It feels Omar must pay attention to “trust and governance deficit”

Over the last six weeks or so, there has been a subtle shift in the Congress — and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's — approach to the tragic events unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir. From a position of seemingly unqualified support for Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the emphasis now appears to be that Mr. Abdullah must pay attention to the “trust deficit and governance deficit,” an expression that first surfaced officially in the statement put out by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on September 13.

Of course, despite the speculation in the media, there is no move to drop Mr. Abdullah. The Congress line is that it has an alliance with the National Conference (NC), and it is for that party to choose its leader. If the Chief Minister is to be changed, Congress sources said, the move must come from within the NC, not from the Congress.

The Congress, which, historically, has preferred to have a buffer in the northern State, would prefer not to have Governor's Rule as then the Centre would be directly responsible for what is happening there. Senior government sources told The Hindu, “We don't want to lose our buffer, given the difficult situation in the State.”

The change in the Centre's attitude is being calibrated carefully: For instance, on August 10, there was just the whiff of criticism in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech to representatives of all political parties from Jammu and Kashmir: “The State government and the Chief Minister are making efforts to renew contact with the people. The Central government is fully supportive of these efforts,” the Prime Minister said, but emphasised that these efforts “should be intensified.” But by September 7, when Mr. Abdullah called on Dr. Singh to make a plea for the amendment or partial withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), government sources said the message to the young Chief Minister was far more direct — he should first ensure peace on the ground. And finally, on September 15, at the all-party meeting here, the Prime Minister was direct: “We have also told the State government to restore peace and public order in order to create conditions congenial to a dialogue process.”

Of course, the strongest indication that the UPA government was tired of warding off criticism of Mr. Abdullah came after the CCS on September 13, which followed the Congress Core Group meeting on September 9, which had also discussed Kashmir. “In the past … the UPA government had taken several initiatives to hold a dialogue with different political parties and political groups, including the Hurriyat … It was — and it remains — the intention of the UPA government to restart the … dialogue. The dialogue can embrace all the issues that agitate the minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially the youth,” the CCS statement read, and then added, “The dialogue can address issues such as the trust deficit and the governance deficit.”

Interestingly, with the Kashmir narrative in the media continuing to focus on the fate of the AFSPA even after this statement, there was a concerted effort by the government to nudge the media in the direction of the phrase, “the trust deficit and the governance deficit.” It was pointed out by the government sources that it was “time to face the realities on the trust and governance deficit” in Kashmir, and that the dilution or revocation of the AFSPA could not be the government's single point agenda.

Sonia's appeal

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's speech at the all-party meeting on September 15 was also carefully worded, avoiding any mention of the State government. Hers was an emotional appeal, placing the anger, the pain and the aspirations of the youth at the heart of the problem that needs to be addressed.

The impact is being felt: on September 16, after a gap, Mr. Abdullah called on Governor N.N. Vohra to brief him on the steps being taken by his government to restore normalcy. At the meeting, the Governor, a spokesman said, asked him to take all possible measures to ensure that students resume their academic activities and public services improve.

The all-party delegation's visit to the State, starting on September 20, too, is part of the government's new strategy: “So far, it looked as though we were only talking to Omar and being guided by him,” the government sources told The Hindu, but “The object is to talk to all sections of people and all shades of opinion to get a fuller picture, on the basis of which we can make the next move.”

Rahul's stand

Of course, in the midst of the nuanced shift in the Congress stand on Mr. Abdullah, party general secretary Rahul Gandhi appeared to have strongly endorsed the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister.

But given that it was in response to a pointed question whether the Congress was considering reviving its former alliance with Mehbooba Mufti's PDP at the cost of the NC, Mr. Gandhi's answer read in its entirety — “Our government has supported Omar Abdullah. He is the elected leader of the National Conference. It is for them to take their decision. But we have to give him time and support. Omar is doing a tough and sensitive job. He should be given time and support” — appears to have been over-interpreted. Especially as the Congress has no plans of dumping the NC as yet.