'Clear mandate can save J&K's special status'

National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah says that what was needed for protecting Article 35A and Article 370 was not an inter-party strategy but a people’s mandate. Greater Kashmir‘s Muddasir Ali spoke with the NC leader about the upcoming elections, challenges to the state’s special status, and a host of other issues. Excerpts:

Political parties including National Conference have been cautioning union government against any tinkering with state’s special status. Why can’t all parties come together to form a joint strategy on this sensitive issue and meet the Prime Minister?

Joint strategy for what? We don’t need a joint strategy. We need people’s mandate. As far as National Conference is concerned, protecting Article 35A and Article 370 will be an integral and critical part of our election campaign. When we have mandate from people we will go ahead and do what needs to be done.

Since imposition of governor’s rule in J&K, many state laws have been amended. But the state parties including NC, except for issuing statement, did nothing?

We didn’t keep silent. At every occasion we have raised our voices, both in terms of statements, agitating on the streets and sending delegation to governor and even raised the issue with home minister in Delhi. That is why we are constantly saying that role of Raj Bhavan is to take care of security and not to make political decisions or fiddle with state laws.

You have been demanding that state and parliamentary polls should be held simultaneously. Do you think that is going to happen?

We want early elections and we have told the Election Commission of India that since you have been able to hold Panchayat and urban local bodies’ polls and no lesser a person than Prime Minister has claimed success of those elections, both the elections should be held simultaneously. People are also unhappy with the governor rule over the way it has been used to make political decisions rather than administrative decision. That is why we believe that the elections should be held at the earliest.

But there has been no clear indication from the Government of India or the ECI on holding both elections together.

There is no justification for delaying Assembly elections unless your (New Delhi) intensions are wrong and unless you intend to continue to use Raj Bhavan to take political decisions, there is absolutely no reason why you can have parliament elections and not state elections.

If and when the elections are announced what are your expectations as far as voters’ turnout is concerned?

At the moment one doesn’t have great expectations because clearly the situation from 2014 has deteriorated continuously. If parliament elections take place separately from state elections then the parliament turnout will be negligible. If both elections are held together, then turnout will be slightly healthier. But how much it will change one will have to see. I only hope sufficient number of people turn out so that if New Delhi has any designs for interfering with the  mandate of people, that will not happen. We saw in recent Panchayat and ULB elections that turnout was so low that people were elected unopposed or with hardly seven or eight votes cast. We want a situation where right person is elected and that will only be possible if sufficient number of people come out and vote.

If a situation arises, will NC align with the BJP post Assembly elections?

There is no question of alliance with the BJP. We are asking people for mandate for our own government. We are not looking for alliance.

In case BJP returns to power in Delhi and it gets mandate in Jammu, and NC is in the run, what will be your stand then?

We are not looking for a divided mandate. We will be asking people to repose their faith in one single party. I am telling you, we are not looking for an alliance with BJP.

And what about possibility of alliance with PDP?

Why are you speculating. I am telling you we are asking for mandate of our own. The NC is not looking for a coalition government. Unlike PDP which has said that single party rule is detrimental to the state, the NC believes that coalition is detrimental. Since 2002 we had coalition government and look at where we are today.

The GoI’s recent decision to extend two constitutional amendments to J&K has created uproar in Kashmir. While some have described it has “constitutional fraud”, senior NC leader Abdur Rahim Rather termed it blatant violation of Article 370. What is your take?

I concur with what Rather sahib said. The governor functions in J&K as a representative or the agent of the President. How can the President’s own representative give concurrence which is then send to the President for further action?  The Government means the government of the people. This decision was not taken by elected government but by nominated individuals. These decisions have to be challenged.

Does it raise questions on functioning of the Raj Bhavan?

This Raj Bhavan has taken far more political decision than any governor in the recent past. We had governor rule in 2008, 2014 and 2016. But I don’t remember a single political decision taken that time, while as now there are series of political decisions being taken. The interference of centre has grown in J&K. This has been the failure of the previous PDP-led government. This has been gift of PDP that we have a network of RSS in J&K. The interference of the centre is evident. In Delhi, despite all attempts they can’t remove Arvind Kejriwal even when Delhi is not a full state. In spite of the Center being out to fix him, they can’t do anything to him because he had majority of his own. Same is the case with West Bengal.

But the Governor has recently said that he is not only the governor but Chief Minister as well?

He is not. The Chief Minister is not selected but elected by people of J&K through Legislative Assembly, and not through Presidential order. The governor has come through presidential order and he will go back through same order. Yes, we have governor rule and but enjoys power to run administration only.

Your party had said it will challenge these amendments. When will it happen?

We are currently in discussion with various legal experts to find out as what sort of challenge requires to be mounted. In the next few days we are going to challenge it. It is the question of only working out the strategy.

In some of your recent statements you have been critical of “new parties” coming to fore in J&K. Why?

Why are new leaders made in Kashmir only? Why not in Jammu and Ladakh?

There is now third front coming up in Jammu and Ladakh and there are no new formations and leaders there. If these leaders are being created, there must be a design. People are not making these leaders. It looks like that under a plan they want to divide the vote and the voice of Kashmir to weaken us politically. I have been saying it for months that people of Kashmir should make use of their vote carefully.

There is a fear in Kashmir that there might be some tampering with Article 35A. Your comments?

I am not going to speculate, but I am reasonably confident that in run up to Parliament elections they will not do anything. Post parliament polls, it will depend on what Lok Sabha looks like and then we will have to reassess our stand. Once election dates are announced protecting Article 35A will be crucial part of our campaign.

One of the criticisms against state parties, including National Conference, is that while in power they speak one language and in opposition the language is quite different. After your tenure as Chief Minister ended you had said that you are a changed man and have learnt from mistakes? What have you learnt?

These questions will be answered not through words but through deeds. If I’m given opportunity to serve the state as CM again you will see for yourself. But as far as the change in stand is concerned the PDP and its leadership has had this very visible change during and after its rule. But what I said as CM, I stand by that, be it about political nature of Kashmir problem or targeting laws which are detrimental to state. I wasn’t one who said that Operation All Out was in interest of the state while in power and went crying to the houses of dead militants after losing office.

But we also saw 2010.

It did happen. But 2010 was followed by 2011, 12, 13 and 14, the peaceful times in J&K in recent time. When you talk about 2010, I have no objections, but please remember that 2010 was followed by arguably most peaceful times.

Will NC fulfill its commitment to grant divisional status to Chenab Valley and Pir Panajal, if voted to the power?

A: I have said that we will implement the regional autonomy plank of our party. We believe that giving divisional status to Ladakh was a piecemeal arrangement. We believe it should have been done in toto. There are other regions also that are claimants and deserve such status. It will be part of our election manifesto.

The situation in Kashmir continues to go from bad to worse. Your comments?

The situation is cause for concern. The security environment needs to be primary focus of administration. Instead of tinkering with politics and making changes to state rules and laws, Raj Bhavan should have one focus – to improve security environment. It is not good enough that after car bomb attack the governor said there was carelessness. Whose carelessness was it? The governor is head of unified command. You (the governor) are in charge of security apparatus. If there were loopholes, at what level did it occur and by whom? Who should be responsible? The governor was a politician but in Raj Bhavan he should not be one and should leave politics to politicians. His only focus should be to improvement of security situation and that is what he is not able to do….my compliant with New Delhi started the way they handled situation in post flood situation. Today, there are people who haven’t got flood relief yet. There have been multiple failures. To my mind the single biggest failure has been the inability or unwillingness of the government of India to accept political nature of J&K. You haven’t handled it politically. You have handled it as administrative problems. You have handled it as an economic problem and a law and order and security problem while as it has all these dimensions at the end of the day that J&K is a political problem. It requires political handling.

The trend of youth joining militancy in Kashmir has continued despite Operation All Out and despite killing of over 400 militants in past few years. What does it tell?

That the youngsters are still willing to pick up gun is an indication that the government of India and its policy in Kashmir has failed. It shows that PDP-BJP coalition has failed. In recent months prior to Pulwama attack the number of youth joining militancy had started to show slight decline. I don’t know what impact the February 14 incident will have now. We will have to see it.

Kashmir was on the brink last week following escalation between India and Pakistan and the air strikes that followed. But at the same time it brought Kashmir back in focus at the international level.   

Of course it internationalized Kashmir once again. Kashmir is back on the front pages of The NewYork Times and The Washington Post. The Economist is writing cover stories about J&K. The President Trump was in Vietnam for a summit with North Korea and he makes a mention about situation in J&K. and that is why there is a need to handle and move forward on Kashmir issue politically rather than looking at it as law and order problem alone.

Government has stopped advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader? Your comments.

I don’t understand why this decision was taken. Obviously it shows that they are trying to choke media here. They don’t want objective criticism. If media is raising right questions, it should be given free hand to work as it reflects what we are doing and where we are wrong.  But you single out GK. Why?