‘Secular’ (Hand)Shake

From 61 in 1967 to 12 seats in 2014, the Indian National Congress’s ‘hand’ has lost its touch of ‘secularism’ in the state over the years. Though the party established itself as a ‘default’ coalition partner post-2002, but recently it scored poor to extend its ‘hand’ for a coalition handshake, reports Bilal Handoo

Congress-leaders-and-HandThe oldest political party of India went to 2014 assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir without promising alliance to its estranged coalition partner, National Conference. Congress was on task at a time when “Mission 44+” appeared lock, stock and barrel in the ballot battleground of Jammu and Kashmir. That’s why – perhaps: the party didn’t reveal its poll card. The idea was simple: Let independents contest and fragment the electoral space; and thus: impact NC’s vote-bank! In this situation, Congress saw itself in a ‘win-win’ situation. So, the strategy – though noiseless, was never a missing link for the party harping on “secularism” agenda.

The party contested polls assuming that post-2002, only Congress has been a constant partner in government formation – either with NC, or PDP. But this mindset turned out a complete “political naivety” on part of Congress in the face of Modi “wave” that had gripped Jammu province – where Congress was well placed. And when the ballot was finally put to count on December 23, it came to the fore: Congress scored poor coalition numbers.

Congress that shifted all anti-incumbency factor of previous NC-INC coalition government to NC, saw its bigwigs tasting dust. From Chammb, Tara Chand lost with a huge margin; from Akhnoor, the Congressman Sham Lal Sharma, who wished to install “Hindu CM” in Muslim majority state couldn’t even book assembly berth again. And from Gandhinagar (where BJP’s Navjot Singh Sidhu was stoned during poll campaign), Congress’s Raman Bhalla was dethroned. Till the time numbers were out, Congress (cashing in on the Panchayati Raj feat) was reduced to mere 12 seats: 3 in Ladakh (Kargil, Leh and Nubra), 4 in Kashmir (Bandipora, Sopore, Shangus and Devsar) and 5 in Jammu (Surankote, Inderwal, Gool Arnas, Gulabgarh and Banihal).

From 17 in 2008 to 12 seats in 2014, Congress’s powerful negotiating position got eroded. The minimal seats scored by Congress from Jammu is attributed to Modi “wave” that started building in the province after Modi addressed his ‘Lalkar rally’ last winter.

Congress battling with its fluctuating past has entered into the local legends because of its “desperation” for Kashmir right from the Nehruvian day. Sheikh Abdullah-led NC allied with Indian National Congress (INC) than with the All-India Muslim League at the time of India’s partition. It is believed that behind first generation Abdullah’s India tilt was the brain of congressman and former Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru (a Kashmiri pandit known for keeping Chanakya’s Astharshastra – the book on statecraft – under his pillow).

But the history of Congress (that had liberal nationalism its war-cry during British raj) dated to the time when Nehru’s ancestors were shifting from Kashmir to Indian plains. It was 1885 when the members of the Theosophical Society headed by the British civil servant Allan Octavian Hume established INC or Congress to play a pivotal role in the Indian freedom struggle against the British rule. The grand old party has centre-left position than BJP’s right-wing religious nationalist ideology.

After the sundown over Dogra rule in Kashmir, Indian government headed by INC didn’t challenge the NC rule in J&K due to “close” ties between the two premiers. With the result, Congress postponed its plan to open its unit in Jammu and Kashmir. But the old equations started dissolving after Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad replaced Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s government in 1953. Bakshi was allegedly a congressman in the skin of Nation’nalle.

At the time when Bakshi was ruling the state, Congress in mainland India began identifying itself with Tatas and Birlas. By 1967, INC was a divided house headed by Indira Gandhi who was in the line of fire over her failure to win the Hindu belt of India. The bitter outcome was round the corner: Congress got divided. Indira Gandhi headed one faction – Congress (R) or the ‘New Congress’; while the official and original Congress party led by Kamaraj came to be called Indian National Congress (Organization), or the ‘Old Congress’. However, soon the Election Commission of India intervened and identified the ‘New Congress’ as the official Congress.

Two years before the split, Congress had successfully setup its small unit in Kashmir, known as the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC), present at the state-level in every state or pradesh. Together, the delegates of the PCCs form the All India Congress Committee (AICC) – INC’s highest decision-making body.

And soon, NC’s ‘plough’ was pitted against Congress’ ‘right hand’ – a symbol of “strength, energy and unity”. The symbol was selected by Indira Gandhi led Congress (R), which later came to be recognized as the official Congress. The original Congress had a symbol of ‘two bullocks with plough’.

Congress managed to win highest seats in state in 1967 and 1972, winning respectively 61 and 58 seats (of then total 75 seats). During that period GM Sadiq and Mir Qasim were holding Congress’s fort in Kashmir. Peoples Democratic Party’s patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (a former congressman) is often being accused by NC as a “lieutenant” of Sadiq and Qasim at a time “when one constitutional injustice after another was handed over to the people of Kashmir by these leaders”.

Those “constitutional injustices” – which have become NC’s war-cry (against PDP) reflect Congress’s deep “state apparatus”.

And, it all started in 1963 when Bakshi, an alleged Congress subservient, had to step down following disappearance of holy relic of Prophet Mohammad from Hazratbal Shrine, triggering massive protests across valley. On October 12, 1963 Khawaja Shamasudin became J&K’s prime minister who was removed on February 29, 1964 and paved a way for Sadiq to become the new PM of the state after a majority of NC leaders (loyal to Bakshi) deserted the party and joined INC.

Sadiq – the congressman ruling disputed Jammu and Kashmir reportedly allowed Congress to fiddle with constitutional positions of the state. The results were on the cards. In 1965, the J&K constitution was amended and the nomenclature of Sadar-i- Riyast and Wazir-e-Azam were changed to Governor and Chief Minister respectively. And with that, Sadiq became the first chief minister and the last prime minister of the state.

Two years later in 1967, INC got an absolute majority in the state assembly under the leadership of Sadiq winning 61 seats. Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) won three seats, while Bakshi-led NC got just eight seats. But the opposition group demanded termination of the assembly, citing electoral malpractices. This led to a stiff opposition. Several candidates filed petition that forced the judiciary to declare eight candidates invalid.

But much to his own ignorance, Sadiq (the founder of Congress in J&K) was the part of “ploy hatched” by Congress-led New Delhi government in Kashmir in absence of the incarcerated leader of “masses”, Sheikh Abdullah. The era witnessed “exploitation” by Congress that eventually rendered the special status of Kashmir hollow, as NC alleges every now and then. It was nothing but New Delhi’s “use and throw” politics, later admitted by the Congress chief minister, Mir Qasim, in his memoir. “I and Sadiq were recognized as proverbial Jonathan and David in Kashmir politics but Congress used its old machinations in making us political rivals and enemies,” he wrote.

Whenever Congress-led New Delhi government felt a leader in Kashmir was getting too big to his shoes, it employed Machiavellian method to cut him to size, Qasim wrote: “This it does by projecting a lesser leader… by overt or covert campaign.”

“Sadiq’s story is a narrative of how a Kashmiri leader appeased a nationalist Indian agenda of eroding J&K’s special status to operative perfection,” Sumantra Bose points out in his book, ‘Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace’. Pertinently, Article 356 and 357 of the Indian Constitution were extended to J&K in December 1964 during Sadiq’s era (“the biggest single erosion of the state’s special status”).

After Sadiq died on December 12, 1971, Mir Qasim won the 1972 elections amid charges of rigging which he later accepted in his memoirs. In fact, Sheikh M Abdullah too termed 1972 elections as “unabashed fraud” on democracy. Besides, the former governor of J&K, BK Nehru acknowledged the same in his memoirs ‘Nice Guys Finish Second’, “that elections in Kashmir have indeed been rigged in the past”. This, and more, kept happening under the very nose of Congress in Kashmir.

Under the leadership of Qasim, INC got 58 seats in 1972 Assembly polls. BJS got three and Jamait-e-Islami (JeI) five. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, now heading one faction of Hurriyat, participated in polls on JeI ticket for the first time in 1972 and won.

Qasim remained chief minister till February 25, 1975 when he stepped down to pave way for Sheikh Abdullah to become the chief minister following Indira-Sheikh accord. However, Congress withdrew support to Sheikh following which President’s rule was imposed in the state from March 26, 1977 to July 9, 1977. Abdullah became the chief minister after NC got majority in the 1977 polls. (Interestingly, post-1977 polls, Congress reportedly instructed some Kashmiri leaders: “Don’t look towards the all India parties. Instead, launch regional parties with soft-separatism to shrink space for the popular narrative.” Many say, what Congress sowed in late-seventies started sprouting in the years to come: “feud, fragment and floating of fresh factions.”)

By 1984, Congress was back to business. That year Dr Farooq Abdullah’s government was toppled by his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah with the help of Congress – that later also withdrew support to Shah. As a result, President’s rule was imposed in the state from March 6, 1986 till November 7, 1986 when fresh elections were held. The rest (that followed) can be described as the 3-R history – rigging, rage and rebellion!

When ballot exercise returned to state in 1996, Congress secured 7, BJP 8 and NC 57 seats of total 87 seats. Six years later in 2002, the resurgent Congress won 20 and ended up getting 17 seats in 2008.

Mostly governed by NC, Mufti Sayeed (who launched his party PDP in 1999) became the first non-NC chief minister of the state on November 2, 2002 with Congress support. The PDP agreed to rule the state for three years each in coalition. Later on November 5, 2005 congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad replaced Mufti as state chief minister.

Omar Abdullah became chief minister with the support of the Congress after no party got majority in 2008 polls. NC emerged largest single party with 28 seats. (Here is the underlining: Sonia Gandhi declared in November 2002 and January 2009 that she handed over the office of the chief minister to Mufti and Omar Abdullah in the ‘national interest’. Miss Gandhi is the only person in position to decipher the meaning of her phrase, rest have given up deconstructing it!)

By the time Omar reached on the cusp of losing power in 2014, he was miffed with seasoned congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad for speaking some “nasty words” against his family. The fissures that had already deepened in Omar-led NC-INC coalition government in state touched new low when Omar advised Azad to recollect the “communal hatred and regional frenzy” created by him as chief minister of the state in 2008. It was in the backdrop of this mudslinging that further created rift between NC and INC.

The coalition divorce from NC made Congress top brass to “woo” PDP for the next government formation. An old friend of Mufti Sayeed, Congress’s ML Fotedar reportedly worked behind the scenes to keep BJP at bay in Jammu and Ladakh. In fact, it is said, some Congress nominees were recommended by Mufti who ‘understands the very pulse’ of J&K. Besides, Azad and Soz got together to bury differences. Though the fractured mandate ended up devouring five seats of Congress, but the ‘secular’ party had its own poll game plan, though not as loud as that of BJP’s.

A few days before people fell in serpentine lines in front of polling booths in Jammu, BJP’s star campaigner, Narendra Modi took a dig at Congress during his Rajouri rally (on Dec 13), saying the party sneaks into the government in J&K and gets away with all the benefits, “and then they [Congress] say, they are against this government, and that the government has done all wrong.”

While analysing PM’s words, many say, Modi “wave” wouldn’t have entered in Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal region but to fragment the regional vote. Perhaps what Modi said about Congress (perceived as a lesser evil than the trident wielding Hindutva brigade) during his Rajouri rally deconstructed the ‘secular’ party and its politics.

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