Congress’ enduring bloom in J&K

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Helping hand The Congress has been a part of ruling coalitions for 38 years
Helping hand The Congress has been a part of ruling coalitions for 38 years. Photo: AP

Come elections, political parties in Jammu and Kashmir flock to court the Congress. The party hasn’t formed a government in the state since 1975, but that has hardly kept it away from power.

Unlike in other states, in J&K the party is a perennial kingmaker. The two major political parties in the state — the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — have relied on the Congress’ support to form governments. And this reality has not only made the politics in the state predictable, it has made change a difficult proposition.

Ahead of the General and Assembly elections in 2014, the Congress in J&K has its feet up in the air, as both the NC and the PDP are aggressively wooing the party.

Even as the Congress flirts with the party in power and the principal opposition in the state simultaneously, it is in no mood to reveal its cards. In fact, a delegation of party workers recently met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and requested him that the party should “go at it alone” in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

State Congress President Saifuddin Soz says the Congress could form the next government in the state with the support of one of the regional parties. He has also termed any talk of a pre-poll alliance with either of the major parties, “premature”.

“The Congress has made deep inroads in the Kashmir Valley. We hope to further increase our tally in the province,” says Soz, who thinks that most panchs and sarpanchs are ideologically allied to the Congress. Only four of the party’s current 17 seats in the state come from the Valley.

For the NC and the PDP, however, there is little but to try and be in the good books of the Congress. Neither can partner with the BJP because its communal image would alienate their voters. For the NC, which rules the state with the Congress’ support, the alliance is the only means to extend its rule for another term. Similarly, for the opposition PDP, there is no way to return to power but through a partnership with the Congress.

Adding to their woes are the new crop of regional parties — People’s Conference, led by former separatist Sajjad Gani Lone and J&K Awami Itihad led by an independent legislator Engineer Rashid. Together with the NC and the PDP, this takes the total number of political parties in the fray for the elections to six. Even a modest performance by the new parties, which are based in the Valley, will reduce the NC’s and the PDP’s seat count. With its base intact in Jammu, the Congress holds the cards to power, making it a natural ally of the party in power.

“There are two factors at play: if the Kashmiri electorate is divided as is being aggressively attempted by New Delhi, this could make the Congress stronger by default,” says Naeem Akhter, chief spokesman of the PDP.

But Akhter thinks that the Congress’ numbers will depend on its electoral performance in Jammu. “There could be a prospect that the Congress could make a good showing in the next polls. But this depends on the party’s performance in Jammu where the BJP’s chances could be leveraged by Narendra Modi.”

Conscious of its strategic advantage in the state, the Congress is playing hardball. In its convention in Jammu early this month, which was attended by the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress leaders opposed any move to enter into a pre-poll alliance with the NC. Instead, Azad exhorted his party members to work hard so that the Congress emerges as the single-largest party in the state.

“We aren’t able to implement our policies and programmes in the state as we are in a coalition government,” Azad told the party workers at the meeting. “So we have to work hard and make sure that we secure at least 50 seats in the upcoming Assembly polls and form our own government.”

riyaz@tehelka.com

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