Srinagar: Politics is the “art of the possible” for Omar Abdullah, except when it comes to doing anything that could give the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “a free run” in the Jammu & Kashmir polls, expected to be held next year.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, at his minimalistic office in a Srinagar neighbourhood filled with golden chinar trees, the former J&K chief minister and Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) vice-president said that all regional parties must fight the elections irrespective of whether full statehood is restored for J&K.
“The easiest way to give a victory to the BJP on a platter is to tell them that we won’t fight elections unless statehood is restored. Because they will not give you statehood then and they will make sure that you don’t fight,” he said
If regional parties do not fight elections, he added, “the BJP will sweep this election, both with their proxy parties in Kashmir, as well as towards the Jammu side”.
Abdullah said he has learned from his party’s “mistake” of earlier staying away from elections, a reference to the JKNC’s ‘boycott’ of the 2018 local body polls.
“All sensible parties opposed to the BJP must ensure that we do not give them a free run. We made a mistake by staying away from the elections in the past and we are not going to repeat that mistake again,” he added.
The last time J&K went to polls was during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, months before its statehood was revoked on 5 August, 2019, and it became a Union territory under the rule of the BJP central government.
During his visit to Kashmir this October, Home Minister Amit Shah said that the next assembly elections will be held once the electoral rolls are revised.
The road ahead is likely to be bumpy. The Gupkar alliance — a group of regional political outfits, including the JKNC, that is campaigning to restore statehood and special status in J&K — has been fractured by disagreements over its agenda and roadmap. The BJP, meanwhile, is pushing hard to make inroads in J&K, with Amit Shah holding large rallies and announcing reservation for the Pahari community earlier this month.
According to Abdullah, however, the Gupkar Alliance cannot be written off just yet. As for the BJP, he claims that it is only driven by electoral gain and is more adept at “juggling numbers” than following through on promises.
In a wide-ranging conversation on the afternoon of 12 October, Abdullah also spoke impassionedly of the “fight for the restoration of Article 370” — which gave special powers and ‘autonomy’ to J&K — and why former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad should not try to “weaken” this effort.
Also read: ‘Won’t talk to Pakistan, but wish to know what Kashmir’s people want,’ says Amit Shah in Baramulla
‘There’s no reason you won’t see an alliance…’
Although Abdullah hinted at a possible post-election arrangement with the parties that are part of the Gupkar alliance, he ruled out any chance of teaming up with the BJP to form a government.
“National Conference will not fight an election for a fractured mandate. The National Conference, unlike the BJP, is not fighting an election looking for an alliance of that nature,” he said.
While he emphasised that the Gupkar alliance was formed not to fight elections but to advocate for restoring Articles 370 and 35A and statehood for J&K, he suggested that the “political battle” could assume different forms.
“Politics is the art of the possible. I am not going to write an obituary of an alliance that is not dead. We have a political battle, we are fighting it. How we choose to fight that political battle is something that is open to variation, change, interpretation, and that, as times change, will also be modified,” he said. “There is no reason why you won’t see an alliance.”
What started as a six-party alliance now has only the JKNC, People’s Democratic Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Awami National Conference (ANC). The J&K People’s Conference and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) broke away from the alliance due to differences.
While the People’s Conference withdrew in January 2021, accusing the members of the alliance of fielding proxies in the District Development Council elections, JKPM broke away in July this year saying that the Gupkar alliance had “no clear roadmap”.
‘Where is the Rs 55,000 crore investment?’
Talking about Amit Shah’s rally in Baramulla last week, wherein he accused the “Abdullahs, Muftis, and Congress” of “ruining Kashmir” and not bringing any development, Omar Abdullah questioned the over Rs 55,000 crore investment the BJP claimed was brought in by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“They keep talking about this investment, but I want to ask, in which sector has it come? Has it come in tourism? Because I haven’t seen any new hotels coming up in J&K. Has it come into electricity generation? Because I haven’t seen any new power projects. Has it come in transmission? Because I haven’t seen any new transmission lines. Has it come in hospitals? Because I haven’t seen any new government hospitals. I have not seen any new education infrastructure,” he said.
“Please tell me which sector has seen this Rs 55,000 crore? If you can point it out to me, I will be happy,” he added.
He further said that most of the projects the BJP claims credit for were started by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that was in power before 2014.
“If you are showing me projects that came about in the previous UPA government, then at least put that caveat that we are inaugurating this project but it was started by somebody else,” he said.
“The bridge they keep talking about across the Chenab — that started when I was CM and Manmohan Singh was PM… You may be there to complete it, but it did not start with you. The tunnels on the national highway, the tunnels under Zojila, the four-lane Jammu-Srinagar highway, IIT, IIM, central university, AIIMS medical college — at least the start of these projects pre-date the BJP government,” he claimed.
‘They are counting yatris as tourists, juggling numbers’
Taking a dig at the Home Minister’s claims that 1.62 crore tourists visited J&K since January 2022, the highest number in the past 75 years, Abdullah said it is “incredible how well they are able to convert statistics to suit their convenience”.
Abdullah said that to reach the 1.62 crore figure the government has “conveniently added the yatris that came for the Amarnath Yatra and to visit Vaishno Devi”, which was not done in the past.
“As a considered decision, until recently, we never counted yatris as tourists because they never did any tourist activities. They would arrive in Jammu, go straight to Katra up to Vaishno Devi and then leave. They would not step a 100 metres left or right from that particular track. No matter how much we tried, we could never get them to visit Bhaderwah or Mansa or Patni,” he said.
Abdullah further said that Kashmir does not have the capacity to hold so many tourists, and claimed that no new hotels have been added in the past 20 years.
“We do not have the capacity to carry 1 crore 50-something lakh tourists. Where are the hotel beds? Where did these tourists stay? In their cars? On the roads? Flyovers? If there are no new hotels, how come suddenly these tourists came?” he asked. “The growth is nothing.”
According to Abdullah, the increase in the tourist footfall has been only “marginal”.
“If you speak to the local tourism industry, there has been an increase in tourist numbers, but it is marginal. The number of tourists coming to Kashmir is 14 to 18 lakh, which is not a big deal,” he said.
On reservations for Paharis
When Amit Shah announced reservation under the ST category for Pahari-speakers, he was lauded by many in the community, which comprises both Muslims and Hindus, for meeting a decades-old demand.
However, other non-Kashmiri-speaking communities like the Gujjars and Bakarwals have claimed this move will cut into their reservations, even though Shah has said this would not be the case.
On this matter, Abdullah said that the National Conference was never against giving reservations to Paharis.
“You must give Paharis their share but must protect the rights of the Gujjars. We have been advocates of ST status for Paharis. But Pahari ki thali mein khana dalne ke liye, humein Gujjaro ki thali mein chhed nahin karna hai (to fill the plates of the Paharis, we should not make holes in the plate of the Gujjars). What the Gujjars get, they must get, Paharis must get their rights,” he said.
When asked whether he thinks if the BJP announced the reservation keeping in mind electoral gains on the seven assembly seats with a Pahari majority, Abdullah said that the BJP is a “well-oiled election machine” and does nothing “without looking at the political fallout of it”
“Why would they not consider the electoral benefits of their decisions? Right from delimitation to adding non-local voters to the list, everything they have done is to help their electoral agenda and this also must be one of those things,” he said.
Many politicians in Kashmir have complained about the Delimitation Commission’s mapping of electoral constituencies for the Union territory of J&K, in which six new seats were added for Jammu division and only one for Muslim-majority Kashmir. Kashmir’s 68 lakh residents (according to 2011 Census) will have 47 legislators while Jammu, which has a population of about 53 lakh, will have 43.
Earlier this week in Jammu, a controversial order was introduced and then quickly withdrawn. The revoked order allowed residents who have lived in the region for less than a year to register as voters, leading to an outcry from regional political parties.
‘Govt trying to delay Article 370 hearing’
On the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K, Abdullah said that the fight to restore it is on and they are waiting for the Supreme Court to hear their case.
He said that the party opposed all changes that have been forced on J&K post 5 August 2019.
“Our opposition is not point by point, but an umbrella one… we are opposed to all changes brought into J&K post 5 August, simply because we believe that what happened then was illegal and unconstitutional. We hope that the Supreme Court begins hearings on this. We know that we have a strong case and we hope to get justice,” he said.
Abdullah, however, blamed the government for not letting the hearings in the case start.
“We believe we have a strong case and I personally believe that why we are not seeing this case in SC so far is because the government is trying its level best to delay it,” he said.
‘Ghulam Nabi Azad should not weaken fight’
Former J&K CM Ghulam Nabi Azad, who split from the Congress in August, floated a political party — Democratic Azad Party — in September.
In his first rally in Kashmir last month, Azad had said that it is unlikely that Article 370 will be restored in Kashmir, but the agenda will be to fight for complete statehood for the region.
On this, Abdullah said Azad should not “weaken the fight to restore article 370 by his remarks”.
“It is unfortunate when leaders surrender before they need to. No one is asking Azad to fight with us against 5 August 2019. He is free to choose not to. But to suggest that the fight is lost, even before the case has begun hearings in the SC, is unfortunate,” he said.
“I would humbly appeal to Azad sahib that he is welcome to not join us in this fight, but at least through his statement, don’t weaken this fight before we have had a chance to present our case before the SC. It is statements like these that will end being used as evidence when this case is finally heard,” he said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also read: ‘Give us a roof, water’: With Paharis assured ST tag, J&K’s Gujjars, Bakarwals fear more neglect