Testing Time For Party Of Abdullahs

7 November 2014
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Azhar Qadri

Srinagar: In its 75th year of existence, the National Conference is preparing for its hardest battle. The oldest surviving party of Kashmir politics is increasingly missing the charisma of its founding leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and its glory, which is fast withering away. The NC has always revolved around the Abdullahs, who are its final decision-makers. This election, the party's baton will be solely in the hands of Omar Abdullah as his father and party's patriach, Farooq Abdullah, is undergoing treatment in London. This has left the National Conference without its most powerful anchor. The party had to do a lot of arithmetic after its stunning rout in the parliamentary election earlier this year when it lost the mandate from all three parliamentary constituencies of the Kashmir region. The party is doing all available math - adding and subtracting possibilities - to undo the May's defeat and ensure a victory in December. It is a hard challenge for the National Conference to stop the blitz of opposition Peoples Democratic Party, which had won 41 of the 46 Assembly segments of the Kashmir region in the parliamentary elections and handed over the National Conference its worst ever result. The National Conference has an impressive range of leaders and a loyal cadre but its tenure in the coalition government of past six years was paralysed by policy failure at multiple levels. This undid the impressiveness of its leaders and angered its loyal cadres. The party attempted to undo its failures after facing a rout in the Lok Sabha elections by making quick changes which it had resisted during its five-and-a-half-year rule. It increased the retirement age of employees and rolled back a notorious employment policy. The NC is now at a critical point in history, when it faces the danger of being written off from the political landscape of the region. It is moving cautiously. It has decided two low-key constituencies for its working president Omar, the third generation of the Abdullah family to lead the party, after holding several meetings to look for a safe seat for him. The party was so cautious that Omar did not pick Ganderbal, an erstwhile bastion of the Abdullah family where the PDP had made strong inroads. The party still has its strongholds as it goes to the polls this month and the next month. It will be hard to evict its candidates from some constituencies of Srinagar district, north Kashmir and from central Kashmir's Kangan seat, but if the impossible happens, like it happened in the parliamentary elections, there will be little safe ground left for the party. In the Jammu division, where the NC's representation had slipped from nine seats in 2002 to six in 2008 election, after the state witnessed a communally-charged agitation, the party is attempting to again widen its scope by highlighting its development record. It has given candidature to strong contestants in Hindu-populated constituencies with a hope that it will again make inroads into the plains of Jammu. However, party faces multiple challenges in the Jammu region from an invigorated BJP, the Congress and its arch-rival PDP. The NC carried out a vociferous anti-Modi and anti-BJP campaign during the parliamentary elections, which it later realised was a mistake. It is now planning to go to the Assembly polls with a local character where it will trumpet its past glory when its founding leader was the state's Prime Minister. The party will ask for votes with a promise to struggle for the restoration of the pre-1953 autonomy - the golden era of the NC when it had an unparalleled status in people's imagination. National Conference founder Sheikh Abdullah has always been a poster boy of the party, even decades after his death. It is likely that the party leaders will increase the mention of this grand old man of Kashmir's politics in the rallies and meetings to infuse energy among the workers as many among the party cadre are still loyal to him. The party will also ask for votes to protect the Article 370, a constitutional guarantee which safeguards J&K's special status. It is already trying to paint a villainous picture of its arch-rival PDP by blaming it for imposing the 'draconian' Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The party, however, has to fight against its own image, which has led to a strong anti-incumbency wave. During the party's tenure in the government, the region had witnessed an unprecedented street agitation in 2010. Nearly 120 civilians were killed and curfew and restrictions were used rampantly and detention of dissenters had become a routine. The party is also facing a challenge of its patron's absence as Farooq undergoes treatment in London. Farooq, in contrast to his son Omar, has been a magnet for the party who used a mix of humour and years of experience of living through political intrigue to keep his party workers enthused. Omar misses much of his father's humour and experience and the young Abdullah's style of working, which is criticised for being isolationist and elitist, has done much harm to the party than good. When the party goes to the polls, it will be one of the hardest challenges in its history and may turn out to be one of its most decisive moments.