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It is introspection time for Congress in J&K

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The Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, with the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and Ms Mehbooba Mufti... Will Ms Gandhi heed the instinct which tells her to allow the Mufti Government to complete its term or will she capitulate to the aspirations of Congressmen from the State? Shanker Chakravarty
The Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, with the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and Ms Mehbooba Mufti... Will Ms Gandhi heed the instinct which tells her to allow the Mufti Government to complete its term or will she capitulate to the aspirations of Congressmen from the State? Shanker Chakravarty

Rasheeda Bhagat

IT IS introspection time for the Congress vis-à-vis its turn to take on the reins of administration in Jammu and Kashmir. The party's pact with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's People's Democratic party (PDP) to share the chief ministership of the State on a three-year basis is coming up for redemption. But though justice and fair play stipulate that the Congress (I) should have a shot at the Chief Minister's post, ground realities in the State and a fairly decent job that the Mufti had done in the last three years in this turmoil-afflicted State, demand that he be allowed to carry on.

Unlike in other States, the J&K Assembly has a six-year term and for the first time in its history, when the 2002 elections threw up a fractured verdict and, mercifully enough, it emerged the single largest party with 29 legislators in a House of 87, the ruling National Conference (NC) did not make any serious attempt to form a government.

Mr Omar Abdullah, who was anointed the party chief before the elections and who was the NC's chief ministerial candidate, lost in Ganderbal, considered to be the safest seat for the Abdullah family. With the NC out of the race and Abdullah junior making it clear that his party will sit in the Opposition, it was up to the PDP and the Congress (I) to cobble up a coalition with help from the CPI(M)'s two MLAs and some of the 15 Independents. Despite the Congress (I) having a larger number of legislators 20 against the PDP's 16 in a House of 87 the PDP managed to drive a hard bargain and insisted on having its chief minister if the coalition was to rule the State.

After a lot of bickering, the Grand Old Party gave in; it is doubtful if it would have done so if it was not down at that period, with the BJP well entrenched in power and leading the National Democratic Alliance coalition at the Centre. Also, the Congress (I) had got its numbers not from the Kashmir Valley but in Jammu, where it trounced the BJP and managed to get 15 seats, against its earlier tally of six MLAs. The two parties were able to form a coalition along with the CPI(M)'s two MLAs and some Independents.

One of the ironies of the previous NDA regime led by the BJP was that in 2002, in the free and fair election held in Jammu and Kashmir perceived to be the first credible election in long years it provided a handle to the Congress (I) to form a coalition government in the State along with the PDP.

Mercifully, the Congress (I) eventually gave up its claim for the chief minister's kursi after a tug of war that lasted a couple of weeks and threatened to undermine an internationally-hailed election. It did so, one hopes, in a pragmatic, though unpalatable, acceptance of its limited clout or popularity in the Valley. After all, Jammu has never been the trouble spot in the beleaguered State. And if the Congress were to get the chief ministership, the aspirant for the post then, as now, would have been the Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose popularity in the Valley is limited, as most Kashmirs look upon him as the "man from Delhi" who would have at heart interests of New Delhi and not Kashmir. And the State had been ruled for too long by the NCP's Dr Farooq Abdullah, who was widely seen as a `Delhi's stooge' by most Kashmiris. The dexterity with which he moved his party from the Congress to the BJP, as the fortunes of the two national players waxed or waned, has little comparison in politics. In an interview to this correspondent, Mr Omar Abdullah admitted that throwing its lot with both the Congress (I) and the BJP had indeed hurt the party's standing in the State.

Anyway, come November 2 and the Mufti will step down as chief minister. Both he and Mehbooba Mufti have already informed the Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, that they will be handing over the top post to the coalition partner. Quite unlike what happened in Uttar Pradesh in 1997. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP had made a rotational chief minister pact then, with the bizarre arrangement of a six-month term each. Ms Mayawati grabbed the first term, completed the six months, and when it was time to hand over the reins to the BJP, said, `No, sorry', opted out of the coalition and the government in the State collapsed. But J&K has been spared this political merry-go-round.

The Mufti's major resolve on becoming the chief minister was to bring a "healing touch" to the people of the State. His detractors, particularly in the Sangh Parivar, had charged that as the PDP would be soft on the militants and the jehadis, violence would increase and there would be a `sell out' of Kashmir to the extremists. But nothing of that sort happened, though violence continues to be an integral part of the lives of the people of J&K, and there has been no let up even after the devastation caused by the recent earthquake. But corruption levels in the State's administration have come down and the feeling of alienation has abated to a certain extent. The biggest positive for the Mufti Government is that it is considered independent and that it does not dance to New Delhi's tunes. Indeed, it managed to soften the negative sentiment that one has heard in the Valley during the last 15 years against India, as a whole, and New Delhi, in particular.

Asked to comment on the performance of the J&K Government, supported by the CPI(M)'s two MLAs, the party chief in J&K, Mr M. Y. Tarigami, who was in Delhi, at first opted to be "excused from any comment as I'm on a political holiday here."

But, then, the veteran Kashmiri politician ventured to offer this comment: "Recently my General Secretary, Mr Prakash Karat, when asked to comment on the performance of the J&K Government, said it was `not satisfactory'. While this is our feeling, it cannot be said that in three years nothing has been done and we are totally dissatisfied. But there is still a lot of scope for improvement and much more needs to be done; whether in providing the healing touch or improving people's lives."

On the possible change of guard in Srinagar, he said that when the "people's expectations are so huge, we're not concerned about whether `A' should continue or `B' should take over. But what we are concerned about is that a lot more needs to be done for the people of J&K, whether in providing immediate relief and rehabilitation to the victims of the earthquake, or in taking long-term measures to improve the lives of the people of this troubled State." The Head of the Department of Sociology at the Kashmir University, Prof Basheer Mohammed Dabla, wondered why everybody was so interested about what would happen after November 2. "Why worry about tomorrow; what is bothering us is that while this drama continues in Delhi, there is no government worth the name here. All the major players from both the parties are sitting in Delhi; is anybody thinking about what will happen to those people who have lost their homes in the quake and who will die in the cold winter?"

On the probability of Mr Azad being anointed chief minister and his suitability for the post, he said: "What does he know about Kashmir politics? He has not contested an election here in a long time; actually, he is a Delhi-born Kashmir politician whose political career has been developed outside Kashmir!"

When asked to compare him with the Mufti, Prof Dabla said: "He will probably be half the chief minister that the Mufti is, because however much we may grumble about the problems faced by the people of J&K , comparatively speaking, he has definitely done something when it comes to providing a healing touch to the long-suffering people of J&K."

With just a few days to go, the Congress (I) MLAs have stepped up their demand for a Congress chief minister. The Mufti is reported to have politely turned down Ms Sonia Gandhi's request to continue for a few months, saying that this would make him a lame duck chief minister. All eyes will now be on Ms Sonia Gandhi. As the Americans say `if it ain't broke, don't fix it' even though their government goes around doing exactly the opposite in several parts of the world. Her instinct tells her to allow the Mufti to complete the term. Will she listen to it or capitulate to the aspirations of Congressmen from the State, remains to be seen.

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 27, 2005)
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