Omar Abdullah's escape from Ganderbal trigger a mess in the National Conference
Omar says he did not flee Ganderbal. Instead he groomed a local leader to ensure the people do not face problems for being in a VVIP constituency.
But Bhat’s “liabilities” are beyond banks and his children. An Abdullah loyalist since the days of Sheikh Abdullah, Bhat was the de facto bridge between Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and the people of Ganderbal who elected him.
Ambitious to reach assembly, Bhat had tried every method when he was with the NC, and is even alleged to have bribed Haji Yousuf, a close aide of National Conference Chairperson Farooq Abdullah. And when he demanded the “investment” back, it became a major crisis in the party forcing, Omar one day, to call Haji to his home.
After that meeting, Omar handed over Haji to the state police’s special crime investigation branch on September 29, 2011. Haji died the same night, allegedly of cardiac arrest, triggering a political storm and forcing a commission of enquiry.
Though Justice (retired) HS Bedi has already submitted his report, nobody knows its contents, barring a brief official statement that said the commission had absolved Omar of any charges. Even as Haji’s son took the case to the Supreme Court, the characters of the sensational case changed their loyalties.
Raja Aijaz Ali, the inspector general of police (crime) at the time and who took Haji into custody, retired and is contesting on People’s Democratic Party ticket from Uri. Salam Reshi, who too allegedly paid a bribe to Haji, defected to the PDP from the NC, while Bhat got the Congress mandate for Ganderbal, three hours after he joined the party.
“You can go and ask his ministers Akbar Lone and Mian Altaf who came to my house in the dead of the night and begged for my silence (on the bribe issue),” Bhat said on the side-lines of a small public meeting he held in a workers courtyard. “Had I opened my mouth, Omar’s government would have crumbled.”
Bhat may not win, but is sure to dent NC’s prospects. “It was me who would send crowds for their (NC leaders) audience in Srinagar,” Bhat said. “But they always treated us like cattle, handing us over from one generation to another and getting us nowhere.”
Bhat was brought up in the NC and his problem now is to readjust to a new setup in which he has to negate everything he stood for until now. His past is now his biggest liability.
Ganderbal has always remained in focus since the 1975 accord between former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah. When the Congress decided to get the NC leader as the chief minister in a Congress dominated house, the requirement of managing a safe seat for the leader arose.
Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, a law returned-MLA, resigned from the Ganderbal seat and paved way for his election. Since then, Ganderbal has remained the “king’s constituency” as it was always represented by the Abdullahs and considered a sort of political inheritance.
Sheikh Abdullah was elected from Ganderbal twice, in 1975 and 1977. After his death, son Farooq Abdullah contested and won from the constituency in 1983, 1987 and 1996. The third-generation Abdullah, Omar, lost from Ganderbal in his maiden attempt in 2002, but won in 2008 to become the chief minister.
After representing the seat for six times by the family, when Omar, seeking a re-election, chose Sonawar (Srinagar) and Beerwa (Budgam) instead of Ganderbal, it became major news.
VVIP constituencies face peculiar problems. As their representatives get entangled in larger responsibilities, they become inaccessible and the instant gate-keeping creates wedges. In the past six years, Omar appointed at least three people to stay in touch with his voters.
Apart from Bhat, Gulam Ahmad Saloora and Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, the state’s former chief secretary pitch-forked to the house of elders, were given this responsibility. But those who represented Omar have deserted the party. Bhat is a Congressman, Saloora founded his own outfit to avenge his humiliation by the Abdullahs and Rasool joined the PDP.
The future of the NC in its bastion now rests on the fate and work of a former cop, Ishfaq Jabbar. Son of Sheikh Jabbar, one of the 14 MLAs who defected from Farooq Abdullah-led NC in 1984 and installed his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah as chief minister, Ishfaq personally contested against Omar in 2008. Later he joined the NC.
Omar says he did not flee Ganderbal. Instead, he says, he groomed a local leader to ensure the people do not face problems for being in a VVIP constituency. He is not completely wrong. The major criticism Omar is getting in Ganderbal is less about development and more about access. “After he won, he made a promise that he would spend every Thursday in Ganderbal and would construct a small apartment to stay connected,” Mohammad Akbar of Sehpora said. “He built a flat but it was never opened.”
“Every time we went to meet him, we were turned back from his gates,” said Arshad, a young graduate. “We obviously should have somebody who is accessible and local. We are not cattle that can be converted into an inheritance.”
Omar has upgraded their schools, laid good roads, declared majority of villages as backward (enabling them fall under a sort of reserved category for job), brought a central university to the town and started the work on a power project.
At the peak of the 2010 unrest, Ganderbal was the only place where nobody was arrested, killed or injured.
But Omar skipped trusting any local chieftain, fearing the proxy might create his own goodwill. Most of the works were managed through non-local intermediaries. Some of them even grabbed local jobs and appointed outsiders. Absence of local stake-holding prevented Omar to stake credit for the things he did in Ganderbal.
Now, Bhat, Saloora and to a small extent Rasool, the people he trusted in the past are eating into Abdullahs’ vote bank. Old workers are uncomfortable supporting Jabbar for his father’s role in the 1984 rebellion. They do not reconcile with the fact that the NC in its bastion is finally in a Congressman’s protection.
All this is hurting the party’s prospects. The natural beneficiary is going to be the PDP which has fielded Qazi Afzal again from the constituency. An upbeat Qazi is more busy in having sumptuous Wazwan lunches than rallying around because he thinks he “lacks a contest” as the situation is “one sided”.
“People know the chief minister is always busy. But they expected him to visit them once after the floods (in September),” Qazi said. “The entire district was on its toes for eight days – improving dykes and supplying boats to minimise losses.” Qazi says he will get a major chunk of votes from the NC because that party’s members “are the main initiators for anti-NC wave”.
Jabbar, the NC candidate, is managing small crowds. He sounds confident of making the best of the intensely bipolar contest. He knows Omar’s decision of shifting to another segment was better. But he is unable to stop wagging tongues reading an escape in Omar’s decision.
As Bhat starts speaking to small crowd, the slogan is: Omar Tschul Berou, Lala Banouv Hero (As Omar fled to Beerwa, Bhat became a hero).