Omar Abdullah, 48, is very active on social media, where he often demonstrates his understanding of the political mood in volatile Jammu and Kashmir. His National Conference (NC) was the first to opt out of the local bodies and panchayat elections, taking the moral high ground on Article 35A and forcing rival Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to follow suit. The third-generation leader of the Abdullah family hasn’t given up on galvanising his cadre with an eye on the state and Lok Sabha polls . Abdullah spoke to Ramesh Vinayak at his Gupkar Road residence in Srinagar about the state’s special status, the Modi government’s Kashmir policy, being a minority in India today, and Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to build a national alternative for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Where do your fears on Article 35A stem from?
They stem from the fact that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which rules the country at present, has been inimical to the special status that Jammu and Kashmir enjoys.
But can it tinker with it?
Politically, it can’t, which is why the challenge to Articles 35A and 370 is being mounted through the courts. This challenge is being supported, overtly or covertly, by elements of the Sangh Parivar. The fact is that there’s a BJP-led government at the helm, so we have our misgivings. On the previous two occasions when Article 35A was challenged in the Supreme Court, the Government of India made itself a party to the defence of this constitutional provision. That hasn’t happened this time. Nor has the Centre assured us that there will be no tinkering with the special status, which has already been diluted as far as it could be.
But J&K has a long history of erosion of Article 370 since your grandfather Sheikh Abdullah’s time?
It started with Sheikh sahib’s arrest in 1953. New Delhi saw his removal from power necessary to whittle down Article 370. As a party that negotiated and brought special status to J&K, the National Conference considers this a sacrosanct article of faith. This is the state’s heritage, its legacy. Don’t forget that J&K acceded to India on certain terms and conditions as represented by Articles 35A and 370. If these are changed or deleted now, you are reopening the very question of accession.
The appointment of a political governor and holding local elections are seen as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech to revive grassroots politics in J&K. Won’t your poll boycott negate that?
It is the Centre that forced our hand to opt out of the elections by not making its stand clear on Article 35A... the PDP and the NC, have 43 MLAs in the 87-member assembly. That means half of the state’s legislative footprint is out of the fray. You can well imagine how representative these polls are. Also, with the country heading for four crucial state assembly elections later this year, followed by the Lok Sabha polls next year, there is no political capital available for a meaningful initiative on Kashmir. Whatever happens in J&K will now happen post the general elections.
In his four-and-a-half years, Modi has done pretty much nothing on Kashmir. His Red Fort speech last year had the same promises on Kashmir which he repeated this year. Nothing has changed on the ground. There is no evidence that the new governor will operate in a political manner.
How do you see the legacy of the PDP-BJP coalition government?
Leave politics aside — see the growth in the number of militants, see the number of youngsters who are leaving well-paying jobs or good education and taking to arms. Look at the fact that the Anantnag parliamentary election is now the most delayed by-election in the country since 1995, and the fact that within hours of panchayat elections being announced, panchayat ghars are being set on fire.
What has led to this slide?
The PDP-BJP coalition squeezed the political space in Kashmir, exactly the way the NC-Congress alliance had in 1987. The constituency that the PDP built for itself was cleverly positioned between the NC and the pro-secession Hurriyat. It was just mainstream enough to fight polls, but just separatist enough to appeal to those who didn’t find space in the NC’s political landscape of autonomy. The PDP won its 28 seats on one platform: vote for us to keep the BJP out. That constituency felt let down when the PDP rushed to embrace the BJP for power. The alliance proved to be catastrophic for the state.
How do you look at the national political landscape ahead of the Lok Sabha elections?
As a partner of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), we look towards the Congress to play the key role in shaping the opposition to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Obviously, in that Rahul Gandhi’s role as the leader of the Congress is critical, but even more critical would be Sonia Gandhi’s role. It will have to be a joint effort between Rahul making sure that the Congress puts up the best fight possible, and Sonia Gandhi making sure that as many opposition parties as possible come together to fight this election. No matter how the state allies perform in their states, the Congress tally will be crucial. Unless the Congress is able to cross triple figures in the Lok Sabha, we will not succeed in the aim of unseating the BJP government. Obviously, Rahul’s responsibility is greater than anybody else’s.
But who will be the Opposition’s counter to Modi?
Why do you need a Modi vs Who? Nobody asked this when the Opposition took on Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. It will be Modi versus NC in J&K, Modi versus Congress in Rajasthan, Modi versus AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) in Delhi, and Modi versus Mamata (Banerjee) in West Bengal. If we get a critical mass of seats, then allies together will decide the shape and structure of the next government.
But the BJP is making it a presidential-style ‘Modi versus Who’ contest.
It can’t. This is a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential form of government. It is not compulsory for us to declare our prime ministerial candidate before the election. You can’t have a hybrid system. By the same logic, why doesn’t the BJP declare its chief ministerial face every time it contests state elections?
Do you sense a growing Hinduisation of Indian polity?
Religion as a part of politics is not new. Did it not play a part when Rajiv Gandhi as then prime minister opened the gates of the Ram Janmabhoomi complex? Successive leaders have either overtly or covertly used religion. Whether we like it or not, religion and politics don’t get divorced. It is a part of the political landscape. But, is it more strident now? The answer is yes. Today, lynching can take place and you are not worried about it. Today, the BJP president (Amit Shah) can turn around and brazenly say, “Ikhlaq hua tab bhi hum jeete (we won despite the lynching of Ikhlaq).”
What do you make of Rahul Gandhi visiting temples?
You can’t defeat a party by becoming its B-team or facsimile. If you are going to play the BJP’s Hindutva card with soft Hindutva, you will lose. If you play BJP’s strident nationalistic line on security with a slightly softer line, you will lose. Therefore, where you need to take on the BJP are on the issues that today are really pinching people. Nobody is going to vote for the Congress because its leader is going to temples. People will vote for the Congress if it raises issues that matter: Price rise, fuel price hike, joblessness, misery in industry and manufacturing, agriculture distress, the demonetisation disaster, and the goods and services tax (GST) mess. To defeat the BJP, the last thing we need to do is to become its B-team.
Do you buy into the perception that there is a sense of unease among minorities?
There is no denying that, if you see the rising graph of attacks against minorities and the way in which incidents of lynchings have taken place. People who have not only been accused but found guilty of incidents like this are garlanded by BJP ministers. How can there not be a sense of unease? You are seeking to rewrite India’s history as if Muslims never existed. The Opposition will need to fight all this without being shy about it.
Do you sense that the BJP may use Kashmir as an electoral card?
Kashmir is the card that the Opposition needs to use because Kashmir has been one of Modi’s biggest failures.
Modi did reach out to Pakistan.
On the India-Pakistan front, I will be the first person to admit that Modi did make attempts. Those were unsuccessful, but for that Pakistan will have to take the largest share of blame — the fact that Pathankot and then Uri happened. Sadly, the out-of-the-box attempts he made with Pakistan were sorely missing internally, in Jammu and Kashmir.
The BJP government’s Kashmir policy is for a home-grown solution.
Then what are you talking to Pakistan about? Today, because of the disastrous BJP-PDP coalition and mishandling by the Government of India, the home-grown dimension is a far bigger problem than the external dimension. For the longest time, your defence was that these militants are all coming from across the border; that this is a Pakistan-created problem. Today your militants are home-grown. They don’t need Pakistan’s nudge or push. That push is coming from within. What else explains that 200-plus militants have been recruited in south Kashmir alone. That was PDP’s ‘garh’ (bastion).
Is there still a possibility of the BJP engineering a split in the PDP to prop up a government in J&K?
It won’t happen. The critical mass to float an alternative doesn’t exist. There were fledgling attempts. The best thing is to dissolve the assembly and, when the conditions are conducive, go for elections.
How difficult is it to be mainstream politicians in today’s Kashmir?
That as a whole is difficult. But today’s situation makes it worse
(Courtesy Hindustan Times)