Eighteen months down the line, optimism and hopes have turned into despair for Omar Abdullah, putting a question on his fate as chief minister. As Iftikhar Gilani reports NC-Congress have always been uneasy for the two parties and costly for Kashmir.
Ahead of 2008 assembly elections in Kashmir, the wheel had turned a full circle. Congress MP Sachin Pilot from Rajasthan had stepped into shoes of his late father Rajesh Pilot, a former Union Minister, to broker yet another deal between the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi and the National Conference (NC) to anoint Omar Abdullah as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Twenty-two years ago, Rajesh Pilot had stepped in to sew up a relation between young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Dr. Farooq Abdullah.
Rajiv-Farooq accord, ending a bitter feud between the two parties, however, sent the state into an unending turmoil. The accord coupled with a rigged election of 1987 fathered militancy. Rajiv’s aides confide that he had rued this accord later. Soon after the downfall of V P Singh, Rajiv Gandhi had asked Chandershekhar to induct one of the NC MPs in his Cabinet. As Chandershekhar rang up Dr. Abdullah, then camping in Mumbai to nominate one of his MPs for the ministerial birth, he took first flight next day to Delhi, positioned himself for the cabinet birth. Rajiv Gandhi, however, put his foot down, realising it would be another recipe for disaster. Instead he told his aides to convey Farooq to concentrate in Kashmir, as he was the president of the only mainstream Kashmiri political party available to fight a political battle against separatists and militants.
Abdullahs, however, time and again have exhibited a lust for power, come whatsoever, backing either the Congress or the BJP. Dismayed Abdullah did not spare any of his MP to take oath. He himself chose to stay in London, till H D Devigowda and his aide C M Ibrahim convinced him to return to contest 1996 elections.
Again while aligning with the BJP-led NDA, the NC with five MPs was entitled to get a cabinet birth in the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee led government as per the power-sharing formula within the alliance partners. But it chose a junior portfolio to employ Omar Abdullah and block ministerial births to its senior MPs late Ali Mohammad Naik or Abdul Rashid Shaheen.
The Congress initially had tried to tread carefully in entering into any poll alliance ahead of 2008 elections. But Sachin, a son-in-law of Dr Farooq Abdullah, had quietly prepared ground of a post poll Congress-NC alliance. He was also the man behind the scene getting the NC around to support the government in the trust vote in the Lok Sabha in July 2008. Former RAW chief A S Dulat, who had way back projected Omar as next chief minister, despite the NC backing elder Abdullah as next head of government, was also coordinating with Pilot.
Former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had been also campaigning for long for a full-fledged alliance with the NC since his alliance partner Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) started showing tantrums and ultimately rocked his government. Taking credit for NC’s poll performance, Azad is confiding in private that the grand old party of Kashmir would not have got more than 13-14 seats in 2008 assembly elections, if he had not backed the party, though there was not a formal alliance between the two.
Sachin is believed to have convinced the Abdullahs who run the NC as their fiefdom that their relationship with the Congress would be good for Kashmiris as well as good for the nation. Little did he realise that NC-Congress combination has always proved a lethal recipe for Kashmir. Be that 1950 Jawaharlal Nehri-Sheikh Abdullah tie-up, 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord or the 1986 Rajiv-Farooq accord.
There were many in Kashmir to believe that people have still not forgiven the NC for the tie-up with the national party that has bestowed upon them two decades of harassment by the central forces and the militants.”The Abdullah’s are trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound,” says a senior NC leader who wouldn’t like to be quoted.
At the beginning of 2009, Omar Abdullah rode to power amidst hope and optimism as he was starting his innings on a clean slate. One-and-half year down the line, hopes have turned into despair. The biggest question ominous in Srinagar is whether the young chief minister can deliver for full six years. The ghosts of his performance during Shopian crises and apparently a wily bureaucracy is out to prove him a failed administrator.
At the outset, his government started on a bad omen in January 2009.
Soon he took over; first cabinet meeting he presided was called to declare state mourning and condole death of his uncle and former chief minister G M Shah. Two days after, troops shot a deaf and dumb villager in his neighbourhood. Troops said the slain Abdul Rashid Rishi, 45, was planning a ‘fidayeen’ attack. The allegations were, however, later found unfounded.
The last time Omar generated some good will was when he ordered the shifting of Bomai Rashtriya Rifles camp. He also earned moral high ground by his sudden resignation on the floor of assembly after the senior PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Beg accused him of being involved in the infamous sex scam. But his inability to punish the troopers of the Bomai camp who murdered two local youth let much wanting.
Call it short sightedness, political immaturity or New Delhi’s heavy grip, Abdullah’s two populist slogans of withdrawal of troops and revocation of AFSPA met a dead end. Army has made it clear that there would be no reduction in troop strength in Kashmir even if violence comes down. The AFSPA revocation was also vehemently opposed by everyone ranging from army to BJP. Ultimately New Delhi has to decide on any amendment in AFSPA leave alone revoking it. On phased withdrawal of CRPF, Abdullah himself seemed to backtrack presumably under New Delhi’s pressure. His assurances for securing withdrawal ended with a statement that overnight replacement of CRPF by police was not possible.
More worrisome for the chief minister is the grand old party of Kashmir, the National Conference (NC) is fast loosing grip while attempting to appease its coalition partner the Congress. During both assembly as well as Lok Sabha polls it polled less popular vote than its rival PDP.
During Lok Sabha polls 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, 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.”
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, had so much impact in the society that the Sheikh die-hards would not even attend the funerals of their opponents.
Later, in wake of Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975, Sheikh became the chief minister as head of a Congress house.
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.
Analysts here believe that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has a vested interest to ensure Omar’s government full term. It is the pilot project of his son and future prime minister Rahul Gandhi, a known friend of Omar. Omar’s failure could impact future course of Congress blueprint about bringing about a generation shift in Indian politics, especially the Congress. This has led the Congress high command to summarily dismiss demands of their own party members to dislodge Omar in view of popular mood going against him. The party, has, however, publicly admonished the young Abdullah to change his style of functioning, lest his failure casts a shadow on the political prospects of Rahul Gandhi.
Congress party’s in charge general secretary of Jammu and Kashmir and Union Minister Prithviraj Chavan here said that CM’s frequent trips to Delhi and elsewhere have upset the party. “We are concerned that he does not sit in his office and perform his duties as expected. Omar must change his style of functioning,” he said.
Senior Congress leaders say, they are concerned somewhat at the childish and sentimental attitude of junior Abdullah. They point out his Ladakah trip with his family when Srinagar was on fire. And from Ladakh, instead of returning to Srinagar, he drove with his family to Kulu-Manali. They even talk about the state helicopter making nine sorties to airlift relatives of Payal Singh, wife of Chief Minister to visit Ladakh monasteries.
Congress circles feel that Omar’s requisition for calling in Army in Sopore and Baramulla without consulting the coalition partner was highly uncalled for. Just a day ahead he and his law minister had criticised the CRPF.
Meanwhile, a group of 47 Congress leaders led by Ladakah strongman P Namgiyal recently asked Congress president Sonia Gandhi to revive rotational power-sharing arrangement in Jammu and Kashmir. The group loyal to Union Health Minister Ghulam Nab Azad had primarily called on Gandhi to complain about their lack of voice in the State Congress affairs.
Their visit coincided a letter 10-Janpath has received from a senior State Congress leader close to Azad. He has warned of a repeat of 1990 like situation if current dispensation continues in power in Srinagar.
The letter says that all the gains both political and economic accrued by the previous coalition government have been fritted away.
Union Home Secretary G K Pillai, who visited Srinagar to assess situation along with the director general of military operations (DGMO) had told his bosses that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah failed to respond the situation politically and maintained that his reactions were “knee jerk” and created more panic. Sources in the Home Ministry here drew parallels between Telengana agitation handled by the deceased Chief Minister Raja Shekhar Reddy and the current bout of violence in Kashmir.
“Definitely there is a difference. CM of Andhra Pradesh was out in public, conducting all-party meetings, meeting people and moving around,” they told KL, even though the comparison between the two situation would be unrealistic. They point out that “such political pro-activeness was missing in Kashmir.” Home Ministry had advised the Chief Minister to begin consultations with legislators and call an all-party meeting to defuse the situation.
During his interactions with Omar, Home Secretary has reportedly asked for deliverance on the part of Sate government, conveying that Central government on its part has fulfilled all his demands even approving plan without any delay and requisitions. He has even suggested of bringing some changes in security deployment plan. Home Ministry believes that deployment should be concentrated at one place rather scattered to give a psychological edge. The thin deployment makes forces vulnerable to attacks from stone-pelters.
Sources here said Home Secretary at a meeting of officials has also expressed need that Kashmiris should also understand India and its compulsions rather complaining that India does not understand them.
Asked about the reports whether a part of violence in Kashmir was being engineered, Home Ministry sources said they have laid hands on some money transfers from Dubai being sent to instigate violence. “The transfers in smaller numbers maximum upto to Rs. 10 lakh have been sourced to Dubai having being transferred though Western Union exchangers,” they added. However, they said the sleuths have not yet traced the Pakistan origin of money.
Further, they said intercepted conversations between different individuals and extremist elements has also revealed deliberate attempts to plan and execute not just violence, but fatalities. But, sources said there was a recognition of “genuine” and “spontaneous” protests and “anger” that will have to be tackled politically.
Official sources further clarified that government was willing to re-start a dialogue process once a semblance of normalcy returns to Kashmir. They said the government was thinking that once normalcy restored and law and order is under control, all shades of opinion could be invited for a dialogue to evolve a political solution.
Despite these procrastinations, Congress high command does not favour taking in reins directly in its hands in Srinagar. As Congress president does not want to get involved in Kashmir affairs, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh believes a wily local partner sharing power with Congress would be a “buffer” between Srinagar and New Delhi. The party still believes that Amarnath shrine controversy raked by during Congress government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad dented party’s image and helped BJP to recover not only in Jammu region, but create a ruckus elsewhere as well.
Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s recent heaping of praise on Omar during his Srinagar visit has also not gone down well with the official and intelligence circles. Highly placed sources here told KL that Home Minister P. Chidambaram did share an intelligence assessment which called for rolling of political head to calm situation. However, there was consensus to put top security officers to task. They also asked for an assessment of the working of police chief Kuldeep Khoda.
When Prime Minister was showering encomiums on young chief minister in Srinagar, little did he realise that his own office had presented to him a damning report on the tardy progress of a Rs 24,000-crore reconstruction plan he had announced six years ago to fast-track development of Jammu and Kashmir.
The report on gross delay on the part of the State Government in implementation of half the projects under the PM’s plan has been prepared by the Delivery Monitoring Unit (DMU) set up in the PMO under the PM’s principal secretary T K A Nair to keep track of the UPA government’s flagship programmes.
It says only half of the 67 projects that the Prime Minister had sanctioned during two-day trip to Srinagar in November 2004 have been completed so far. These included expansion of economic infrastructure to provide basic services and give a thrust to locals’ employment as also schemes for providing relief and rehabilitation to victims of militancy and families uprooted from the Kashmir valley.
Dr Manmohan Singh’s reconstruction plan included a project to bring electricity to all villages of Jammu and Kashmir by March this year, but the state government now says it will be completed only by March 2012. The DMU report says only 40 per cent work has been done till now on the project for which an agreement was signed between the state government and the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) of the Centre back in 2005. “The state government has noted the concern of the ministry of power regarding slow progress, security and non-availability of manpower,” the report said.
The PM’s plan included upgradation of the Jammu Medical College to the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) level under Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana (PMSSY). The DMU report says the progress on this upgradation is so slow that it can not meet the
The Centre had deposited Rs 276.90 lakhs in 2006-07 for land
acquisition required for the Uri-Salamabad-Kamanpost road project for the Prime Minister’s dream project of cross LoC-trade. But the land is yet to be handed over to the Border Road Organisation (BRO) which was to construct the road up to the Line of Control (LoC).
“There is no progress since last review dated May 31, 2009. Chief Secretary has agreed to review all land acquisition cases. No progress report has been received from State Government,” the DMU report said.
It also lamented that another road project for providing access to Swalkot was sanctioned at an estimated cost of Rs 119 crores, but there is hardly any progress.
Also the power transmission and distribution network involving 67 schemes (32 Grid Stations and 35 Transmission Lines) is witnessing the same slow progress, the report said. It said only 48 per cent work has been completed as only seven grid stations and eight transmission lines are in place so far.
With this record of utilisation of funds, Prime Minister’s new slew of sops amounting to over Rs 1,000 crore including restoration of cuts amounting to about Rs 400 crore to the state plan outlay does not exude much confidence. The performance of the state administration in handling day to day issues has also been causing worry in military circles. At a recent television programme focusing on human rights violations in the context of recent fake encounter, while young Abdullah expressed his anguish at rising graph of violations by men in uniform, former army chief Gen(R) VP Malik bluntly retorted: ‘Improve your governance and there will be no need for the army to intervene’.
It does seem that chronic poor governance in Srinagar and Jammu has attracted Dr. Singh’s attention. His idea of focusing on governance rather political initiatives may not yield results in the face of an absence of close and period monitoring system.