After poor Lok Sabha performance, National Conference trying to boost image ahead of assembly elections
The chief minister opened the iron gates which separated his mansion from the people and advertised his email address – efforts aimed at reconnecting with the common man.
At least for the main ruling party, it seems the debate over whether or not to repeal the law that confers special status to the state is not the core issue at the moment. Almost instantly after the election results humbled him, the chief minister opened the iron gates which separated his mansion from the people and advertised his email address – efforts aimed at reconnecting with the common man.
SMS facility on prepaid phone connections was restored after about four years, while the recruitment policy that made newly hired government employees work at half the salary for years was dumped and temporary positions are being made permanent.
Among other steps, the government increased the retirement age of its employees to 60 from 58 and withdrew cases filed under the Essential Services Maintenance Act against trade union leaders. On the party front, the NC is in the process of appointing Ali Mohammad Sagar as secretary-general replacing Sheikh Nazir, the ailing cousin of party leader Dr Farooq Abdullah.
Nazir, a confidant of late party founder Sheikh Abdullah, has not been keeping well for some time, hurting the NC organisationally at a time when it was going through a bad phase. The party has already identified candidates for the 46 assembly seats from Kashmir, sources said.
A similar exercise will soon be undertaken for Jammu and Ladakh too, but the announcement of the list would be made only after the NC and Congress formally decide to part ways, they said.
The Congress at the state level has already decided to end its partnership with the NC because it doesn’t see any benefit from the tie-up. There is also a possibility of the NC reversing the "generation shift" that the chief minister had effected by appointing two of his close friends – Devinder Singh Rana and Nasir Aslam Wani – as presidents of the party in Jammu and Kashmir provinces.
The appointments have triggered tensions between the ‘juniors’ and the old timers and there have been demands for Farooq Abdullah to take control of the party. While some of the populist steps taken by the government have a positive impact, a few also have a counter effect.
On every morning these days, a large crowd assembles in front of Omar Abdullah’s G-1 home in Srinagar to meet him. The chief minister said he also got more than 2,000 emails detailing reasons for the poll debacle. The restoration of the SMS facility has led many to wonder who actually imposed the curbs in 2010 at the peak of an unrest.
At the time Abdullah had put the blame on the central home ministry. But the order to restart the facility came from the chief minister’s office. This helped only in damaging his image, with some referring to him as a man who would try to put all the blame on New Delhi. The financial impact of some of the populist measures, such as those aimed at pleasing government staff, could be big and would fall on the next government.
J&K has a disproportionate number of employees - an army of about half a million employees to manage a state of 12.5 million people. The state is spending more on employees than on people.
For the current fiscal year, for instance, a little over half the anticipated overall government expenditure of Rs 36,289 crore will be on wages and pensions. And, in spite of the government’s efforts to paint a people-friendly image and NC’s steps to fix its organisational problems, getting out of where the voters have dumped it in the April-May parliamentary elections will be a formidable task for the main ruling party.
The NC and Congress, partners in the government, could not manage even one of the six Lok Sabha seats in the state. Based on the Lok Sabha election results, opposition People’s Democratic Party could get 41 seats in the 87-member state assembly, followed by the BJP in 37.
For the PDP and BJP, the target is how to retain the lead in the assembly segments where they emerged top in the Lok Sabha polls, while for the NC and Congress, which are unlikely to partner this time, the question is how to avoid another rout.
For the chief minister, Congress’ election rout has taken away the cushion he had in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi, to fall back on. Farooq Abdullah is back home after failing to retain his Srinagar seat, and is angry about the worst-ever performance of the NC, Kashmir’s oldest regional party.
The party is doing an introspection, and NC insiders say this has led to the identification of issues at the core of the mess. The death of 125 youths in the 2010 summer unrest – which led to the ban on SMSes – and hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 were the two major factors that the party feels caused it the electoral downfall.
The party – it was a partner in the central government on both occasions - is still in a quandary about how to save its face on the two issues. On 2010 unrest, the chief minister wanted to extend the scope of a commission of inquiry that is investigating (now for three years) the killing of 17 civilians.
On the Guru front, Omar lacks a sellable response. So the decision is to take the public apology route during campaigning, NC insiders said. Meanwhile, the flurry of populist measures from the government has put pressure on the PDP in Kashmir and the BJP in Jammu.
Both parties lack the governance lever in the state. In fact, the BJP here has some advantage over the PDP because it has a minister – Jintedra Singh Rana – in Narendra Modi’s government in Delhi.
Encouraged by the Lok Sabha results, the BJP hopes the Modi wave would continue in the assembly elections too. But, it remains practically impossible for the party to come closer to governance in the state for want of numbers – its vote base is concentrated in Jammu and Ladakh regions and without any seats from Kashmir, it won’t get a majority.
To keep the cadres active and in touch, the BJP is selling many things, and they include abrogation of Article 370, giving union territory status to Ladakh and even attempts for a separate state of Jammu. Even some sections in the Congress have started talking about a separate governance council for Jammu. For the PDP, "we have no option but to stay engaged with the masses," spokesman and lawmaker Naeem Akhter said.
"Populism does not work always," he said, referring to the recent steps by the government. Populism acts like a double-edged weapon. If it pays, the NC can have a better tally this autumn. If it fails, governance for the next government will become slightly difficult because it has to foot the bills of the promises made by its predecessor. But that is how politics works.