The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Race for CM before tie-up

New Delhi/Srinagar, Oct. 11: The ungainly race to claim first right to the chief minister’s chair between prospective coalition partners, the Congress and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), took some of the shine off yesterday’s euphoria over a new beginning in Kashmir as there was little “new” in the scramble over Independents.

With 20 MLAs, the Congress claimed support of six Independents after reports of the PDP rustling up seven.

A desperate Congress even approached the RSS-backed Jammu State Morcha MLA, Ashwani Kumar Sharma. Jammu and Kashmir Congress president Ghulam Nabi Azad said he had the support of six Independents. “Two more are joining us and we hope to net another 10,” the chief ministerial candidate said, confirming seven independent MLAs had joined the PDP.

Azad also read out the names of MLAs he claimed were supporting the Congress and that included Sharma.

On its own, the PDP has won 16 seats and the battle for the loyalty of Independents has been triggered by each party’s eagerness to stake claim to the chief minister’s post as the largest group in a coalition. Azad’s claim to have enlisted the support of Independents came after unconfirmed reports that the PDP had taken its tally beyond the Congress’ to 23 by roping in Independents.

Possibly realising the damage the competition was causing to prospects for a coalition with the Congress, the PDP denied that Independents had come over into its fold. “Nobody has officially joined the party so far. These are all rumours,” its general secretary Tariq Hamid Karra said.

Newly-elected members of the PDP are meeting tomorrow at party president Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s house. His daughter and MLA, Mehbooba, kept Sayeed very much in the fray for the chief minister’s post and ruled herself out.

“The situation in Kashmir is too complex for people like Mehbooba Mufti or Omar Abdullah (the defeated Abdullah scion) to handle. We need people with experience to lead the government. I think neither of us has what it takes to deliver the goods,” she said.

Mehbooba added that in the informal talks going on with the Congress, the question of who would be chief minister had not come up yet. Warning that her party could not be bypassed in the choice of the leader of the government, she said: “No such decision should be taken which could further alienate the people of Kashmir.”

The Congress Working Committee, which met in the evening, felt Mehbooba should be considered for the post of deputy chief minister, while the choice of the chief minister should be left to Sonia Gandhi.

The CWC took pride in drubbing the BJP in Jammu, saying that under Sonia, the Congress could take on its opponent anywhere in the country, even Gujarat.

Soon after the meeting, Sonia said: “We are in touch with all like-minded parties for government formation. Everything will be sorted out amicably.”

Azad admitted that he did not want to become Jammu and Kashmir party chief. “I went there reluctantly, but today I want to admit that I was wrong and Soniaji was absolutely right.”

Formal discussions with Sayeed had yet to begin. “We will do that in a day or two,” Azad said.

He is counting on the support of four MLAs from Bhim Singh’s Panther Party, two CPM members and two elected unopposed from Ladakh.

But he had a surprise waiting from Bhim Singh who said chief ministership did not depend on numbers. “Why count us out'” he asked.

“We will like to seek support from secular parties like Congress, PDP and CPM in forming the government, though our strength is just four.”

The Democratic People’s Forum, with a strength of six Independents, said it would extend “issue-based” support to a Congress-PDP combine.

“We want a stable coalition,” its leader Ghulam Moiuddin Sofi said. Elected from Handwara, Sofi is believed to be a proxy candidate of the People’s Conference, a constituent of the separatist grouping, Hurriyat.

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