September 18, 2002


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The Election Interview/Omar Abdullah
JK Election:w

'The BJP is going to have a very difficult time in J&K election'

Confident that his party will retain power in Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference president Omar Abdullah was generous with granting appointments to journalists from the national and international media. His home in Srinagar was packed with reporters waiting to gauge his mood a day after the first phase of polling in the state.

In an interview to Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay, he spoke about his party's prospects, its problems and the road ahead.

With the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly election over, how do you look forward to the three other phases ?

I think the first phase has set a good trend, the turnout was decent in most areas. One of the areas left us with some cause for concern but for different reasons. Sangrama (assembly constituency) has been under great pressure of a terrorist threat. The other was Sopore. But by and large, if you look at it, not only has the turnout been a healthy trend but the reports from the observers from (foreign) embassies and the international media have suggested -- barring a few stray cases -- the polls have been fair and without unnecessary coercion. The international media has been fairly satisfied with what they saw during the first phase.

Have these foreign diplomats arm-twisted the central government so that they could be present in Jammu and Kashmir during the election?

No, certainly not. Democratic India is a free country. They are accredited to the Government of India and are free to travel in the country. They have an interest in the elections in J&K. We have nothing to hide. Therefore, it serves our interest to have them here. My only regret perhaps is that we should have had more people who are willing to come and take an unbiased look at our election.

What is the feedback from your party activists regarding the first phase?

As far as the morale of my party workers is concerned, it is as high as it was before. We know the threat we face. But we have always said we will not be cowed down by these threats. We will go out and send our message across and that is what we are going to continue to do.

What steps have you taken to protect party workers in places like Srinagar where traditionally the turnout has been low?

I have no great expectations of a high turnout from Srinagar. Urban areas tend to show a lower trend. Srinagar has its own characteristics and that being the case, we will have to wait and see how that one plays out. As far as taking people to the polling booths is concerned, we don't do that. As a political party, we are not in the business of transporting [people] to the polling booths. The security forces have to send the message across that if people want to exercise their franchise, they will be protected. That is what we have sought to do in the first phase and that is what we will continue to do in the other three phases.

On the political plane, what are you doing to boost the morale of your party workers?

We are unlike the other parties, we are leading from the front. A threat from the militants does not deter us in our election campaign, [or] at our rallies. The only problem we have faced in our campaign is the weather. But otherwise, no single activity of either mine or my father's has been cancelled on account of the security threat. And this is something the party workers see. It is not as if we put them in front of the firing line and we sit at home. We are up and about -- addressing as many rallies as possible with a view to two things. One, boosting the morale of our party workers and two, send our message across to the voter.

What motivates the separatists to wean themselves away from India?

I think that trend is on the decline. If you look at the 1990s, the entire spectrum of terrorists operating in J&K were local Kashmiris. Today, 70 to 80 per cent of those operating are non-Kashmiris, they are not from India. I think that shows how the separatist elements are unable to motivate and wean away a significant number of local Kashmiri youth. It is also true that certain things cause a problem like the continuing economic stagnation, lack of economic opportunities, stray incidents of human rights violations. Because the moment security forces step outside the purview of the law, it becomes very difficult to perhaps suggest to the same youth that their future is secure in this environment. This is something which we have to protect ourselves against.

Do you see any contradictions in election issues in regions like Ladakh which desires Union territory status and in Jammu which wants statehood?

Elections always throw up new issues. I am concerned that the division of Ladakh on religious lines is such a strong issue. I do not believe the issue of Union territory status for Ladakh finds support across all religions in the region. So there is no support for it in Kargil at all. There is no support among Muslim Ladakhis in Leh, it is only the Buddhists who feel their rights have been trampled upon or that they haven't got their due. But this is something the National Conference government should [do if] it returns to power. We will begin to address to see where their view is justified and where it is not. If it is unjustified, then there is nothing we will do about it. Nobody can demand more than their fair share.

As far as statehood for Jammu is concerned, I think the conflict within the BJP and the Statehood Morcha is the answer to your question. The BJP state unit has said it doesn't want to tie-up with the Jammu Statehood Morcha. Obviously, they realise they don't have the requisite support in Jammu for trifurcation that they would like to believe. Therefore, I think the election result itself will show when the BJP comes back with barely one or two seats in Jammu. It is going to be wiped out from there.

Which party do you think will emerge as the likely winner?

I think the loss of the BJP will be the Congress party's gain to a large extent and we are hoping to take advantage of that. The BJP is going to have a very, very difficult time in this election.


For a number of reasons. Firstly, trifurcation only appeals to hardcore elements of the voters in Jammu. But they are not nearly enough to produce a good election result. Secondly, I think people are disappointed with the BJP as a whole. It came with the slogan of a party with a difference. But there are so many contradictions within the BJP.

What is the difference?

The only difference is that what the Congress tried to do in 40 years, the BJP tried to do in four years. You have their whole lot of scams, the petrol pump scam, land scam, the works. Coming to their contradictions, they talk about the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in their manifesto and also the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. The deputy prime minister and Mr Chamanlal Gupta in a debate in Parliament say there will be no trifurcation of J&K. While they talk about trifurcation, Mr Arun Jaitley is discussing devolution of powers/autonomy for J&K with the National Conference. Obviously, these are contradictions from which the BJP cannot escape.

But your party is part of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre.

This is not an NDA election. To an extent, there is contradiction between the National Conference and the BJP in our basic manifesto and political philosophy. Obviously, this has an effect on us. I am a little disappointed and my party was surprised at the manifesto the BJP put out. While we know that abrogation of Article 370 is their stated objective, what we were most surprised by was the support to trifurcation in their manifesto in spite of the deputy prime minister's commitment in Parliament. Now you are either taking Parliament for a ride or the people of J&K for a ride. Either way, it is not a healthy trend.

What would be the fallout on the relationship between your party and the NDA as a whole?

I don't expect any drastic changes as such immediately. I think the only thing my party obviously has to discuss, after I have left the Union government after the election, [is] whether the National Conference will seek to have another ministerial representative in the central government. That is something we haven't decided yet and we won't decide till after the election.

Since you have mentioned the inevitability of your leaving the NDA government, what would be your priorities?

There are so many priority areas. Among the first is getting the administration back on track. By the time the election is over and an elected government is in place, it will effectively have an administration without any political control for over two months.

Our first job will be to bring about political accountability to the administration. Then there are some promises I made regarding the accountability of the special operations group. Then we have to take a look at the recruitment structure, thereby allowing us to start action on our commitment of at least one government job for every household.

Is it statutorily possible to have the right to employment?

That is true but we will have to have a look at this. I believe it is possible. It is the right of the government to give government jobs. Taking a look at the state human rights commission is another priority and ensuring how this can be strengthened even further. There are a number of cases before the state human rights commission and they are unable to make any progress. I would like to get somebody from New Delhi, a human rights specialist himself who is also a part of the UN Human Rights Commission. Right to the Information Bill is something I had promised. These are gradual things with which I intend to start.

What, according to you, is the roadmap of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference after the election?

I am not sure it is possible for the Hurriyat to have a roadmap.

Why is that so?

I think the contradictions within the Hurriyat are so strong it is difficult to imagine how they are going to have a roadmap. They are pulling in different directions. Yasin Malik, is an azadi specialist and won't settle for anything less, [Syed Ali Shah] Geelani is pro-Pak and says he is the biggest Pakistani, so that is his line, Abdul Gani Bhat says the choice is only India or Pakistan, there is no third alternative. Maulvi Umer Farooq says he is willing to discuss either autonomy or azadi with the Government of India, Sajjad and Bilal Lone have put up five proxy candidates in Handwara and so they are almost a part of the mainstream political process. So how is it possible to talk to the Hurriyat as an umbrella organisation? I believe it is now time to start dealing with individuals.

Have you thought about a shadow cabinet?

A shadow cabinet would only be necessary if the National Conference is not returned to power. We are confident of returning to power with a healthy working majority. Beyond that, there is really no point in speculating.

What will be your focus? Continuity or change?

As has been with the issue of mandates, it will be mix and match. There will be no drastic changes and no complete continuity. A lot depends on who will be re-elected.

A lot of Kashmiri leaders have voiced their grievance on the reported withdrawal of funds from the Centre to J&K?

Obviously, this has been a matter of concern for our state government as much as our plan size has been frozen for the last three years. This year fortunately, Mr Jaswant Singh has been very forthcoming in assisting J&K in plan and non-plan allocations. Beyond that, I think the problem is looking for money in Delhi. The problem is not the lack of money but where to look for it. This I have learned after having worked in Delhi.

New Delhi has this amazing ability of hiding money under various headings and subheadings. By the time you find that money, the year is almost over and in that the fund lapses. So what we really need is to gear up our resident commission's office in Delhi. After that, I guess it depends on relations between the state and the Centre to see how well we can address the concerns of the people. But Delhi is also not a bottomless pit. They have obligations on their resources and we have to recognise that.

How do you appraise your role as minister of state for external affairs, especially in handling Pakistan?

I think self-appraisal is always going to be biased and it is always better to let other people make that appraisal. The simple fact is that Pakistan has had a slightly more difficult time because I am from J&K. Therefore, Islamabad's propaganda, to a large extent, was negated because I know exactly what was happening here, what the people were saying and where the Pakistanis were lying.

Design: Dominic Xavier

Jammu and Kashmir Elections 2002: The complete coverage

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