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'Omar talks less and is focused on delivery'

January 16, 2009 15:19 IST
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Senior National Conference leader Abdul Rahim Rather has been the finance minister of Jammu & Kashmir thrice. Rather, who was recently sworn in as a minister of state in the newly-constituted cabinet of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, tells Aasha Khosa that the state's finances were grossly mismanaged during the Congress-People's Democratic Party rule

You have seen both Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah. How do you rate Omar Abdullah?

We have lots of expectations from Omar Abdullah. He is dynamic, very sharp, intelligent and has the zeal to work for the people. He has a fire in him and he wants to do something concrete for the people. Besides, he is soft-spoken, not arrogant and has tonnes of patience. He is determined to leave his mark on J&K's history. We in the party see Omar as an young, energetic leader who talks less and is focused on delivery.

You have again firmed up an alliance with the Congress. What are your past experiences of allying with the Congress?

It was in 1975, after the Sheikh Abdullah-Indira Gandhi accord, that the two parties had first come together. In fact, Sheikh Sahib had told Indira Gandhi that he would like to contest the elections. But Indiraji was facing problems in Gujarat and a couple of other states where she did not want elections. She told Sheikh Sahib that if she agrees to hold elections in J&K, it would compound her problems in Gujarat.

She told him that the Congress Legislature Party (the Congress was the ruling party then) would be at his beck and call and would work under him. It was on this magnanimous mutual understanding that the two parties had joined hands for the first time. However, that time, our parting was bitter as the Congress decided to contest the 1977 elections on its own and lost badly.

The second alliance, when Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah joined hands, ended abruptly, leaving a huge political vacuum in the state with militants holding a virtual sway over the Valley. How do you explain the coalition's desertion of the militancy-afflicted state?

Yes, in 1987, we had come together again. This time the coalition worked well and we parted ways when Farooq Abdullah resigned in 1990, after the Centre ignored his opinion that he did not want Jagmohan as governor. VP Singh's government was at the helm at the Centre and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the home minister. I remember Farooq Sahib speaking to someone from Delhi and telling him that he would welcome anyone but Jagmohan.

Farooq was angry at Jagmohan for his role in dismissing his government in 1984 and installing the government of National Conference defectors led by G M Shah. They were not even on talking terms. In fact, the Centre did not even contact the government after this. It was through All India Radio that Farooq Sahib knew that the Centre had decided to send Jagmohan. At 10 pm, he called his cabinet and we went to Raj Bhawan to hand over our resignations.

So this time, when you were negotiating the alliance with senior Congress leaders in Delhi, did all this weigh on your mind?

Frankly, this time there was tremendous flow of sincerity on all sides. I believe we have begun well. I am sure all of us in the coalition will take past experiences and the special situation in Jammu & Kashmir as a learning experience. The talks were held in an extremely cordial manner and there was no hitch in finalising the modalities of the coalition arrangement. Both parties are keen to give a clean government to the people of the state.

As leader of opposition, you have been vocal in criticising the PDP-Congress government for its financial ineptitude while the latter have been claiming success. What is the real story?

It is a fact that J&K's internal resources are so little that we cannot pay salaries (to our staff) even when our own resources are added to our share in the tax collected by the Centre. So prudence requires that we manage our funds very carefully. This all had been thrown to the winds by the previous government.

Three years back, in the legislative assembly, state finance minister Muzzafar Hussain Baigh said he had spent Rs 35,000 crore. I asked him to name 35 projects completed with this money. He promised to send me the list, which I am yet to get. The point is that the PDP's regime indulged in gross financial mismanagement. It is unfortunate that this all happened when the Centre was giving highest-ever grants to the state. We, as the Opposition, had to express our gratitude to the prime minister on this.

But the previous government had presented a zero-deficit budget.

Do you know that the PDP created history in the country when its finance minister got the state budget passed in the assembly in a minute? The Appropriation Bill (Finance Bill), which is the sum of all budgetary demands, was passed within two hours of the budget. It is mandatory for this Bill to be circulated among MLAs three days before it is to be debated. Since no debates were allowed on key financial Bills, the real picture did not come out in Delhi.

Now, as your government takes charge, what would you recommend to set the things right?

The last six years have been disastrous for the state's finances. I would recommend that the government bring out a white paper on the state's finances during the last six years. There is another startling fact which worries me and for which the government has not offered any explanation.

When the NC left office in October 2002, the overdraft from the Jammu and Kashmir Bank (the state's official banker) was Rs 814 crore as against the maximum permissible limit set by the Reserve Bank of India of Rs 950 crore. Today, when we will assume office, the overdraft is a whopping Rs 2,200 crore, salaries of employees are delayed by three months and the bills in the government treasury are not cleared even at the end of the financial year.

What about the general health of the economy?

Transparency International's recent survey has rated Jammu and Kashmir at the first position among the four alarmingly corrupt states. Some years ago it was among the least corrupt. Likewise, we were at number 2 on healthcare and education indices. Now, we have slipped to the eighth position. The system of governance had come under heavy pressure from corruption at high places -- MLAs and ministers were too busy making money from pre-mature transfers to pay attention to governance.

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