What Next?

With 20:20 over, Kashmir’s Reds and Greens are fighting a much tougher battle over the vote later this year. Shah Abbas explains the possible plans and strategies that NC is expected to employ to recover the lost turf and how the PDP is contemplating consolidation of the recent gains

Kashmir-Life-Cover-Page-by-Mir-SuhailDays of exhibiting ‘humble-feeling’ are over. So is the introspection and consultations. After the Lok Sabha polls indicated an unequal balance between Kashmir’s two principal parties, NC and PDP, the real question is what next? J&K is scheduled to go for the assembly polls any time around October 2014.

Things might have slightly tilted had the ruling coalition decided against continuing in office. Bihar government did it and many are following the suit. But a government that has lost ‘near-immortality’ moments at the peak of 2010 unrest and February 2013 in wake of Afzal Guru’s hanging, could not prove courageous this time, too. So the issue of ‘what next?’ becomes more complex.

Targets for the regional rivals are visible. Lok Sabha polls created a scenario that of Kashmir’s 46 assembly segments, 39 are with PDP. Of the remaining seven, four are with NC, one with Congress and two with independents: parties run by Sajjad Lone and Engineer Rashid. PDP also secured Darhal and Mendhar in Poonch besides Rajouri and Surankot. Had this been an assembly election, Mufti Sayeed might have been in the process of swearing in. But that is the saving grace for NC.

So the challenging target for NC is: how to reverse the gains that Mufti’s PDP made in a low poll? For PDP, it is slightly easier: how to retain and consolidate the gains?

The entire exercise to achieve targets has almost started. Any gains or losses in this equation will revive the coalition crisis, for the third time since 2002. If the balance stays at existing level – which is apparently not possible, regardless of the parties, there is every possibility that the coalition era in J&K will be over.

Omar-Abdullah
Omar Abdullah

Well before the Lok Sabha results were out, coalition partners had resorted to slanging matches, accusing each other of ‘not-doing-what-was-expected-of-you’. Congressmen Ghulam Ahmad Mir, and Ghulam Hassan Mir were the first to declare that they failed to get the vote for the coalition candidate. Taj Mohiudin followed and that triggered a fierce verbal war with NC heavyweight of yesteryears Mohammad Shafi Uri.

As the dust settled, the two parties started evaluating the consequences. The first was if they should continue in the government. Though nobody is on record but both the parties are keen to continue. “We have a mandate for the full six year term,” a cabinet minister said. “And these months can give us some time to make corrections.”

It was apparently this spirit that led to a shaken Omar to preside over the brain-storming sessions with his party leaders and senior activists. Initially, he started ‘listening’ people on e-mail and then he decided to open G-1, his Gupkar mansion for the people. Omar himself said he has received more than 2000 e-mails and most of them are not abusive. Abusive commentary had forced an end of Omar’s blogging hobby earlier.

While it would take NC and the political analysts some more time to understand why mass scale creation of administrative units did not reflect in the performance of the coalition government at the husting, Omar seems to have drafted his list of ‘course corrections’. Based on the feedback, Omar believes that three main reasons of NC debacle included killings of 125 youth in 2010 civil unrest, hanging of Afzal Guru and unfriendly ‘new employment policy’.

Off late, Omar has been claiming that he is “actively considering” widening the scope of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) ordered into 17 initial killings in 2010. But the official sources in the government said it is unlikely to happen.

Early last week, Omar’s home minister presided over a meeting with the sole objective of extending the scope of the CoI that has not done anything. The idea got an interesting response. The state law ministry suggested that if the government is keen to have a speedy justice in the civilian killings then the easiest way out is to make police have speedy investigations in the FIRs registered already. Widening the scope of CoI, would mean prolonging an investigation which as per law will require the police investigations. So the better idea is to make police file charge sheet against the accused immediately.

Police was represented by both the top bosses; the former DG Ashok Prasad and the incumbent police chief K Rajindra Kumar. They objected to the idea with two arguments. Firstly, it will demoralize the police force, an argument they had put forward earlier. Secondly, action against stone pelting did not impact the poll results as is being made out. ‘Had it been so, then NC should have lost Khanyar, Haba Kadal and Amira Kadal’, they said. ‘Why should the 2010 action impact Karnah and Kupwara which never had a stone pelting and where coalition government has lost.’ There were no responses and the idea could not move ahead.

But there were many things that Omar believes must be done. After a party worker told Omar that he has shut his doors for the party men, the G-1 mansion was thrown open to everybody. So are the doors of his ministers within and outside the secretariat. Now the people are happy that workers managing Omar’s private office are obliging them with clear instruction chits to the respective offices so that their work is sped up.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed

Prior to the post-defeat cabinet scrapping the New Recruitment Policy, Omar, based on the feedback ordered restoration of the SMS to the pre-paid cell-phone users, a facility he had withdrawn at the peak of 2010 unrest. Other ‘corrective measures’ under consideration are extending the service of employees by two years, managing pay anomalies at various levels and fast-forwarding the recruitment of nearly 40,000 skilled labourers.

Other things in the basket are better ground management on the administrative front and liberally accommodating the respective political workers at the constituency level the choicest officials from civil and political administration.

This, however, did not help the coalition in the Lok Sabha polls. While the opposition had thrown a taint on a senior police officer at the time of his elevation, most of the rowdy elements were checked well before they could upset the polling in Srinagar and elsewhere. Even some women were arrested for being bogus voters. That was why opposition praised the administration for the “good work” after the results were out.

Right now, seeking an apology for sitting silent over Afzal Guru’s hanging is the top priority. Rumours even see power tariff being reduced! There are reports that the government is working overtime to open a number of old cases against at least nine PDP lawmakers.

But will these ‘corrective measures’ undo the losses. It is too early to say. But a general impression is that it has opened a Pandora’s box. The common refrain on facebook and twitter is: If SMS ban was in the interest of administration and was attributed to Home Ministry in Delhi, how it suddenly became so vital for the administration and how it was done at the state level? “To be honest,” says Bashir Ahmad, an avid Whatsapp user, “his revocation of the ban has revived the debate that we had forgotten.”

Ignoring the ‘ridicule’ that these measures are attracting, Omar seems to be in hurry to do everything in rest of his term that he could not in more than five years. It is demolishing the logic that was given for the initiatives which are withdrawn now.

It remains to be seen, how a brief spell of ‘good governance’ will be translated into a political victory. But what is NCs challenger doing to consolidate its gains. There is no clear, well defined strategy that is public but indications suggest a method in madness.

For the party that is representing Kashmir totally in Lok Sabha for the first time, major challenge is how to make them visible in a crowd of 543. Barring a few brief spells including the one that gave Omar a chance to catch the eye of mighty, history suggests that they were noticed when members needed a count.

To ensure they exist, are visible and contribute, party sources said a full-team has been given to them for raising the issues of vital public importance in Kashmir. Party leadership has literally taken the new parliamentarians to a virtual classroom to help them understand the possibility of working in the biggest democratic institution and the expectations the party has from them.

Dr Farooq Abdullah
Dr Farooq Abdullah

Secondly, the party will consistently insist that assembly elections need to be fair. This, they have started saying, is vital for restoring the credibility of the institution and process of democracy. Last week when Tariq Hameed Karra said Delhi must “take tangible measures to address the trust deficit”, he actually was saying this.

Thirdly, party sources said they have not and will not hang the boots. “We are trying to maintain the contact with the masses,” Naeem Akhtar, lawmaker and party spokesman said. To keep the pot boiling the party is sending its MPs back to their constituencies after they return from Delhi, later next week. This time, not for campaigning: just to thank people! Ms Mufti actually had one major meeting in Islamabad last week.

Fourthly, PDP is working to introduce the high-end campaigning that mainland India witnessed in the Lok Sabha polls. “Trust me, it will be something very different from the ways we have been reaching out to the voters,” a party activist associated with the exercise said.

While publicly, the party is projecting its improvement as a major victory, deep inside there is a lurking frustration “We can not be complacent because we know we have certain weak belts. We are not satisfied with what we got in Srinagar,” admitted one senior member on the condition that he stays anonymous. “We did not get what we invested in Jammu and we are very apprehensive over the polarization that the region witnessed.”

The party member said their emphasis is on three fronts: vote share, seats and good will. “From Jammu, if we do not have many seats and lot of vote share, we still require an acceptance, a goodwill which is must for governing the state,” he asserted.

One thing that the Greens and the Reds will be fighting this season is the mantra of development. In last five years, J&K state has invested something around Rs 50,000 crore on development alone. During the Lok Sabha campaigning, Omar has been telling people that he is deliberately skipping the development part of his story which he will be revealing during assembly elections. NC is in the process of creating its developmental activity map.

Voters-outside-Polling-Booth
Voters outside a Polling Booth Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Though PDP is highly unlikely to counter Omar’s developmental contributions, the party, however, has drafted in detail the flaws. They are planning an emphasis on political corruption, alleged institutional failure and policy flaws, this season.

But it all depends on how Congress behaves in coming days and what Election Commission thinks. There are four other states slated to have assembly elections this year and there is a possibility of early polls, apparently much earlier than parties believe.

On continuation of the government, Congress is on the same page that NC has written. But party leadership within the state is under pressure that there should not be a pre-poll alliance. This is despite the fact that both parties understand that fighting PDP separately can be more problematic. There are chances that Congress may checkmate ‘fast-going’ Omar at a point that suits it politically and bids a good bye.

Various party leaders have suggested the party leadership that instead of reversing what the coalition has done in last five-and-a-half years, the party must announce candidates for the assembly constituencies so that the individuals start working. “It becomes a crisis when the mandates are announced at the last moment,” a party leader said on the condition of anonymity. “Since there are various individuals keen to get party mandate when one is chosen at the last moment, it triggers a backlash. If the mandates are announced right now, the individual and the party will be in a better position to manage the mess.”

This, they argue, will prevent a crisis that happened in anticipation of the Lok Sabha polls. Omar Abdullah had indicated the leadership that they should start identifying the candidates for three seats. He, according to party sources, was keen not to repeat either of the three candidates including Dr Farooq Abdullah. But Omar was surprised when Dr Farooq Abdullah announced in Hazratbal that the party will be repeating the incumbent candidates. That killed the initiative.

The party leadership has also been advised to oblige the Congress which is desperate to fight the assembly elections on its own. This idea was put forth by the party leaders during Lok Sabha as well. The argument was that if Congress fields Salman Soz and Ghulam Ahmad Mir from south and north Kashmir, it will reduce the margins. But party leaders could do nothing when Omar Abdullah told the meeting that he has returned from Delhi after reaching an understanding with the Congress that the two will go together.

Kashmir politics is not different from its weather. An event can wash everything and trigger a new chapter. Everybody, these days, is keeping the fingers crossed. So let us wait.

Post Script

This copy is slightly modified version of what appeared in the print edition on Saturday.

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