Saving Rahul’s Pilot Project

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Soz, Omar and Rahul in Srinagar

Almost everybody referred to in this report will deny it. But this is exactly what happened last fortnight in Srinagar, Jammu and Delhi. Omar Abdullah’s government survived by top intervention from Sonia Gandhi for whom Abdullah government is son Rahul Gandhi’s pilot project is important. KASHMIR LIFE reports.

It all started at the peak of unrest during Shopian crisis. Omar Abdullah government’s handling of the crisis and the subsequent developments related to security forces had set tongues wagging everywhere. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the former chief minister air-dashed to Jammu to a rousing welcome on June 10. Interestingly, he had not informed the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) about his visit officially and the reception was organized by Azad supporters at their own level. For about a week long stay in J&K, the Union Health & Family Affairs minister visited many parts of the state especially Bhaderwah, his home town that has finally offered him a constituency after over three decades.

Informed sources suggest that Azad in his routine speeches was a bit critical of the government especially on the development front. He had talked about specific projects on which there has been no work after the new government took over.
In Srinagar, he is reported to have had dinner with his friend and erstwhile Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Beig, a senior PDP leader. The two discussed the prevailing situation and it was during the course of discussion that Azad desired to meet his “classmate” Sartaj Madni. A legislator representing Devsar for the second consecutive term, Madni is Mufti Sayeed’s brother-in-law.

Nobody knows who arranged the meeting but Madni did meet Azad. The two, reports indicate, discussed the problems they faced in the earlier alliance and finally Azad suggested reviving the old association. He suggested the proposal be discussed by the PDP with the possibility of Ms Mehbooba Mufti being inducted a Deputy to a Congress Chief Minister, probably Azad himself.

The emissary straightaway drove to the Fairview Guest House and briefed his president Ms Mehbooba Mufti. An emergency meeting was called and as Mufti Sayeed was briefed about the agenda, he lost his cool. He told Madni that such proposals could not be entertained by the party. Everybody left Fairview in desperation thinking the power was knocking at the door but the old man does not want it. Azad’s plan was that PDP must come with a no confidence motion and it would be supported by many Congressmen. Instead of using these methods, Mufti suggested, Congress better send a two-liner to the governor telling him that the government lacks their support.

Since all these activities were taking place behind the curtains of the fortified mansions, not a single sentence was reported anywhere. But that does not mean the incumbent government was caught unawares. It knew of the speeches and the meetings and was aware that some officers from police and civil administration were staying with Azad till past midnight. It had already secured the records of the speeches that were aimed at hitting the government.

Later when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah flew to Delhi to explain his position on the CRPF withdrawal and army deployment in Baramulla, he carried the records along. But not much is clear about what it had against Soz barring the tussle with Azad that had delayed cabinet expansion. Omar briefed almost everybody who matters in the central government and the AICC. He was reassured, and asked to dedicate his time for the government, tackling situation more politically than administratively, while AICC would take care of the problems from its side.

It was only after that Sonia Gandhi on July 7, had a separate close door meetings with Azad and Soz. They were grilled over “conspiring” against Abdullah government. They were told to suggest and implement administrative and security reforms they want to “without impacting” Omar as chief minister of the state.

A day after, a senior Congress leader invited select reporters and briefed them about Congress high command’s efforts to check its leaders in J&K. He said Soz and Azad were sternly warned by Mrs Gandhi for using Omar’s “visible inexperience and style of functioning” to bring his government down.

Mrs Gandhi has a vested interest to ensure Omar’s government full term. It is the pilot project of his son and AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi, a known friend of Omar. Omar’s failure could impact future course of Congress blueprint about brining about a generation shift in Indian politics, especially the Congress.

Phasing out the aged started with Maharashtra but Omar being the most talked about face – on youtube and media after his parliament speech, it marks the start of that shift. The idea is to train a fresh team in statecraft at the state level so that in next 10 years they are able to handle major responsibilities at the centre. The plan envisages sending Rahul Gandhi as the next Chief Minister of UP after two years wherefrom he will move to handle the top responsibility in New Delhi. But failure on Omar front could raise many question marks over the wisdom of generation shift.

But the warning to the two leaders triggered another row. They came in open against each other. It was Azad who started by sending a lengthy letter to the media in J&K (but not in Delhi). He said the alliance relation was “harmonious” enjoying “fullest confidence of the people across the three regions” but insisted that certain “mischievous and frivolous” reports about “destabilizing” the state government emanated from “an accidental”, “double-mouthed” “mischievous politician” who has “deficient political perception and lesser public relevance” (read Soz).

After bringing down the Vajpayee government , Soz emerged as the symbol of secularism in the Congress and was adequately rewarded. Apart from being a minister, he replaced Azad in almost all the party positions. Now Soz is likely to become part of the phase out plan and Azad will still play part of his innings as age is on his side.

“Crest fallen, unhappy and unable to reconcile with the contours of the new government at the centre as well as the present coalition in J&K one disgruntled, disaffected leader of J&K has now embarked upon a disinformation and slander campaign aimed at discomfiting my person besides embarrassing the party and the coalition government in the state as if to give vent to a pent-up frustration”, Azad said in his lengthy statement. “The fact of the matter is that during my stint as the J&K Chief Minister this very gentleman was hobnobbing with the PDP leadership to extract petty concessions which I would neither encourage nor consider — supping with them, yet playing up their insecurity and confounding confusion in their minds at that time with manufactured tales of my working in tandem with the NC just to earn their confidence and friendly proximity”.

Suggesting PDP to be a “constructive opposition”, Azad attacked its “self-centred elements” heavily. “Perhaps it will be wiser for such people (not identified) and his impatient, desperate friends in the PDP to respect the people’s verdict give their own disgruntled ambitions a much-needed rest and instead continue supporting the coalition government that has an onerous task ahead,” he added.

Soz was already getting a bad press for announcing the portfolios of the Congress ministers on July 11 in presence of Prithyvi Raj Chouhan. The unprecedented action had sent Omar writing a letter to AICC. Subsequent reports planted in the vernacular press that he is being replaced by Choudhary Aslam added to his woes.

So when Azad’s statement came, Soz was literally disarmed. He had nothing much to say except that he was not behind the reports about Azad adventures.

“A two-page document full of ire against my person (his ghost writer going to the extreme, in slander) is unbecoming of a senior leader,” Soz said in his brief statement. “I categorically say that I had not spoken to anybody in these newspapers, the papers that carried certain details regarding warming up of the person toward PDP to destabilize the NC-Congress coalition. I have no knowledge on the background of these stories”.

“What the leader had spoken to groups of people during his long tours of the J&K State recently and the leaks of his speeches is now public knowledge. All the stories on that tour appeared in various newspapers. As for the particular stories, against which he directed his ire and extreme anger against me, the names of journalists had also appeared and the truth could easily be nailed if he had tried to do so,” he said.

“It is politically absurd and ethically obnoxious to indulge in character assassination and blackmail of the kind his statement reflected. If he is prepared to nail the truth and proves my involvement, I will apologise publicly. The media persons in the length and breadth of the state know me for not saying anything off the record. There was absolutely no justification for the leader to lose his cool and go to the extreme of indecency, unnecessarily.” Though the reports that Soz is being replaced by Choudhary Aslam were denied, the crisis exists. He has already gone to knock the doors of 10-Janpath.

After the cabinet expansion, another crisis emerged. Many people in Congress and NC hoping to get a berth became very angry. Mohammad Sharief Niaz came openly against Saroori though both are staunch Azad loyalists. Grapevine is that Azad had suggested accommodation of both but Mrs Gandhi, who finalised the names of ministers from a list submitted by Chauhan, had approved only Saroori.

In NC, there were protests. Supporters of Irfan Shah, Choudhary Ramzan, Shameema Firdous drove to Dr Abdullah’s residence resorting to fierce sloganeering and even symbolic stone pelting blocking the Gupkar Road for over an hour. This led to Dr Abdullah’s intervention saying that all legislators can not be inducted in the cabinet and those who want to leave can leave.

“It is God who runs the party. If they want to leave they can. If they want to stay, they are most welcome,” Abdullah was reported telling his legislators. It only helped Mubarak Gul to get a cabinet rank though he has nothing much to do as adviser to Chief Minister.

But things are yet to stabilize. The disgruntled had approached PDP but they have not been entertained the request of a meeting. PDP sources said they have a simple principle – if somebody is unhappy with the party, he better resign and contest afresh. But that does not mean PDP has burned its bridges with Congress. At the peak of Shopian crisis, Muftis’ had a dinner with two top Congress leaders in Delhi. Even sources in BJP tell Kashmir Life that some legislators (claimed to be 11) had approached a senior BJP leader seeking support but were told that it makes no combination because PDP is unlikely to support such a combination.

But the question still remains, why Azad is tired of Congress’s romance with NC? At personal level in his tenure he was keen to have NC as an ally and at one point of time met Omar Abdullah to get re-assured the party will back him. Any plausible explanation?

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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