Girish Chandra 'Gary' Saxena, governor of Jammu & Kashmir, could have sworn in an interim chief minister after Dr Farooq Abdullah refused to continue in office at midnight on October 17, but he had a problem on hand. There was no one who had staked a claim to form even a minority government.
In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh, Saxena said he had an inkling that National Conference president Omar Abdullah would be defeated from the Ganderbal constituency. "We knew we could be in for a surprise in Ganderbal," Saxena, who once headed the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, said. Excerpts:
How did you feel now that the election in Jammu & Kashmir has ended?
I felt good when the elections were over. But I was on the sidelines. The main task was conducted by the Election Commission of India, the Government of India, and officers of the Jammu & Kashmir administration. They were fully backed by the security forces and the police. They did a splendid job. They kept the situation under manageable proportions despite every effort from the other side of the border to escalate the level of violence in the state.
We managed to thwart the designs of our enemies who wanted to raise the pitch and terrorise not only voters, but also candidates so that they could not do their electioneering. They had two basic aims --- to subvert the process of democracy and ensure a low percentage of voting so that the credibility of the election was eroded. Neither of these things happened. The whole world applauded the election in Jammu & Kashmir. The election was a very successful exercise.
How fair was the election?
The election was free and fair. Nobody has complained about the conduct of the election. Not even candidates who lost the election. The world has described the election as free and fair. The faith of the people, the power of the ballot, and the efficacy of electronic voting machines have been fully endorsed.
Did you believe that violence might overshadow the election, particularly after People's Conference leader Abdul Gani Lone's assassination?
We did have apprehensions, but we were prepared to meet any eventuality. The terrorist groups operating in Kashmir at the behest of their foreign mentors tried their best to sabotage the election, but did not succeed. Abdul Gani Lone's assassination did create a distinct possibility that many candidates may not enter the fray. The voters also felt that the security cover may not be that strong to protect them from terrorist violence.
The terrorists expected a low poll percentage. Lone's following was concentrated in Kupwara district. As a reaction to his assassination some candidates from his party, the People's Conference, entered the fray and successfully contested the election. This single act increased the enthusiasm of the people and brought about a very large turnout of voters in all five constituencies in Kupwara.
Why did the poll percentage fall in the Kashmir valley?
The polling had been heavier in the rural areas than in the cities and towns. It was heavy in Jammu. There was the fear of the gun, and it was further heightened by two incidents that took place during the first and second phase of polling in the valley.
One was a suicide attack on the police colony in Srinagar. In the second incident terrorists took some policemen hostage. The incident was shown on television channels when voting was taking place on September 24. Those who watched the incident live had second thoughts whether they should go out and vote. But those who wanted to bring about a change in the administration did come out and vote.
Did you have a feeling that the people would vote in a hung assembly?
We did have positive indications about a fractured mandate. The [anti-]incumbency factor was at work. The other factors that influenced the poll outcome were the strong measures taken by the Election Commission and Union government. When people realized that their vote could count and make a material difference to the outcome they started coming out to vote.
In such a situation those who brave terrorist violence are the ones who want to bring about change. It was a vote for change, against the ruling party. A hung assembly was very much a possibility. We had inputs to that end. But the extent of the swing against the ruling National Conference could not be predicted.
Did you expect Omar Abdullah to lose in Ganderbal?
Frankly, it was a bit of a surprise that he lost. But an election springs surprises on many occasions. The verdict of the people really came through in Ganderbal. Of course, there were other factors at work. Groupism, infighting within the party, an undercurrent of resentment, division of votes amongst candidates, etc were some factors that influenced the outcome in this constituency. Besides, there were some intangible factors, but one cannot put the finger on them.
We knew there were many undercurrents that could spring a surprise in Ganderbal, but the outcome was not so widely expected.
Did it worry you with so many splinter groups in the new assembly that you may not actually have a government in the state?
The arithmetic that emerged after the poll was more complex then expected. We had a stalemate for some time. After such a big exercise, that it would not produce a result was unthinkable. I expected things to fall in place eventually. I hoped they would fall in place before I had to go in for imposition of governor's rule. I expected governor's rule to be short and it is good my expectations materialised into reality.
When you have a fractured mandate then you allow some time to let the situation develop, which ultimately crystallises into the formation of a government. I had to satisfy myself that whichever combination comes to power it should have a reasonable chance to prove its majority in the assembly. Otherwise, we have known many cases in India and abroad of minority governments coming to power. Even if everyone does not join the government a minority government is a feasible proposition.
Did you feel a minority government could be installed?
If some party stakes a claim and other parties say they support the government from the outside, then you have a minority government. What I had to see was that the claim satisfied me that the party with the support of other parties was able to run a viable government even with lesser numbers than required for a majority in the House.
Did you reach a stage where Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad could have headed a minority government?
We had media reports to that effect. But Ghulam Nabi Azad did not make any claim before me that he would run a minority government. I did not have to address the issue till that happened. Yes, news reports did say he had the support of anything between 38 and 41 MLAs. Then realignment of forces could always take place. The stalemate could have continued for a longer period of time.
Were you taken by surprise when Dr Farooq Abdullah refused to continue as caretaker chief minister beyond midnight of October 17?
My reading of the constitution of Jammu & Kashmir was different from that of Dr Farooq Abdullah. I cannot pass any judgement on the factors that forced him to resign. It was his decision and I had to accept the same. But the provision does not exist which says a chief minister cannot continue beyond the life of the previous assembly. He may have reached the conclusion on the basis of legal and other advice.
Did you have any other option besides imposing governor's rule? Did you have the option of appointing someone caretaker chief minister?
Technically, yes, I did have that option. The state constitution says the governor shall appoint the chief minister and on his advice the council of ministers. But it does not say what the governor should be looking for while appointing the chief minister. I could have appointed anybody who is not even an MLA as chief minister. But prudence said this discretion should not be exercised in an arbitrary manner.
Are you satisfied that you have a popular government in place?
It is a matter of immense satisfaction that we have an elected government. We had paid a heavy price for electing a new government. One hundred and thirty persons belonging to the army, paramilitary forces and state police lost their lives during the three-month period. People braved the threats of the terrorists to cast their votes. So it is a matter of great satisfaction for me. I look forward to much better times for the people of the state.
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