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Cong, Omar snip ties with ‘me first’ salvo

- Break-up puts Valley on course for fiercest battle for power in decades
Omar

New Delhi, July 20: The stage is being set for the most prickly battle for power in Jammu and Kashmir in decades. Not least because the ruling allies — the National Conference (NC) and the Congress — formally parted ways today, bickering even about who was the first to flash divorce documents.

The lame duck alliance remains in power for the while but the partners are now in open slugfest ahead of Assembly elections due in October-November.

The Congress announced today it would contest all 87 Assembly seats on its own, calling curtains on the six-year power alliance. But Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and NC chief Omar Abdullah moved swiftly to claim he was the first to pull the plug on it 10 days ago.

His decision to go it alone in the forthcoming Assembly polls was spelt out in a private meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi 10 days ahead of the Congress’s announcement, Omar said.

Omar’s NC, too, intends fielding candidates in all Assembly segments, rendering the contest multi-cornered and potentially the keenest in recent memory. Other contenders for power in J&K include the Modi-fired BJP and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Since 2002, the PDP and the NC have taken turns to rule the state with coalitions. The Congress has been part of both ruling dispensations (with PDP in 2002-2008; with NC in 2008-2014) and even had a spell in the hot seat when Ghulam Nabi Azad took over reins from the Mufti as part of an internal power-share agreement. (Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state mandated to six-year Assembly terms.)

Shortly upon the announcement from Ambika Soni of the Congress today, Omar put out a tweet saying it was the NC that had decided to part ways. “I met Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi ten days ago and thanked her for all her support. I conveyed the NC’s decision to fight the elections alone,” Omar said, adding “...also told her I wouldn’t be making a public announcement because I didn’t want it to look opportunistic.”

The chief minister sounded a little peeved the Congress had made it sound like it had decided to pull out.

“For it to be spun now as a Congress decision is wrong and a complete distortion of facts,” he complained. “Not surprising, but incorrect nevertheless.”

Soon after his meeting with Sonia, Omar had unilaterally declared NC candidates for 32 Assembly seats.

The NC-Congress alliance has been labouring under factional stress for close to three years now but managed to stay afloat on power imperatives. Of late, though, the rank and file in both parties had begun to push for a break on the ground that they required greater operating room.

Following the Congress defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, voices in the NC began to openly blame their own drubbing on the “credibility deficit” of the Congress. The Congress returned the compliment, alleging the “poor record and public image” of the Omar government was responsible.

JKPCC chief Saifuddin Soz has long been an active, though sidelined, proponent of sundering ties. It was no surprise that his son and empanelled Congress spokesperson, Salman Anees Soz, was among the first to welcome the rupture.

“This expands the choice in Jammu and Kashmir,” Soz Junior said. “It is good for the people and good for the party.”

The NC is approaching the elections on the back of its worst-ever Lok Sabha performance earlier this year. It lost all the seats it contested; party patron Farooq Abdullah was handed the first electoral failure of his career, beaten by PDP minnow Tariq Karra.

The PDP, in fact, wrested all three Valley seats for the Lok Sabha, and is widely believed to be on a comeback course.

Omar announced today that Farooq Abdullah will not contest the Assembly elections owing to poor health. He himself remains undecided on which seat he will fight.

Omar currently represents the Ganderbal home borough of the Abdullahs but he may well choose to migrate to a safer place. Sonwar and Hazratbal, both in Srinagar, are possible alternatives, NC sources told The Telegraph.

The PDP’s Mufti threw an open dare shortly after the Lok Sabha polls, announcing himself the chief ministerial candidate and asking the electorate to throw out the NC-Congress dispensation.

The NC and the PDP are chiefly Valley-based parties, though, and will wrestle for upmanship over 46 of the Assembly seats located there. The BJP and the Congress will play chief combatants in the Jammu region (37 seats) and probably Ladakh (4 seats) as well. The BJP took the Ladakh Lok Sabha seat against the run of expectations this May.

The decision to go it alone will open up many more seats for the NC to contest in all three areas of the state, but Omar must worry on several counts as he approaches his first bid to retain power.

The Lok Sabha polls were a fair index his government suffers a formidable image deficit. The PDP, meantime, has been grinding support across the state, and especially in traditional Valley strongholds of the NC.

It may do the NC’s fortunes little good that the Congress, even though minimally, will split the Valley vote.

“There are concerns,” admitted a senior NC leader, “and Omarsaheb has been talking about them quite openly. There is still time and we are working on corrective measures.”

Asked if they suspected the Congress could switch sides and go back to the PDP, he remarked sardonically, “Who can tell? They have done that in the past. Or the PDP could break bread with Narendra Modi’s BJP, don’t rule anything out.”

The PDP, on its part, has played it deftly this far, keeping its options open and future allies guessing.

In a Valley election, the slightest pre-poll sniff of a deal with either the Congress or the BJP can be a thing to avoid. Omar has rid himself a psychological liability, the Mufti will remain keen he doesn’t throw away any premature hints either.