The row over Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah’s decision to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) threatens to derail the political ties between the Congress-National Conference and the coalition in the state.
The big question is not whether Omar can keep up his word to remove the Act from certain areas of J&K as announced by him on October 21. Rather, it is whether the Congress will let him continue in the saddle after January next year, by which time he would have completed three years in office.
Omar became chief minister in 2009 because his friendship with Rahul Gandhi, the AICC general secretary. Rahul ensured Omar had a free rein. Unlike in the case of the previous arrangement with the People Democractic Party (PDP), the Congress did not insist on a rotational arrangement of chief minister’s post– because Rahul had full confidence in Omar’s abilities. A sullen J&K Congress had to accept Rahul’s diktat to support Omar without any condition.
But Omar track record in office has left much to be desired. It has emboldened local Congress leaders to raise a banner of revolt against the arrangement.
Omar is naturally surprised by the behaviour of J&K Congress leaders. The idea to lift AFSPA was not his idea alone. Home Minister P Chidambaram, with whom he has had several rounds of discussions, and mooted the proposal as part of a political package to solve the Kashmir tangle.
True, Defence Minister A K Antony and Army chief V K Singh were not warm to the idea because they were not sure J&K would remain peaceful in the months ahead. The AFSPA gives sweeping powers to the Army to conduct operations without any legal question being asked in the event of any death or violence.
What weighed heavily on the minds of Chidambaram and Omar was that local population has been resentful of the Army’s sweeping powers under the AFSPA. Often, public outrage over custodial and encounter deaths have forced politicians to scurry for cover.
There’s no doubt there is a political angle to Omar’s decision. He was beleaguered by one controversy after another slamming his party and wanted to deflect the PDP’s campaign against him.
Omar also wanted to silence the local Congress, which wants to install its nominee as chief minister by pressing for a review of the Congress-NC arrangement.
With J&K Congress president Saifuddin Soz criticizing Omar for announcing the withdrawal of AFSPA without any consultation, the chief minister is naturally very upset that his plans can go haywire.
If Omar cannot implement his decision in the next few days, he will cut a sorry figure and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti will not let go the opportunity to taunt and run him down further.
Omar thinks that his decision to limit the AFSPA to only border areas and belts having militant movement should have been welcomed by the Congress when the Home Ministry had no problems.
Of course, the security agencies still think that the Kashmir Valley is volatile and are against the Army being deprived of immunity when it acts against terrorists.
Local Congress leaders say Omar’s luck is running out and it is doubtful whether his friendship with Rahul will help him again. They have minced no words in conveying to the Gandhis that Omar is a disaster and that the Congress must rewrite the terms of engagement and endearment with the National Conference now.