Divided we stand

The internal bickering in J&K Congress has divided the party into two factions with each trying to outsmart the other, causing a nuisance for its ally National Conference. Ilham Hassan reports.

National Conference President Farooq Abdullah curtailed internal bickering between ruling coalition partners National Conference and the Congress to some extent by publicly snubbing his younger brother Sheikh Mustafa Kamal. But the antidote could hardly cure the internal ills of the Congress Party. Last week, when the union home minister P Chidambaram visited Jammu to assess the law and order situation of the State, he received the bitter taste of the factionalism, leg-pulling and mudslinging in his own party.

He had no choice but to meet the warring factions of the Congress, represented by legislators, parliamentarians and ministers, separately. Even his scheduled meeting with the Governor NN Vohra got delayed while listening to the diametrically opposite views of the party leaders on various key issues of the state polity. The Congress leaders shouted slogans to highlight the split so as to make it cognizable before the Congress high command.

“The situation in the party is not encouraging. The internal disputes have affected the functioning of the government and of the Congress ministers. This (situation) is to the advantage of the National Conference. Our workers are haplessly watching the scene,” admitted a general secretary of the party.
The Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) has virtually broken into two factions, both organizing separate programmes and even propagating divergent ideas on functioning of the government and the political way-forward in Kashmir. Interestingly, most of the showdown takes place in Jammu and New Delhi rather than in Kashmir, where Congress has traditionally remained on margins.

The polarization took place shortly after the Congress high command nominated Prof Saifuddin Soz to head the JKPCC while Ghulam Nabi Azad was included in the union cabinet in the UPA-2 government. Both the leaders are nourishing their own clout to hold sway on the party.

Sources said that Soz enjoys support of the party president Sonia Gandhi. In the second week of January, Soz led a delegation of 40 select Congress leaders to meet a battery of high command leaders in New Delhi including Ms Gandhi, A K Antony, P Chidambaram, Paranab Mukherjee and Motilal Vora. During the trip, Soz got a green signal that he would continue as the JKPCC President though its formal announcement is awaited. His rival faction is demanding change in guard as they still presume Soz to be an outsider in the JKPCC.

To exhibit their strength, the two factions organised parallel functions on the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30 in Jammu. While central leader Satyabrata Chakarborti attended Soz faction’s function, Azad’s Parade Ground rally was the attraction of the day as thousands of his supporters gathered to exhibit their support to the union minister.

Azad also used the occasion to reply to the BJP, which made a failed attempt to hoist tricolour in Lal Chowk but tried to generate a political movement in Jammu. Azad’s show of strength was endorsed by sundry Congress legislators from Doda district, Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand, Ministers Manohar Lal and Shabir Ahmad Khan, Member of Parliament Lal Singh, Legislative Council deputy chairman Arvinder Singh Mikki besides Suman Lata Bhagat, Abdul Ghani Vakil, Gharu Ram and BR Kundal.

The Soz group highlights a ticklish issue that has far-reaching consequences on the functioning of coalition government. Emerging from the meeting with Chidambaram, Soz flanked by former deputy chief minister Mangat Ram Sharma said that the party raised the issue of rotation of the chief minister’s portfolio after completion of first three years of the coalition.

This is in total contrast to the Azad’s point of view on the issue. In his Jammu rally, Azad categorically said that rotation of the CM’s post was finalized when Congress-PDP coalition was formed in 2002 but there was no such proposition at the formation of NC-Congress coalition in 2008. In fact Azad, endorsed National Conference President Farooq Abdulah’s January 5 statement that the issue of the rotation of CM has been settled. “Omar Abdullah will be the chief minister for the full term of six years,” Abdullah had said.

By raising the issue to rotate the CM’s seat, Soz seeks to take cudgels with Omar Abdullah. On the face of it, the NC distances itself from the internal bickering in the Congress, but insiders say that the party is highly perturbed by the oft-repeated statements emanating on the issue. Some party leaders say that the issue indicates to the Congress’ ambitions to take reins of the government. “Soz is Sonia Gandhi’s confidant. He cannot take any stand unless endorsed by the party high command. The NC cannot ignore the threat posed by the Congress,” said a senior provincial leader of the NC.

Significantly, Soz is reminding the state government that he is the most influential leader at the central level. He often meets union ministers to highlight J&K-specific grievances ranging from problems at Srinagar International Airport to woes of the saffron growers of Pampore.

Azad complains that his ministry’s initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir are not being pursued effectively. His predicament is that both state ministers pertaining to his ministry at the Center – health minister Sham Lal Sharma and health education minister Rajinder Singh Chib – are Soz loyalists. Azad had recommended action against Sham Lal when he favoured division of J&K, and advocated Azadi (independence) for the people of Kashmir last year.
    
Sources said that Omar Abdullah is aiming at a cabinet reshuffle where he would clip feathers of some ministers. The Azad lobby is seeking removal of Sham Lal Sharma, R S Chib and Taj Mohiuddin. “This is not possible with Omar Abdullah. He cannot take a decision on selection of ministers. The consultation with Congress high command is a must and Soz’s word cannot be ignored by the Centre,” said a Congress minister.

Observers say that while Soz is sitting pretty in the backdrop of his proximity with Sonia Gandhi, Azad is desperately seeking to keep his contacts intact in the state. This has been his style for many decades when he used to rub shoulders with Mufti Muhamamd Sayeed and Ghulam Rasool Kar. A senior Congressman told Kashmir Life that Azad used to facilitate Congress workers’ visits to New Delhi and their stay in expensive hotels. “These workers were later sent to meet party high command leaders highlighting their loyalty to Azad.

Sometimes fruit traders were picked from Chandni Chowk to pose as Congress workers,” he said.

This time Azad’s purpose is more futuristic. Observers say that it is highly unlikely for the UPA to form a government at the Center for the third time in the backdrop of huge scandals, corruption and inflation. Azad is considered as a shrewd politician, clever enough to understand the writing on the wall. “To sustain his political career, he (Azad) has to make a comeback in state politics. This is the reason as to why he tries to keep his flock together and ensure that Soz fails as leader,” said a senior Jammu based journalist.

However, some party leaders are apprehensive that the party’s internal feud would take a toll on the performance. “The panchayat elections are crucial. It will be interesting to watch whether the Congress has gained some ground in Jammu or the BJP is re-emerging in the region,” the journalist said.

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