The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kashmir allies married to a mission

Will the People’s Democratic Party-Congress coalition government complete its full six-year term in office' Or will it collapse under the weight of its contradictions'

There is no dearth of sceptics who are convinced that the state should count its blessings if the government even lasts the three years that PDP’s Mufti Mohammed Sayeed will be chief minister. Despite all odds, there are signs that the coalition experiment may succeed where far more homogeneous political formations have failed.

Cynicism at the PDP-Congress government is rooted in the experience of coalitions in Jammu and Kashmir, and the obvious tensions between the main parties to the alliance. The Congress has been involved in two previous coalitions in the state, and both failed.

In 1975, the Congress made way for the National Conference after the accord between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi. Syed Mir Qasim stepped down as chief minister, and Sheikh Abdullah took over, with the Congress supporting the NC government from outside. As soon as the Congress government fell in Delhi after the Emergency in 1977, the state Congress unit, led then by none other than Mufti, withdrew support to Sheikh Abdullah’s government. That was the end of the first experiment.

In 1987, the Rajiv Gandhi-Farooq Abdullah alliance led to the disastrous elections, where widespread rigging is believed to have helped spark off the militant movement.

Almost everyone agrees that the 1987 NC-Congress coalition was a terrible mistake on the part of both the parties. Thus, the second experiment in coalition politics failed as well.

But experience alone is not responsible for the lack of faith on the part of many in the staying power of the PDP-Congress coalition. Murmurs of discontent at the Congress conceding the chief ministership for the first three years to the PDP are getting louder. Congress MLAs from Jammu, and some even from the Kashmir valley are openly criticising the decision.

Indeed, the fortnight that it took for the PDP and Congress to arrive at a compromise speaks of the variety of differences between the two parties. The constituencies of the PDP and the Congress are starkly different. The PDP won all its 16 seats from the Valley, while the Congress secured 15 of its 20 seats from Jammu.

At a time when regional differences are at their most acute, it is not surprising that MLAs from Jammu have an agenda quite different from their counterparts in the Valley.

In addition, the Congress and the PDP have to rely on smaller parties and Independents to ensure a majority in the Assembly. The Panther’s Party had earlier insisted that it would only support the coalition if the chief minister was from Jammu, which has not happened.

Although the Panther’s Party seems to have ostensibly reconciled itself to Mufti, it remains to be seen if the party, known for its maverick views and actions, will remain committed to the coalition in the long term. On top of all this is the memory of the disastrous attempt at having a “rotational” chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. Can what failed in Uttar Pradesh succeed in Jammu and Kashmir'

Still, there is a good chance that the coalition will survive. Most important is the common minimum programme. Unlike other common agendas of coalition governments, which are worked out in an ad hoc manner without much thought, this is one programme that has been thrashed out after several brain-storming sessions at the level of the top leaders of all the partners. All the parties are committed to the programme, and have an incentive to ensure that it translates into reality.

No less critically, the Congress, with the largest number of MLAs in the coalition, has demonstrated unprecedented generosity in ensuring that the government is formed. It is well known that it was the intervention of Sonia Gandhi herself which made this possible. There was recognition in the Congress that it was far more important to get a government in place than to get the “15th state into the Congress kitty”.

The Congress will want the experiment to succeed, not just because it will have the chief ministership after three years, but also because it wants to signal, two years before the general election, that it can work with regional parties in an amicable fashion. Moreover, the Congress seems to genuinely believe that it is serving a “national cause” in Kashmir.

The PDP clearly has an incentive to ensure that the government survives for the three years that its leader is the chief minister. Its leadership also seems to recognise that it can never hope to form a government on its own. Its base is restricted to the Valley, and in the future too it will have to depend on others to stake a claim to power. And if, therefore, it is seen as the spoiler, few others will be willing to form a partnership with it.

Moreover, other than the Congress the PDP has few other coalition options even in the future. Allying with the BJP would be unacceptable to its cadre, and the NC is its arch political enemy.

There are, however, two other reasons that may ensure that the coalition partners stick together. All the parties know that if the coalition fails, the only gainer will be the NC. And they remain committed to preventing the NC from coming back to power. But, perhaps more significantly, all the coalition partners do view this as a historic opportunity to bring peace and stability back to Jammu and Kashmir. In that sense of mission may lie the real strength of the coalition.

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