Group of Ministers will discuss autonomy: Farooq
18 July 2000
New Delhi: Dr. Farooq Abdullah appears to have earned the prime ministerial nod to his suggestion that a Group of Ministers be constituted at the Centre to engage a Jammu and Kashmir ministerial team on the thorny question of the quantum and kind of ''autonomy'' for the troubled State. At least this is the impression the Chief Minister sought to give about the Centre''s predilection after at meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, this morning; more significantly, the Centre chose not to contradict or correct Dr. Abdullah''s suggestion. The Chief Minister also asserted that ''the Centre would be soon fixing a date for another meeting'' on the ''autonomy'' business. Dr. Abdullah had his second meeting with the Prime Minister in as many days; though this morning he had taken a group of five ministers with him to call on Mr. Vajpayee, as if he wanted to make his ministerial colleagues an equal party to the path of negotiation, rather than confrontation, with the Centre. The Chief Minister has pre-empted the possibility of these Ministers pretending, back in Srinagar, that Dr. Abdullah has sold the ''Kashmir''s interests'' behind their back. After this ritual in courtesy, the Chief Minister almost paraded his group of Ministers before the media as the possible interlocutors in the autonomy dialogue with the Centre. This group included the Urban Development Minister, Mr. G. M. Shah; the Law Minister, Mr. P. L. Handoo; the Finance Minister, Mr. Abdul Rahim Rather; the Education Minister, Mr. Mohammed Shafi; and the former Industries Minister, Mr. Bodh Raj Bali. If Dr. Abdullah''s meeting with the Prime Minister was brief and lasted just over 20 minutes, it was because he had already had his most substantive discussion over breakfast with the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani. During the interaction with Mr. Advani, the Chief Minister is believed to have heard for himself the tactical advantage of talking of ''devolution'' of powers rather than demanding outright any time-pegged ''autonomy''. Over breakfast, the two leaders talked about how to eat their respective cakes and have them, too. Thus tutored by the most political mind in the ruling establishment, the Chief Minister was able to formulate before reporters that ''the devolution of powers and autonomy are only two sides of the same coin and there is no difference between the two.'' For good measure, Dr. Abdullah repeated his yesterday''s assertion that at no time did the National Conference contemplate leaving the National Democratic Alliance and attributed the authorship of any such suggestion to the ''media''. Moving rather swiftly, he also sought the sympathetic ear, if not the support, of the Congress(I) for his party''s demand for ''autonomy''. After a meeting with the Congress(I) president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, it was agreed that Dr. Abdullah''s ministerial entourage would have a discussion with a Congress(I) team tomorrow. Dr. Abdullah first held one-to-one discussion with Ms. Gandhi for about 15 minutes; later his ministerial team came in, while the Congress(I) president was assisted by Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, Mr. Madhavrao Scindia and Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad. The Chief Minister later met the former Prime Minister, Mr. I. K. Gujral. While Dr. Abdullah sought to convey that he was not ''rigid'' and had no fixation about ''pre-1953'', the former Prime Minister was appreciative of the difficulties in Jammu and Kashmir and advised the Chief Minister that he should be explaining his point of view also to the secular friends and public opinion in the country.