah’s own MLAs pulled the rug from under his feet, and supported Ghulam Mohammad Shah, his brother-in-law. “I doubt a lot of money was used to purchase the MLAs,” a politician who observed the ‘game’ very closely said. “I think the defectors who become ministers did not get any cash and those who could not be accommodated as ministers got some cash and a car each.”

After Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Dr. Farooq Abdullah became very close to Rajiv Gandhi. By then, the Shah government was taken down, and Dr. Abdullah was installed again. It was this Congress-NC coalition that won the 1987 rigged elections, after it paved the way for the rise of militancy a year later.

An almost similar situation arose in 2004, when the PDP was heading towards its third year of the rotational ruling arrangement; when select lawmakers from PDP and Congress had agreed to defect and support NC.

It was Syed Mohammad Yousuf  Shah who was almost the main character tasked to play the ‘game changer’. Sources in the unionist camp suggested that the plan was ready, as it envisaged offering one crore rupees to every MLA, as long as he did not wish to become a minister. The plan was finally shelved when the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee summoned Dr Abdullah informally in his parliament office, and informed him that NDA government will not support such an initiative.

YusufThe PDP government survived. A year later, the baton of the coalition government’s leadership passed to Ghulam Nabi Azad. In his tenure, Azad did address this issue. He made the anti-defection law more stringent. His government was supported by two-third majority of the House to move and pass the Constitution Amendment Bill in December 2005, which changed the 1987 law pertaining to the defection.

The law was basically enacted by Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s government after returning to power in 1987. Interestingly, when the Mufti Sayeed government wanted to address certain new loopholes in March 2005, Congress had forced him to withdraw it well before they could be tabled. At that time, Congress had its own apprehensions.

They thought that if the Mufti-led PDP refused to step down, or if Mufti Sayeed withdrew his support in the wake of transferring the baton of leadership to Congress at the end of his three year term, they should have the flexibility of some political engineering to seize power. But once Mufti transferred power to them and continued supporting the coalition, Congressmen led by Ghulam Nabi Azad ensured the bill becomes a law, finally.

The earlier law accepted any one-third faction of any party as a split in the party. The new law does not recognize individual legislators enjoying one-third support of their party lawmakers. It debars a defector from holding an office in the government (as minister or deputy minister) or a remunerative political position (in the party) for the remaining part of his term. Besides, the amended law applies on independents as well. The law was enacted the same day when another bill limiting the size of the Council of Ministers to 20 percent of the strength of the twin houses – 89 members in Assembly and 36 members in the Council.

But corruption in politics is not restricted to only crossing floors. It has countless routes and innovative methods. The recent case that Kashmir’s first political family – the Abdullahs’—are confronted with is different. The public discourse surrounding it focussed more on the mysterious death in the custody of fixer Syed Mohammad Yousuf Shah, leaving aside the larger angle involving political corruption.

If the materials that are already in the public domain, including the statements of the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, are taken at face value, the masters of political parties are actually selling berths. Abdul Salam Reshi, a political worker who joined NC after losing from Kokernag, claimed he paid Rs 34 lakhs to the deceased Shah for securing a berth in the Legislative Council. After that became impossible, Dr. Farooq Abdullah rang him up and regretted that the situation that evolved at the time of nomination did not help him to get Reshi in. Reshi claimed he got Rs 30 lakhs back.

The other person, Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, who was representing Omar in his constituency till Shah’s death triggered a storm, had paid much more. Again, it was the long time confidant of the party leadership Shah who had promised him a berth in the council and promotion as a minister. It was his ‘bribe’ that he had secured from multiple sources according to the Chief Minister that was the real issue of contention.

A probe announced by the state government is yet to take off, and all these issues will be tackled by the investigation. But the larger question remains—that corruption in politics and within the parties is a stark reality that laws are unlikely to tackle; at least not in the near future.

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