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Centre clings on to Farooq

New Delhi, Nov. 3: Farooq Abdullah may have lost the elections in Kashmir but the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in Delhi does not want to lose him.

In power or out of it, Delhi believes that Farooq and his National Conference remain important players in Kashmir. His party could have been rejected by the people but he still has a strong following in the state, the Centre believes. The Vajpayee government thus has no desire to distance itself from its former ally who has proved time and again that he is a true nationalist, a senior official said.

The government is in no mood to chart a course for a collision with Farooq and wants him to remain part of the NDA coalition. “It is necessary to have him on our side,” the official explained. The National Conference remains the single largest party in the Assembly despite sitting in the Opposition, he said.

The government’s views about the importance of Farooq is seconded by political analysts in Srinagar. “If tomorrow Farooq Abdullah were to turn his back on New Delhi and look towards Islamabad, he will be wooed and cosseted by Pakistan. Those who are cursing him today will fall at his feet,” said an analyst who did not wish to be identified.

Delhi is aware of Farooq’s utility in Kashmir. They also know he has aggressively defended India’s position both in and out of the country. Son Omar Abdullah, as junior foreign minister, also played a pivotal role in projecting India’s image abroad and countering Pakistan’s propaganda on Kashmir.

The Centre knows that Kashmir will come more and more into focus as international pressure for a resolution of the dispute increases. On his last trip to India, US secretary of state Colin Powell had made the point that free and fair elections in Kashmir was the first step in the right direction. But this is not the end of the road. It has to be followed up by negotiations for a resolution of the dispute, which had soured relations between the neighbours and led to fears of a nuclear flashpoint in South Asia.

India would like to have Farooq on its side in any negotiations on Kashmir. His hardline, anti-Pakistan stand will be a counter to the pro-Pakistani elements in the state. Vajpayee had made it a point to have Omar as part of his delegation. “Apart from the fact that he was a good minister and could articulate the government’s views well, as a Muslim from Kashmir, his words lent extra weight to India’s pronouncements,” pointed out a senior foreign ministry official.

For the time being, Farooq is unlikely to turn his back on the Centre. He and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed are sworn rivals and the National Conference leader knows that the new government could open several cases against him and senior members of his Cabinet.

“The knives are out for the National Conference. Farooq Abdullah knows he needs friends in high places in New Delhi at the moment. He is unlikely to do anything that will rock the boat,” a National Conference party manager confided.

The Vajpayee government wants to accommodate Farooq in Delhi, but so far no one has figured out what post would be suitable for him. “We will have to figure out what he does best and talk to him before finalising our plans,” said a senior official.

At one time, there was talk of him becoming a roving ambassador for the government, or perhaps a minister in the Cabinet. But with Farooq not agreeing to step down and hold elections under Governor’s Rule, the plan fizzled out. The Centre will have to find a suitable senior position and an offer that Farooq cannot turn down.

Before A.P.J. Abdul Kalam came on the scene, when Maharashtra Governor P.C. Alexander was the top runner for President, Farooq had been promised the Vice-President’s post. Delhi was then eager to take out Farooq from Kashmir and let his son take the reins.

As Omar is more serious and hard working than his flamboyant father, Delhi — aware of the mismanagement in Srinagar — was keen to make the father-and-son switch. But with Alexander's candidature falling through, the subsequent moves were scuttled.

Delhi still regards Omar as a potential future chief minister of Kashmir and believe he will work out a strategy to get the National Conference back on track before the next elections. Besides, no one expects the current coalition to last its full term.

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