Pitching strongly for the empowerment of Panchayati Raj institutions in Jammu and Kashmir, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday promised sarpanches that his party will fight for their rights and build pressure on the state government for it.
Gandhi's meeting with elected members of local self-government (Panchayati Raj) members also witnessed some drama, with one of the sarpanches complaining to him in the middle of his speech that they received "nothing from the state government".
"We have got nothing from the state government. Whatever we got, we got from the central government," shouted one of the sapanches, prompting Gandhi to assure him that they will be empowered eventually.
Gandhi's two-day visit to the state is being seen as a move by Congress to build pressure on coalition partner National Conference to incorporate certain provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution on Panchayati Raj.
Gandhi assured the sarpanches, "We will implement the 73rd amendment."
"You will get your right. I will fight this battle for you. I will keep coming and keep mounting pressure...You have to fight this battle. We are with you. We, all of us together, will put pressure on the state government. We are with you. This thing will happen cent per cent," he said.
Reminding them that it had taken almost one-and-a-half years to ensure the passage of the new Land Acquisition Bill, he said this will also eventually happen, but only after people fight for it.
Highlighting right-based schemes like MNREGA, Right to Information Act and the Food Security Scheme brought by the United Progressive Alliance, the Congress vice president said these programmes cannot be implemented without Panchayati Raj and without sarpanches, as "in order to implement these programmes, the leadership should be in villages."
"This is the politics of the future and this is what will happen in Jammu and Kashmir as well. I want to assure you that in the time to come, you will get these rights...In 21st century, the Panchayats, the local bodies will have to be empowered.
"Decisions will be taken in villages in the 21st century. If we have to change Jammu and Kashmir, then first of all we will have to empower the leaders of Panchayats and local
bodies...There is no other way to empower you if you have to run this state because MLAS, MPs cannot do what you can do. They don't have the kind of knowledge about villages that you have," Gandhi said.
The issue of incorporating 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution in the state's Panchayati Raj Act has been a bone of contention between the two parties for some time.
Amid complaints from the gathering of sarpanches that nobody listens to their problems, the Congress vice president said, "Had I not wanted to listen to you, there was no need for me to come here. I have come here because I want to listen to you."
He said that he will keep building pressure till the issue is resolved.
"...We want to give the same powers, strength to panches and sarpanhces in Jammu and Kashmir. If you go to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, you will find politics interesting there because the sarpanches have power there. The district plans are made, local participation happens, meetings are held and people's views come out.
Gandhi also briefly touched on the issue of refugees in the state.
"There is an issue of refugees. I know they feel pain. I also want to tell them that the Congress party will fight their battle. We will do whatever we can do for you," he said.
Maintaining that the Congress is with the people of the state, Gandhi said, "Whatever we can do for Jammu and Kashmir, we are ready to do that. I want the people of the state to be empowered."
The Congress vice president said that he has talked to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah about the Right to Food.
"He (Omar) had concerns that very little foodgrain will be available. I told him that the same problem was in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the government of Delhi (central government) helped them and we are going to help you in the same manner.
"Right to food should be implemented here and if there is any deficiency, we will fulfill it. Because we want Jammu and Kashmir to get whatever benefits the UPA government gives to other states--- be it right to food, land acquisition or Panchayati Raj," Gandhi said.
The Congress vice president also talked at length about the work being done by the UPA government to impart training to the youth of the state and noted "we are trying to take these things forward".