Naeem Akhtar, senior Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) leader and former minister in the PDP-BJP government, spoke to YUSUF JAMEEL on the dissolution of the J&K Assembly and other recent political developments in the restive Himalayan state.
Don’t you think given its fallout, PDP staking claim for government formation was premature or was it a deliberate attempt to prevent defections in the party?
It was not premature. It was, in fact, a bit too late in the day. It should have come slightly earlier. But we thought the governor had promised to be an honest broker. We learnt that some things are happening in the government that would affect the special status of the state. Also many decisions of far reaching consequence were taken which should not have been taken by the governor’s administration but left to an elected government. There are apprehensions about Article 35A and other litigation regarding Article 370. We had requested the governor last time to at least change the lawyer, which he has not done. He has disengaged Fali S. Nariman, who was hired by us (to fight Article 35A case in the Supreme Court).
The single point agenda for all the three parties (PDP, National Conference and Congress) was to save and protect the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. We came together and it was not to the liking of the BJP and its government and they, unfortunately, again misused the office of the governor to dissolve the Assembly and deny the state a change to have an elected government.
PDP rebel Imran Raza Ansari and Peoples’ Conference chairman Sajad Gani Lone claimed that 16 PDP MLAs had pledged their support to their group and Mehbooba Mufti’s staking claim to government formation was actually aimed at preventing this group with the BJP from coming to power?
I really don’t know how to describe that. It was unabashed and brazen on their part. He (Lone) is trying to break a party — in fact three — in cobbling up an alliance and then says it in official communication to the governor. That is a most atrocious way of staking a claim. They actually tried to dismantle the entire mainstream, the people who stick their necks out. I have not seen anybody doing that in the recent past. That was done in J&K in 1984 once and all can see the results.
Muzaffar Hussain Baig (former deputy chief minister and senior PDP leader) has openly supported Sajad Lone’s efforts. What do you have to say on this?
Baig sahib is tuned to being very lavish in his praise of people. He called Mufti (Muhammad Sayeed) sahib his father; he called Mehboobaji his sister, which he continues to do. He likened Ghulam Nabi Azad with Moulana Azad and said that he is the tallest leader we have now. He is given to such generous descriptions of people. I think it was a moment of emotion and let us see how things go from there. But he continues to be our very senior leader and is highly respected in the party.
He also spoke about changing the PDP constitution?
Well, that is something which will not be decided in the media but by the general council of the party. Let a proposal come. Why not?
But he also said that already a committee has been set up to suggest changes in the party constitution and that he is the chairman of that committee?
He should place the report before the general council and discuss it.
Why have several legislators of your party spoken publicly against its president and other senior leaders?
Only these Ansaris (Imran Ansari and his uncle Abid Ansari). Who else? The two others have come back. Imran Ansari’s entire family has the distinction of having been declared as willful defaulters: That means no bank in the country can transact with them. That’s in spite of his occupying a religious seat. There’s an outstanding amount of `36 crores of the state exchequer in the shape of sales tax which he has charged from the customers of the company he represents. They have also threatened him with arrest. A notice to this effect has already appeared in the press. So he is under pressure of a different kind.
The BJP alleged that you were trying to cobble up an alliance with the National Conference (NC) and the Congress for government formation at the behest of Pakistan?
(Laughs) That’s the farthest their imagination can go and, if Pakistan has such clout in Kashmir that they can put up their own government here, I don’t know what our agencies are doing, what the rest of the country is doing. I think that is a compliment to Pakistan and a very bad commentary on our country.
It also spoke about meetings having been held in Dubai and London?
Well, who was there and who told them about it. This is a demonisation plan because they actually want to tarnish the Muslim leadership of all mainstream secular parties so that they gain the right to rule the state themselves. They have made it a norm now. But we will fight it out.
Why didn’t the idea of forging an alliance among what you call secular parties strike you in the past five months?
Everything has a time. We had thought that let the dust settle or otherwise we would have been seen as power hungry. We and also the NC and the Congress had reservations. But then things became unbearable. They actually tried to demolish the whole system and we had to get in.
All said and done, do you regret allying with the BJP?
It was done in good faith. Mufti Sahib had behaved actually like a statesman. He staked his entire political capital, his prestige, standing, stature, politics and his party and went along with PM (Narendra) Modi in the belief that he has a huge mandate and he can perhaps take some decisive measures about our friendship with Pakistan so that the Kashmir issue is resolved. He tried to see (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee in himself but, unfortunately, that didn’t prove correct. Also, Mufti Sahib always said that Jammu & Kashmir is also a problem that needs to be fixed. He wanted this triangle — Srinagar, Jammu and New Delhi — to complete. He wanted to fix these fault lines and make a cohesive government. But unfortunately the shortsightedness of the BJP leadership both at the Centre and the state subverted that big vision.
Have you been able to grasp why BJP turned against you?
God knows… perhaps our sticking to our agenda of peace and friendship with Pakistan and out of insistence on special status of the state? Perhaps it became difficult for them to defend it at the national level because they were going on an entirely different trajectory. They ultimately said that we are taking instructions from Pakistan. With that kind of a mindset I don’t know how they tolerated us for two and a half years.
The PDP recently said that New Delhi has now to show its human face to the people of Kashmir. You ruled the state for more than 30 months and would praise the Prime Minister and the Centre day in and day out. What face of Delhi was that?
Because we always believed that PM Modi would come true to his word and would walk the talk… what he said from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. We had to give them time. We sought a unilateral ceasefire during (the last) Ramzan and they obliged. We gave amnesty to 11,000 youth booked on charges of stone pelting. We tried to do things that would actually show a soft face to the people of Kashmir. But the overall atmosphere couldn’t be changed by those small interventions. We still believe that unless we get Pakistan on board it is not possible to achieve tangible peace in Kashmir.
How do you want to address the issues in J&K so that peace returns to the state? Security forces officials are saying that they are gaining an upper hand against militants and that that is the way out?
We say that these are temporary ups and lows. Unless there’s durable peace with Pakistan and the stakeholders within all the three regions of J&K things would continue to be as they are today. That needs statesmanship at the national level and also reciprocation from Pakistan. Secondly, you have to trust the local leadership. Yesterday Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti got together and you got agitated and said Pakistan is doing it just because they are named Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. You didn’t say that in case of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav or in the case of Rahul Gandhi and Chandrababu Naidu.