Breaking the tradition, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi did not only differ publicly with his friend and chief minister Omar Abdullah but also played safe when asked about the fate of the ruling coalition, a Kashmir Life report.
Whichever Gandhi visits Kashmir, it is mostly a colour event and not a news story. Anticipated arrival of SPG, security drills with host police, barricading people from the leaders and finally the leaders arriving, attempting to meet people, talking about their Kashmir roots, waving towards them and getting a wave of clapping and it is over. These are camera events – lot of detail, less of substance.
But Rahul Gandhi’s two day visit last week was more eventful than it used to be. It made news, generated controversies amid heat and dust. The first was in Jammu when a few thousand strong gathering of panchs and sarpanchs were driven by Congress to M A Stadium.
In the middle of his speech, Parikshit Singh, Sarpanch of Dhurkan in Udhampur’s Ramnagar belt interrupted Rahul. “Sir, I am a Sarpanch. We all Sarpanchs from Congress are with you and ready to dedicate our life,” Singh was reported to be crying with his full throat power. “But we have a complaint. While we got everything from the Central government, we got nothing from the State government.”
It was enough of disruption to get Rahul off the script. “I have come here to listen to you. I will pressurize the State government and fight for your rights,” Rahul assured them. There were demands from the sections of the crowd that Congress should withdraw support to NC. Rahul kept explaining the crowd that he will ensure the state adopts the vital amendments in the Panchayat Raj act. They even demanded that Congress should withdraw support to National Conference on this issue. As confusion dominated the rally, Rahul, whom Modi has dubbed Shehzada, left the dais.
It was on day two of his visit and the venue shifted to Lassipora in Pulwama where Rahul had to formally inaugurate Harshah Naturals’ upgraded facility – now South Asia’s biggest Pack House and the most modern one. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who earlier inaugurated the 10000 mts storage capacity – 7000 Mts CA and 3000 MTs cold storage, part of the sprawling facility, spoke in detail about the apple economy of Kashmir: fake pesticides and the complete absence of CAS in north Kashmir, the oldest apple growing area.
Then, he stated his desire to avail the opportunity, to clear certain “misunderstandings”. This part of his speech was addressed to his friend Rahul, the Gandhi scion who stood for him at the peak of 2010 crisis forcing Congress not to have any second thought on the coalition government which he continues to lead.
“The Panch who spoke to you yesterday was Panthers Party chairman’s close relative and I do not know how he reached your rally.” Omar said in a matter-of-the-fact manner. “Who was he? What was his objective?”
“The Sarpanch was Panthers Party chairman’s relative. What has Panthers Party been doing with us, everybody knows,” Omar said. “How he came to this function. I do not know if the motive was to belittle my government or disrupt your function.”
Singh who had interrupted Rahul is cousin of Panthers Chief Harsh Dev Singh. But he had recently joined Congress.
Omar said the Panch’s claims were incorrect. “The government has already transferred basic functions of 14 major departments to the Panchayats,” Omar said. “But the problem is they (Panchs) do not go to check the attendance of the schools or check the quality of midday meal because they are not interested in it.”
J&K Chief Minister said the Panchs want money which is not possible. “Even our MLAs, MPs and minister are complaining that they would also like to make some announcements in their areas but it is not possible,” Omar said. “I am not a person who wants all powers (to stay vested) with me. I want real decentralization of power and I am the person who held the Panchayat elections.”
Talking about his government’s inability to conduct elections for the two remaining levels of Panchayati Raj, Omar said the government had set up a committee to look into the issues of reservations. “It is caught between Pahari’s and Gujjars,” Omar said. “It was supposed to submit its report in a month but many months have passed. But we will (NC and Congress) do it jointly.”
Unlike Omar, Rahul came to Panchayat much faster. Many in audience think, had Omar not offered a provocative explanation, there was nothing much Rahul would talk about.
“I know the Panch was from Panthers Party. He spoke against us and was in news but he was right,” Rahul said. “They will continue saying it unless they are empowered.”
Rahul said he did not talk specially about Panchayat’s in J&K only. “I am thinking about entire India on this issue. I spoke about it in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and more recently I talked to the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pardesh,” Rahul said. “There are only 20 people running UP and I want more people to get involved.” He said the state government must adopt the 73rd and 74 amendments in the Panchayat raj act and finish issue of reservations quite fast. Then Rahul moved back to the three things which are fundamental to centre’s Kashmir approach: addressing unemployment, empowering women and having functional Panchayat systems.
As the two engaged in talking post-speeches, had a few apples together, it dawned new normality between the two friends who represent the two families which have remained crucial to the state’s post-partition history. They drove together and flew in the same chopper.
Unlike Pulwama, they did not disagree in Budgam. They interacted with some of the potential beneficiaries of UMEED, a union Rural Development Ministry initiative, in which they are supposed to make small savings and eventually get linked with banks and do something profitable. The two encouraged the women and had identical observations to make.
But the media coverage, appearing a day after, was suggestive of the coalition survival at either of the two stages: pre-poll or post-poll. But the facts on ground do not offer any idea towards that.
At the end of the interactions with the UMEED women, the two had brief interaction with the reporters. Interestingly, most of Srinagar’s media corps had driven to Budgam.
Will you campaign for Omar in 2014 polls, was the first question for Rahul. Pat came the reply: “I am a supporter of Omar. I am a friend of Omar…. (pause) .. absolutely, we have a government here together.”
When another reporter asked Omar about the fate of the alliance in coming days, Omar said he sees no reason for his party to snap ties with UPA. “We are committed partners of UPA and we have had a very good relationship with UPA. We see no reason why that should change. It is as simple as that,” Omar said. The final word, however, will be taken by NC president.
Regardless of what Rahul told his party workers and the ministers in Congress’s fashionable M A Road office, the visit exhibited certain small changes in the relationship.
Firstly, Rahul can no more ignore the frequent complaining of Omar led government. This is an interesting coalition in which Congress is in literal power and enjoying it without being responsible for its actions. The party is creating its edifice in Kashmir at the cost of its ally and the ally lacks an option other than surrendering to the whims of Congress (read Rahul). It has already started the process of incorporating the spirit of 73rd and 74th amendments in the state Panchayat act.
Secondly, Rahul seemingly is not keen to permit friendship dominate the political relationship. Lassipora speech was a clear message that Congress is unwilling to buy the story that NC feeds. It marks a departure from the 2010 benchmark in which Rahul intervened at the peak of civilian killings suggesting Omar needs more time.
And finally, the fate of alliance hangs in balance. Rahul stayed non-committal to the future of it. Omar was a friend of Rahul even when before he made that speech in Lok Sabha supporting UPA on nuclear programme. Whether or not the two parties will have a pre-poll relationship will be decided by the impact that Narender Modi’s visit will have on Jammu.