Sharp differences in perception between Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and his predecessor Mufti Mohammad Sayeed seem to be threatening the Congress-PDP coalition in the state. Matters have reached a stage where both Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have to intervene to stop the rift from getting wider. The Mufti seems to have caught the state Congress on the wrong foot and is clearly poised to consolidate his position in the Valley at the cost of his adversaries. His demand for demilitarisation has popular support and even some elements in the Hurriyat, who are keen on self-rule in the Indian Union, are backing it quietly.
Politics is sometimes not always about numbers. The Congress-led government can surely survive a test of strength on the floor of the House with a little bit of manipulation, and even without the support of the PDP. But the incalculable damage to the party this will result in may lead to its total rout in the Valley in the next round of polls. For, any attempt to undermine the Mufti’s authority at present may not be good either for the coalition or for the future of the country’s largest party.
In fact, the PDP’s demand is in line with the thinking on restoring normality in the state after an internationally certified free and fair poll in 2002. It appears that vested interests in the establishment, which includes intelligence agencies, the armed forces and the central bureaucracy, are keen that the former CM be dubbed an ‘anti-national’ for taking what is clearly being seen as a pro-people stand in the Valley. No one seems to realise that the solution to the Kashmir problem has to be found in the state and not in the conference rooms of the North or South Blocks.
In order to outwit the wily Kashmiri leader, the Congress and other parties need to send out the message that the state will be run from Jammu or Srinagar and not from New Delhi. And the only way to do it is to see the logic of what the Mufti is saying. His demand is that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act be repealed and maintenance of law and order given back to the state government. This simply means that the armed forces, which are occupying schools, colleges and agriculture land, should confine themselves to the cantonments and the borders. They could be replaced by the state police. The emphasis is on freeing civilian areas from the armed forces and not on troop reduction.
It is not difficult to see why this demand has gained public support. Kashmiris have frequently complained of being made victims of excesses by the army and the paramilitary forces despite not being involved in acts of terrorism. The frequency in the cases of some fake encounters has proved that these excesses are not uncommon.
There is a view that these issues should have been settled quietly without bringing them into public focus and involving the PM when it could have been resolved by the state leadership. But in making the issue public, the Congress is perhaps more to blame than the PDP, which has seized the opportunity to expand its base in the Valley.
The issue assumed amplified dimensions when, during a discussion in the assembly some months ago, Azad said that he would recommend demilitarisation if PDP leaders gave up their personal security. The PDP leaders, Mufti Sayeed, his daughter Mehbooba Mufti and some others, responded by actually doing so. Azad had perhaps never anticipated this. Since the gloves were off, the PDP ministers in government demanded that the cabinet pass a resolution demanding demilitarisation and send it to the Centre. The Congress was actually caught on the wrong foot and the matter reached New Delhi.
Realising that the issue could soon snowball into a major problem between the two partners, the PM stepped in and invited the Mufti for a dialogue. The charge against the former CM is that by raising the pitch of his dialogue with the PM, he has tried to ensure that the dialogue does not succeed. The argument is that if the PM is seen succumbing to pressure from the Mufti, his position and that of his office would be weakened. But then the Mufti is a political entity. He realises that if he is seen by his people as negotiating with the Centre on this sensitive issue, he will not only gain wider support but could also marginalise his opponents.
There is evidently no deep affection between Azad and his predecessor. Relations between the two became worse when Azad attempted to bring a section of the PDP headed by former Deputy CM Muzaffar Baig to his party’s side. The Congress high command did not give him permission to engineer a split in the alliance partner and Azad’s plans did not materialise. While the Mufti acknowledged Sonia’s role in averting the split, his attitude towards his successor hardened even further. The bitter relations continued and Azad was forced to drop Baig from the cabinet to send the message that no PDP nominee could be in the government unless he enjoyed the Mufti’s total confidence. What has worked for Mufti is that he seems to have identified himself with the sentiments of the Valley while his successor is being viewed as a representative of New Delhi.
The present issue is again a result of the Azad-Mufti stand-off and the state Governor seems to have complicated matters by making it public. Two remarks being attributed to General S.K. Sinha — where he called the former CM anti-national and
another stating that the withdrawal of the armed forces will not be permitted — helped in blowing up the issue. The Governor should have kept quiet but if he said what is being attributed to him, he obviously made a blunder given the sensitivities in J&K. The situation now is that the Mufti has managed to corner the Governor and the CM. Time will tell if he succeeds in convincing New Delhi. Between us.