Much More, Omar

Will the new chief minister make a new beginning by taking some bold decisions?

Iftikhar Gilani Delhi, Hardnews

The wheel has turned full circle in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Riding on the back of the Congress, the grand old party of National Conference (NC) has returned to power. On December 24 evening, the day Srinagar and Jammu districts went to polls, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi were sewing up an alliance with the NC days ahead of counting. The only condition the Gandhis had made was that their party would work with young Omar Abdullah -- leaving party patron Dr Farooq Abdullah in the cold, the veteran who had projected himself as chief minister all through the poll campaign.

A day before Christmas, Sonia Gandhi rang up Prof Saifuddin Soz, PCC president, and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. She specifically wanted their assessment of young Abdullah and the Congress party's tie-up with the NC. Contrary to the political drama enacted to appear that the tie-up was a fait accompli, the deal seems to have been scripted even before elections. Insiders say it was brokered by none-else than the Congress MP from Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, through Rahul Gandhi.

Sachin had stepped into the shoes of his late father Rajesh Pilot, a former Union Minister, who also brokered an accord between Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah leading the latter to return to power in 1986. The experiment, however, boomeranged as the tactics they adopted in the polls gave birth to militancy in 1989.

Even during the polls, while the NC officially projected Farooq Abdullah as its chief ministerial candidate, many in Delhi like former RAW chief AS Dulat, who has been the Centre's pointman for Kashmir, was projecting Omar as the next head of government.  Sachin is believed to have convinced the Abdullahs -- who run the NC as their family fiefdom -- that their relationship with the Congress would be good for Kashmiris as well as for the nation. Azad has also been pushing for an alliance with the NC due to his uneasy relations with alliance partner Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) during his stint at the top. But the Congress high command had torpedoed his moves.

The elections have thrown interesting indicators. The NC succeeded in retaining 28 seats, emerging once again as the single largest party in the fractured mandate. Its rival, the PDP, won the largest share of votes and raised its tally to 21 -- up by five seats. Further, the NC got majority of seats in the low polling areas hit by the separatists' poll boycott campaign. The PDP, which swept south Kashmir, got seats mostly in the heavy polling areas.

Analysis of vote shares prove that the NC lost a huge 7.1 per cent in terms of vote share in the Valley and 3.9 per cent in the Jammu region and yet managed to hold on to the same number of seats as in 2002.  The party did not lose much votes in Jammu as it consolidated its position in the northern parts of the Valley and more or less maintained parity in the Poonch area of the Jammu region.

The Congress lost vote share in both the Valley and Jammu -- a decline of a little over 5 per cent in both regions. While the party suffered the consequences of reduced vote share in Jammu city and its immediate surroundings, where BJP gained massively, in other parts of the region, it was the PDP that gained votes.

The BJP raised its vote share in the Jammu region from 12.4 per cent to 21.8 per cent, a huge increase that explains why its seat tally went up from just one last time to 11 in this round. The net result of all these changes in vote share is that the state is effectively carved out into little pockets in each of which the main contestants are different.

Notwithstanding the success of elections, a large number of youth in the 18-30 age group, are still out of the electoral rolls in the Kashmir Valley. According to the 2001 census, the Valley has 54 lakh people. Out of which just 32 lakh are registered as voters. Out of these registered voters, 17 lakh came out to vote. In contrast, the Jammu region has a 44 lakh population and 31 lakh voters. Despite less population than the Kashmir Valley, 22 lakh voters registered their ballot in the Jammu region.

A daunting task for the new government as well as for the mainstream political parties would be to wean these youth away from frustrations and despair and make then understand the fruitfulness of democracy. Analysts in Srinagar believe that the propaganda pitting elections as a defeat of separatism and a triumph for New Delhi would create hurdles, both for the NC as well as the PDP who enticed voters in the name of governance and political resolution of the Kashmir problem. The political content of their manifestos is almost alike with both offering "autonomy" and "self-rule" and minimising interference from New Delhi.

Writer Firdous Sayeed agrees that it was a defeat of the separatist leadership, but indicates that defeat is never eternal. Kashmir has the capacity to throw surprises. As the ferocity of anger in the wake of the Amarnath agitation was a surprise, so was the heavy turnout of voters. He maintains that the separatist amalgamation can still turn the tables. "Who said it is the end of the road? This can turn out to be a temporary setback. Rather, a blessing in disguise, provided the Hurriyat leadership is able to set out a process of corrective mechanism," he says.

Compared to previous elections, large number of candidates contested the elections this time. Said a senior Hurriyat leader: "We have to consider the fact that scores of local candidates were made to contest from everywhere in the Valley. Their relatives and neighbours are enough to raise the voter turnout percentage."

Keeping in view these limitations, the challenges before the new chief minister are daunting. He is starting with a clean slate. He carries no past baggage of having bruised the psyche of the common people and infringing the collective interest of Kashmir. But it cannot be denied that some in his council don't enjoy a good reputation.

To begin with, he will have to do away with old legacies, review cases of prisoners, get out of the strait-jacketed policies on security in vogue in the state for the past 22 two years and create an atmosphere that could help in restoring a sense of security among the people.

In 1972, Syed Mir Qasim, after taking over the top job, took some bold decisions against the advice of his bureaucrats and police brass. He ordered the release of all prisoners of the Plebiscite Front, the Jamat-e-Islami, the Political Conference, the Al-Fatah and withdrew cases against political workers and students. A good chunk of students released by Qasim not only became responsible citizens and joined the mainstream but also reached top positions in the state administration. Seen in a right perspective, it was this policy that paved the way for the return of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah to office after 22 of trials and confinements. It is therefore hoped that the new chief minister will make a new beginning by taking some bold decisions.