The Election Interview/ Ghulam Nabi Azad
The president of the Jammu & Kashmir Congress
Committee, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is confident that his party will sweep the state assembly polls.
Azad blames J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah for the low voter turnout in the second round of polling, and has demanded a repoll in eight of the 10 constituencies where the polling percentage was less than 10.
Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh spoke to Azad at his residence in Bhatindi on the outskirts of Jammu. Excerpts:
What is the status of your party in the assembly election?
The Congress party is in a very strong position. I have no doubt that the Congress will sweep the polls. We are more than sure to form the government.
What are the reasons for this extreme optimism?
There are a good number of reasons for being optimistic. One single factor that makes us feel confident is the fact that the wind is blowing in favour of the Congress party. The National Conference has been rejected by the people for the first time in all regions.
For the first time since 1952, the ruling National Conference may not get even a single seat from the Ladakh region. They had a base in the valley. But here too people are up in arms against the ruling party. I can foresee the rout of the National Conference in the valley.
As far as Jammu is concerned the Congress has always done well in this region. We have had some setbacks during the past one-and-a-half decade, but now we are picking up. The people of Jammu & Kashmir have decided to give a mandate to the Congress party.
Would you be a candidate for the chief ministership?
I am against projecting any individual as the chief ministerial candidate. This has been my consistent policy at the national level. I have been in charge of all the 35 states and Union territories at one point or the other as the party's general secretary in the last 17 years. I am not in favour of any individual. It is better to project the party and not the individual. We are seeking votes for the Congress as a party and not for any individual.
The National Conference says you are one person who does not want to enter the electoral fray in Jammu & Kashmir, your home state, but still wants to be chief minister.
The problem with the National Conference is that they cannot go beyond Jammu & Kashmir. I can contest from any other part of the country. I can win without rigging the polls, but the National Conference would not be able to rig the polls elsewhere if Dr Farooq Abdullah contests outside Kashmir.
Are you afraid that you would be tied down to one state?
No, I am against projecting someone as the chief minister. Only the National Conference can do that. They first had Sheikh Abdullah, then Farooq Abdullah, and now Omar Abdullah. Where is the party? Where is the National Conference? It is dynastic rule.
But the Congress also does not go beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family.
That is another thing. Right now we are talking of elections in Kashmir.
When you were appointed president of the Jammu & Kashmir Congress Committee by Sonia Gandhi, you were reluctant to come here. Why?
Yes, this is true. I was reluctant because the elections in the state were only four months away and I felt it was too short a time to do anything in Jammu & Kashmir to change the tide in favour of the Congress party. My point was that if I had to be appointed as the state party chief, then this should have come two years ago. I had to start from zero and to show results within four months was a very difficult job.
I am happy that I accepted the challenge and the Congress is doing reasonably well in the state. God has helped. The media has helped me and the people of Jammu & Kashmir have helped me.
But hasn't Ghulam Nabi Azad been riding on luck all the time --- be it Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, or Sonia Gandhi?
It is not that I am close to anybody. Everybody is close to work. I am one person who works for 20 hours everyday. So all the names that you have mentioned were close to the work that I did and not to me in person.
Are you happy that you have accepted the challenge?
As I said earlier, I would have been happier had I come to the state one-and-a-half years ago. Then I could have won 60 seats for the Congress.
Did Sonia Gandhi's election rallies help the party in any manner? They were not very well-attended.
If you feel that the rally in Jammu was poorly attended, then there is something wrong with your concept of a good rally. Yes, the crowd in Srinagar was not as good as we had expected. But at least someone had dared to address a rally there. Even the state chief minister could not hold a rally on the very ground where Mrs Gandhi addressed a public meeting. We had at least 10,000 to 12,000 people there.
But has her appearance in Kashmir helped you?
Yes, it definitely has. It has sent a message to the people of the state that the Congress is very serious about their problems. The Congress is very concerned about their conditions. The Congress is concerned about solving the problem of Jammu & Kashmir. Strangely enough, Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, who has been talking on Kashmir globally, was missing from the poll campaign. He could not come and speak in Srinagar. Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, who is in charge of Jammu & Kashmir affairs, too could not come and speak. That is why I say Mrs Gandhi's meetings in Srinagar and Jammu were landmarks. She as opposition leader could do what they could not do as rulers of the country.
Why is the Congress apologetic about the 1975 accord with Sheikh
No, we have never been apologetic about the accord with Sheikh Abdullah. We have had the best of achievements to our credit, whether it was the Punjab Accord, Mizoram Accord, Assam Accord, etc.
What we are saying is that the Congress is more interested in the welfare of the state than the welfare of some individuals. We are more interested in the unity and integrity of the country. We did that accord to bring Sheikh Abdullah back to the mainstream. The National Conference does not want to talk to the Hurriyat Conference because it may have to lose power to bring them into the mainstream and are perhaps afraid of doing precisely that.
We are very clear in our mind that the first priority is to bring peace and normalcy in the state. This could be done by holding talks with every party and individual concerned, including the separatists. These talks would be held without any precondition, but within the framework of the Constitution of India.
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