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What after November 2 in Kashmir?

By Mohammad Sayeed Malik
September 08, 2005 18:25 IST
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It is crystal gazing time in Kashmir. The first half of the Sonia Gandhi-scripted power sharing arrangement between the Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party ends on November 2.

The uncertainty about the second half is getting thicker by the day.

Unlike the rest of the country, Jammu and Kashmir assembly has a 6-year life span, thanks to the state's separate constitution. Following the fractured verdict of the 2002 assembly election, the Congress (with 20 MLAs in the 87-member House) had consented to let the PDP (16 MLAs) head the coalition, with the support of an assortment of smaller groups and independents, for the first three years of the six-year tenure.

Just the beginning

That term ends on November 2. With the PDP's Mufti Mohammad Sayeed having long ago pledged to honour his part of the bargain, there should have been no ambiguity about what would follow.

But that is not the case.

There is strong speculation that Sonia Gandhi, who had sprung a big surprise in 2002, may have a bigger one up her sleeve: Mufti being allowed to continue as chief minister and complete the full 6-year term.

However, different voices have been coming out of the Congress in the state. A vocal section has been crying hoarse for change of guard while others vaguely say that it was for the high command to take a decision. That was exactly how it was in the run-up to the 2002 formula till the time Sonia Gandhi announced her decision. Thereafter everybody fell in line.

Amid this localised cacophony the only word coming from Sonia so far was by way of advice to her party men. She asked them to refrain from speculating about future political dispensation because J&K is a sensitive state. Even so, some Congressmen in Kashmir persist with the assertion that the PDP (read Mufti) would have to make way after November 2.

On his part, Mufti had sought to silence them a few months back by going public with his statement that he intends to fully honour his obligation and not create any hurdle. However, his clarification triggered yet another speculation that Mufti had made up his mind to call it a day, irrespective of the Congress decision.

PDP circles dismiss it altogether, claiming that Mufti was only clarifying doubts created by the speculation. By reaffirming that he would fully honour the (Congress-PDP) agreement, Mufti has indicated that should the Congress decide to lead the coalition the PDP would continue to be its partner in power.

Whatever the equation, the coalition remains.

The silent change in Kashmir

Traditionally, bureaucracy in Kashmir is known to be having a fairly sensitive 'political antenna'. In the higher echelons, particularly, there is palpable sign of anxiety regarding who the boss would be after November 2.

Delhi's silence is only adding to this feeling. A sort of suspense prevails, though apparently the administrative functioning is just normal. On the political plane too, it is not so easy to predict the future course of events.

The rationale behind Sonia Gandhi's out of the box decision in 2002 suggests its far-reaching political implications. A series of political processes at various levels set in motion after the installation of the PDP-led coalition in 2002 are only half way through. Opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road last April and the resumption of the Hurriyat-Delhi dialogue indicate two major external and internal dimensions of the peace/normalisation process.

Political analysts recall that the Congress leadership in Delhi has generally been sensitive to the desirability of projecting a 'Kashmiri face' of its presence in the state. The history of Congress party's stand over J&K's separate constitution, retention of Article 370 and choice of local leaders at the helm from time to time more than proves the point.

The Congress support base is rooted in the Jammu region but its leadership has invariably come from the Valley. That 'exigency' is dictated by the imperatives of the ground situation in Kashmir. To lend credibility, legitimacy and acceptability to major decisions/ political strategy, projection with a Kashmiri face is something no serious thinking party or person sitting in Delhi can do without.

'What next' in Kashmir?

Going by the statements made by senior Congress leaders from time to time, Sonia's decision in 2002 appears to be producing the desired results for the party as well as the central government. Both, the direction and the momentum of initiatives launched during the last three years have a critical bearing on the ground situation in Kashmir.

Political wisdom suggests that the leadership in Delhi may not like to disturb the rhythm at this stage. Hence the guessing game over 'what after November 2' when Mufti is supposed to make way for a (Congressman) successor.

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Mohammad Sayeed Malik