New Delhi's secret search for peace sparks off intense political competition.

Even as New Delhi has accelerated its covert engagement with the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led All Parties Hurriyat Conference, major political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have intensified efforts to give legitimacy to their own, competing visions of the State's future.

Leaders of the National Conference have made the recommendations of a State Autonomy Commission Report, which was endorsed by the Assembly in 1998, the centrepiece of their political position.

The controversial report calls for the revocation of all Central legislation made applicable to the State since 1953. Among other things, the implementation of the SAC recommendations would mean Jammu and Kashmir residents would no longer enjoy the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the right of appeal to the Supreme Court, and the protections of the Election Commission of India and the Comptroller and Auditor-General.

National Conference leaders say all these institutions should be replaced with similar bodies and legislative instruments created by the State.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah also demanded that the government push the retired Supreme Court judge Saghir Ahmad - who heads a working group set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make recommendations on the State's constitutional future - to finish his work.

The Prime Minister had set up five working groups during a March 2006 all-party Round-Table Conference on Jammu and Kashmir called in Srinagar. Four of those groups submitted their reports in April 2007, when the RTC was last convened. Justice Ahmad's group, though, has not even met after a two-day session held in New Delhi on September 2 and 3, 2007.

PDP concerns

But it is the People's Democratic Party - which draws much of its support from voters sympathetic to the Hurriyat and Islamist groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami - that has the greatest concern about the course of the dialogue.

A New Delhi-Hurriyat deal could lead to some secessionist factions contesting elections, and thus dividing the social alliance which has driven the PDP's dramatic rise as a critical actor in Jammu and Kashmir politics.

PDP leaders have responded by launching an energetic campaign to build mass support for their self-rule proposals. During rallies and meetings across the State, PDP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig has been explaining threadbare the party's complex Self-Rule Document released last year. The document calls for the State to be demilitarised, the Line of Control to be opened for free movement of peoples and goods, and the creation of cross-border elected bodies.

"No closed-door deal"

But PDP president Mehbooba Mufti also says her party wants a public dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, not a deal hammered out behind closed doors with key secessionists.

"Whatever you are discussing, you need to discuss it out in the open," she says. "People in Jammu and Kashmir are suspicious about New Delhi's intentions, and any deal agreed without a popular consensus will lack legitimacy. It will appear as if the interests of Kashmiris have been bought and sold."

Some Hurriyat leaders, notably Abdul Gani Bhat, believe that the way forward lies in building consensus within Jammu and Kashmir, cutting across regional and party lines.

During a recent conference organised by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, Mr. Bhat, for the first time, shared a platform with representatives of the National Conference, the PDP and the Bharatiya Janata Party - and even invited them to join in a cross-party dialogue.

But Mr. Bhat's position does not have the support of most of his coalition partners, most of which see the PDP and the National Conference as competitors - rather than partners - in the process of resolving the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. Mirwaiz Farooq, for example, says he sees no role for the PDP and the National Conference in negotiations until "they decide to stay away from power politics and focus solely on the resolution of the conflict. Questions of administration must precede, not follow, resolution."

Put simply, the Mirwaiz appears to see no reason to sit at a table with parties that enjoy access to power - and could profit further if they market themselves as brokers of a final deal. One key obstacle to building consensus is the coalition of rejectionists flat-out opposed to talks with New Delhi - a coalition led by Kashmir's Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, but one which includes some figures from within the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat, notably Democratic Freedom Party's Shabbir Shah.

Fearful that New Delhi could do a deal with the Hurriyat, the PDP has given not-so-tacit backing to the rejectionists. PDP leaders have been demanding that Mr. Geelani be included in the dialogue process - no small ask, given the Islamist leader's flat rejection of talks with New Delhi.

"I understand the difficulties," says Ms. Mufti, "but the fact is that whether we like it or not, the people have a lot of faith in Mr. Geelani. We need to ensure any agreement we arrive at has his endorsement, otherwise it will not stand scrutiny."

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