Idea Exchange: When 14 leaders sit on stage, it allows Modi to play victim, says Omar Abdullah

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New Delhi | Published: November 4, 2018 12:40:44 AM

Ex-J&K CM Omar Abdullah expresses concern over recent political killings, says Centre’s lack of clarity on J&K is worrying, explains decision not to participate in municipal polls.

Omar Abdullah with Sushant Singh of The Indian Express (Image: Praveen Khanna)

SUSHANT SINGH: How bad is the situation in Jammu and Kashmir?

I am not one of those who believes that it is as bad as it was in the ’90s. In terms of the level of militancy, killing of political leaders and civilians, we are a long way from the dark days of 2002. But in terms of sentiments, alienation, we have gone backwards since the parliamentary elections of 2014. Local recruitment into militancy is a matter of huge concern. The recent targeted killing of a senior functionary of the BJP (Anil Parihar)… The fact that the killings took place in an area that was clear of militancy… So bad is bad. Can it get worse? Yes. I hope it doesn’t.

The government of India understands the gravity of the situation, but they are grappling with what to do about it; which is worrying. The feeling I am getting is that they are bereft of any ideas and hoping that somehow things will improve. But that is not how it is going to work.

SUSHANT SINGH: Where exactly did things go wrong and what could the BJP-PDP government have done differently?

The alliance really did play a part in fuelling resentment and disappointment. It is not a coincidence that the focal area of our trouble today is not along the Line of Control, it is South Kashmir. The largest number of youngsters joining militancy today, the lion’s share of incidents of militancy… it is all from south Kashmir.

What could they (the PDP) have done differently? Perhaps not tying up in the first place. Having tied up, they could have been more respectful of sentiments. I think publicly humiliating the chief minister, the way Prime Minister Modi did at that famous rally in Srinagar’s cricket stadium — where Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter called for dialogue, the Prime Minister very publicly turned around and said I don’t need advice. Then, you put together an Agenda for Alliance, and then completely wish it away, disown it. You cannot undermine the impact these incidents have had on public sentiment.

Also, a lack of clarity on what the government was meant to do. Take the example of when (Hizbul Mujahideen commander) Burhan Wani was killed. You had the chief minister turning around and saying that if I had known that Wani was there I would have stopped the encounter. In effect, you are saying that Burhan Wani’s death was wrong. So then what signal are you sending out to the security forces? There was a lot of confusion.

LIZ MATHEW: The National Conference did not participate in the municipal elections. In the process, what may happen is that Independents, with the help of the BJP, may capture the Srinagar corporation.

We chose not to take part because we believed we had to make a wider point about the threat to J&K’s special constitutional status. Like it or not, this opening of connecting the Urban Local Body (ULB) elections to Articles 35A and 370 was actually given to us by the government. They said in the Supreme Court that the decision should be delayed till the elections are over as it will have implications. However, we did not ask anybody else to stay away. We didn’t tell people not to vote. The PDP followed. I am not sure I would have done the same thing if the PDP had announced its boycott before us. Yes, in that vacuum, you have people winning who would not have otherwise won. That’s electoral politics.

It also gives New Delhi something to think about. This thought that the NC and PDP can be replaced by alternative forces is also not true because we stayed away and look what happened. I am not suggesting that the NC and PDP participating would have massively boosted turnout, but it definitely would have been better than the 1, 2 and 3% (voter turnout) that you got. You would have had at least the makings of an election instead of what turned out to be, for want of a better word, a farce.

MUZAMIL JALEEL: From 1953 to 2014, though successive governments eroded the autonomy of J&K, the larger stance still was that the state has special status. From 2014 onwards things seem to have changed. The stance is more integrationist.

Article 35A (granting special rights to permanent residents of J&K) and 370 (which grants special status to J&K) is critical to J&K’s association with the rest of India. You cannot open a debate on 35A and 370 without opening a debate on accession. J&K acceded to the Union of India because J&K was promised special status. Now, if you are going to reopen (the issue) of special status, the very framework on which J&K became a part of India, you are actually threatening the basis of accession.

I believe that, when push comes to shove, we have been able to convince the Supreme Court twice in the past when a similar challenge was mounted. We will still be able to convince the apex court of the validity of the argument. Supporting elements to the ruling party mounting these sort of challenges to 35A and 370 doesn’t help matters.

Also, we continue to stand firm behind the belief that the restoration of J&K’s autonomy is the political way forward. The problem we face is in convincing the government of India that there is a political problem in J&K. They don’t want to accept that. They only want to see J&K through the prism of security, economy, employment… That J&K is a security problem, a development problem… Who’s to say what will happen in the future in the parliamentary elections in 2019? Mr Modi is not there forever. Now, we have to ensure that there is no further erosion of J&K’s special status. In the meantime, we continue to be hopeful that 2019 will throw up a dispensation that is more favourable to understanding that forces which are fully integrationist in nature are not in the best interest of J&K.

RAHUL TRIPATHI: The J&K Governor has said, more than once, that politicians from the state say one thing at home and another in Delhi.

I can only speak for myself, and I don’t think Governor saab can cite a single instance where I have said something different in Delhi, something different in Jammu and something entirely different in Srinagar. I have said the same things in office as I have said outside of office… governor saab has given more interviews in 10 days, than Vohra saab (NN Vohra, former J&K Governor), gave in 10 years. While different individuals do things differently, the problem also is that governor saab has said things and then has had to retract them. It is sometimes wiser to say less and listen more, but to each their own.

RAHUL TRIPATHI: Do you think the Islamic State ideology is spreading in the Valley?

I haven’t seen any evidence of an IS ideology in J&K. Is there more awareness of religion and what it means? Yes, in some quarters. But that is not unique to J&K. There is a heightened awareness of religion in most parts of the country today. Sometimes, what happens in one part of the country causes a backlash in others. So when you see a ban on certain foods, it has a spillover effect in other areas. But does that mean an ideology has taken root? No.

That said, other than the few flags that you see being waved on a Friday, because certain TV channels are
sending their crews there… It’s not IS; it is grandstanding.

LIZ MATHEW: There is an effort by the BJP and those close to them to form a government in J&K before the Governor’s rule expires. How will it affect the NC and PDP?

If it happens, it will affect the PDP very badly, because it would have been the PDP that would have broken up. The PDP as an entity would cease to exist. For a state government to be formed today, one of the two things would have to happen. Either existing parties will have to realign themselves, which means that the Congress, PDP and NC will have to come together, or the PDP and the BJP will have to rediscover each other. Or, and it is unlikely, the NC and the BJP will have to govern together. I don’t see any of these situations arising.

The other option is that you split parties. J&K has already paid a very heavy price for this sort of politics. The office of CM is open to everyone, but the way to go about it is to contest the 87 seats in the Assembly, and hope that the people of J&K give you a majority. If the government of India is serious about arresting the deterioration of the situation, they need to put an end to speculation about making or breaking and third fronts. And, if you want to sort of restart the political space, dissolve the Assembly. The moment you do that, political activity will pick up. The PDP, NC, Congress will have to get active in the field. Today we are just sitting pretty. The moment you dissolve the Assembly, every single constituency will have eight-10 political candidates from each party; everyone will get involved. That’s the way forward.

RAHUL TRIPATHI: J&K has one of the highest number of Rohingya. Now there is talk to deport them.

What harm have the Rohingya done so far? What anti-national activities have they done? They were given refugee status because of the problems in Myanmar. Are we a country that no longer accepts people who are persecuted in their country? You are not giving them citizenship, voting rights… You are just giving them a temporary space to live till the condition in their country improves and then you will send them back. I was chief minister for six years. I do not recall a single intelligence briefing which in any way suggested that the presence of Rohingya in J&K was a threat to national security. If the only problem we have is the religion that they follow, then that is extremely unfortunate.

SHALINI LANGER: The divide between Jammu and Kashmir seems to have increased since the BJP-PDP government was sworn in. During the municipal elections, Jammu voted in large numbers. How can Kashmir-centric parties such as the PDP and NC bridge that gap?

Electoral divisions have always been there. Jammu votes differently, Kashmir votes differently, Ladakh votes differently and Kargil votes differently. The state has very clear-cut population divisions. But when push comes to shove, it is also a state that comes together.

Also, it is not that the NC is irrelevant in Jammu. We have a strong base there. The BJP has played up the whole ‘Jammu is discriminated at the hands of Kashmir’ thing. They have been ruling at the Centre for four-and-a-half years now. They have been ruling in the state since January 2015. If there had been a massive diversion of resources, they would have corrected it.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: Imran Khan is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan and he also enjoys the backing of the army. Do you think there is a window of opportunity for India and Pakistan to renew the dialogue process?

We don’t get to decide who will govern Pakistan. So if we wait till we get a government in Pakistan of our choosing… It may be a very long time before that happens. At some point we have to accept that engagement with Pakistan is in India’s best interest. Pakistan also has to accept that some of India’s concerns have to be addressed.

Also, talking to Pakistan does not mean that Prime Minister Modi has to descend on Islamabad and go and hug Imran Khan. We can engage at the foreign secretary-level. We can certainly engage at the foreign minister level on the sidelines of meetings and conferences. A basic level of dialogue is needed.

SUSHANT SINGH: What do you make of the 2019 general elections? What is your sense of this BJP, compared to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time?

About the 2019 elections, I don’t think anybody knows what the heck is going to happen. It is such a fluid situation. Is a mahagathbandhan going to happen? Who knows. What will Mayawati do in Uttar Pradesh, will Chandrababu Naidu succeed in rallying anti-BJP parties… he has become the cementing factor? Sometimes, I have disagreements in terms of strategies. When we make it look like we are all ganging up against Prime Minister Modi, we are actually playing to his advantage. It allows him to be the victim. It’s the biggest favour that we can do him. I don’t think it helps our case when 14-16 of us sit together on a stage and then blast him. It would be much better strategically if we did this state-wise — have an understanding in UP, in West Bengal, in Andhra and Telangana — instead of lining up on a stage. If we are a part of this wider fight against the BJP, what does it matter if Chandrababu Naidu addresses a rally in Srinagar? But it will allow the Prime Minister to claim that these guys are ganging up against me because I have stopped their corruption.

Also, we need to guard against making personal attacks. Demeaning the PM allows him to shift the narrative to being a victim. Whether it was Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comment or people saying that the Prime Minister is a thief… Somehow the Prime Minister’s credibility is seen differently from the credibility of the BJP. When we attack the PM as a person, rather than the BJP as a party, we are actually helping him in this election campaign.

RAVISH TIWARI: In UP, the BSP and Samajwadi Party are closing ranks against the BJP. Is that possible in J&K?

The BSP and SP are coming together to keep the BJP out. They are fighting for their political survival. In the case of the NC and PDP, we basically fight each other. Our core constituency is not threatened by the BJP. If the NC and PDP come together, we will eat up each other’s political space.

SUSHANT SINGH: Is there a possibility of the NC and the BJP coming together?

If I had to come together with them, I would have done it in 2014, when they knocked on my door. The NC is going to fight these elections on its own strength and we hope that people are so fed up with coalition politics that they would give a single party a chance. As for the Centre, I don’t think it’s in the interest of the NC to align with the current BJP dispensation. It was much easier to align with Vajpayee who looked at Kashmir through the lens of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat. This is a very different BJP.

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