May 2004 News

The Two Faces Of J&K's Future

26 May 2004
The Indian Express
Balraj Puri

New Delhi: A significant feature of this Lok Sabha election in the Kashmir valley is the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Mehbooba Sayeed and Omar Abdullah join the babalog club of recently elected children of VIPs. Having interacted with three generations of Kashmiri leaders in my public life, I observe this development with interest. They may or may not learn any lessons from the achievements of leaders of my generation but, in their own interest, they must at least learn to avoid their mistakes. There is no doubt that Omar Abdullah's grandfather was the tallest leader Kashmir ever produced. But during his father's tenure, much of that rich legacy was lost. How far Farooq Abdullah was responsible for squandering it and how far circumstances conspired against him is another question. Omar Abdullah had, therefore, to face the ire of the people during his first encounter with them in the 2002 assembly election, when not only did the National Conference - of which he was president - lose the election for the first time, he himself was defeated from a constituency which was nursed by his grandfather and father. Mehbooba Sayeed's father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was never a mass leader. He survived in politics by the dint of his organisational ability, calculated moves, tenacity and courage to swim against the current. He made his debut in politics as an opponent of Sheikh Abdullah when he (Abdullah) was at the height of his popularity. He also claims credit for getting the Farooq Abdullah government toppled in 1984, at the instance of New Delhi of course. His handling of the situation in Kashmir as the Union home minister at a point when militancy raised its head, did not earn him any goodwill in Kashmir. But the way he came to power with only 16 party members in an assembly of 87 is a tribute to his political acumen. Both the young leaders owe their place in politics to their parentage. Mehbooba, however, contributed to the popular support of the People's Democratic Party that his father founded and of which she is the president. She invariably visited the families of the victims of human rights abuse, shared their grief and established a rapport. Likewise, the National Conference, under Omar Abdullah's presidentship, recovered the ground that was lost in the assembly election by winning two out of the three Lok Sabha seats in the valley, including one for himself. In their election campaign the young leaders competed with each other in catering to what they thought was popular sentiment which was of secondary importance for their fathers. Both the contesting parties and the boycott outfits agreed that Kashmir was a disputed issue and that there were three parties to that dispute: India, Pakistan and Kashmir. While Mehbooba and her party claimed credit for arranging the Centre-Hurriyat dialogue, Omar's National Conference proposed that the dialogue be widened to include the Geelani group. On the PDP's proposal for ceasefire between Hizbul Mujahideen and the security forces, the NC points out that it was tried during its regime but the PDP government got most of the Hizb leaders who participated in the dialogue with GOI killed. One of PDP's main poll planks was the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. The NC rebutted this by claiming that it had made this an issue in the 1977 elections. On the controversial Permanent Citizenship Bill, each party accused the other of not getting it passed in the legislature. The NC described the PDP as creation of the Centre to undermine its autonomy demand. The latter chided the NC for having been part of the BJP-led NDA government even when Gujarat massacre was going on. When their election rallies were attacked, they accused each other, rather than the militants who had owned up to the attacks. On human rights, restoration of peace and normalcy, there seems to be a consensus not only among what are called mainstream parties but also the separatists. Thus Umar Farooq - who was Hurriyat's founder president - extended a public invitation to the PDP and the NC to join hands with it to resolve the Kashmir dispute. The entire political space was thus covered by two mainstream parties led by Mehbooba and Omar with the result that not much space was left for the secessionist outfits. Further, for the first time, the Lok Sabha election was seriously contested and the two-party system actually functioned. However, the two-party system has failed to break the consensual tradition of Kashmir politics, where only one viewpoint prevails at a time. The young leaders and their parties spend their entire energy on an uninhibited attack on each other. Their contribution to the growth of democracy would depend, not upon the extent of this consensus, but on their capacity to project alternative viewpoints and debate them. Another weakness which both of parties share is their exclusive appeal to Kashmiri nationalism with almost negligible appeal in the two other regions of the state, Jammu and Ladakh.


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