In 1976, immediately after the Indira- Abdullah Agreement, and rebirth of the National Conference, I wrote a pamphlet titled, ‘Can National Conference Survive?’ Today, after the debacle of the NC in 2014 Parliamentary elections this question is once again making rounds.
The pamphlet was not a highbrow political treatise but a young student’s understanding of the emerging political scenario after the burial of the Plebiscite Front and the movement it led for over two decades. Two reasons had made me put a note of interrogation on the survival of this organization. First, reason was resentment in cadres of the erstwhile Plebiscite Front (PF) that comprised bulk of the workers of the revived NC. Most of the workers were disillusioned with the outcome of three year long dialogue between New Delhi and the Front leaders and looked upon the agreement as document of “surrender.”
The disenchantment had got sharpened after the party opened its portals to the erstwhile NC workers who had sided with Bakshi after 1953. It was their faith in Sheikh Abdullah and their belief in his much orchestrated beautifully crafted sentence, “Power was not our destiny but first step towards the final destiny” that had kept them tethered to the party.
Second, reason that had made me to put a question mark on the survival of this party was towering Kashmir leader submitting before the Congress high command at every step and making compromises to remain in office on the crutches of the Congress. The glaring example was induction of six Congress ministers in the cabinet at insistence of Mrs. Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah dropping his own nominee Tahir Shahmari at the last minute and replacing her by Congress leader Zainab Begum. Sheikh suffered pinpricks of the Congress with humility and at every point submitted before the Congress high command. The list of surrenders before Congress leadership from 23 April 1975 to 26 March 1976 is quite long. These surrenders had made even ordinary student activist believe that Sheikh Abdullah would be forced to merge his party with the Pradesh Congress- which almost seemed on the cards.
I was proved wrong. The National Conference survived, dwarfing all political parties across the ideological divide. It went from strength to strength. It did not gain this strength by tuning its ideology with the larger political sentiment of the people. But, two, important political developments enabled to it regain its political constituency. One, political moves by the Pradesh Congress during the last week of March 1977. That included withdrawing of the support to Sheikh Abdullah and proposing the PCC chief Mufti Mohammad Syed as Chief Minister of the state. The moves added halo of martyrdom to Sheikh Abdullah and bruised the psyche of the common Kashmiri, who saw in it New Delhi game plane similar to reenactment of 1953.
Second, important development that immensely contributed to the revival of Abdullah’s popularity was all his opponents including those subscribing to right to self-determination and accession with Pakistan jumping over the Janta Party bandwagon. Initially, people out of resentment against Sheikh’s burial of the PF movement attended the Janata rallies but it soon dawned on them the “Indian Party” as national parties were known cannot safeguard identity of the state and preserve “the sentiment” for which people had made sacrifices. The then National Conference leadership, more particularly Mirza Afzal Beg ably converted the public apprehensions to the advantage of their party and choreographed the election campaign into battle between New Delhi and Srinagar and projected it as a mini-plebiscite.
Suspecting the intentions of the Janata Party, people overwhelmingly voted for NC. In a house of 76, the National Conference won 49 seats, in Kashmir Province opposition only won three seats out of forty six. The most towering leaders, with over forty years political career were made to bit the dust. Instead of joining the Janata Party had the Opposition led by Molvi Syed fought this election as a regional party and sought vote against the 1975 Accord and dissolution of the Front in likelihood results would have been different. If it would not have succeeded in forming the government, it would have at least registered an impressive victory at the hustings and emerged as a force to reckon with. In rejecting the Janta Party people sent a subtle message that the state offered political future only for regional parties. National Conference picked this message and made regional politics as bulwark against all machinations from the central government.
Twenty eight months after his dismissal from power, Farooq Abdullah returned to power but this time on the terms of Congress party that included entering into an electoral alliance with the Congress- for which the state had to pay very high costs. These alliances cost the National Conference its identity as a regional party and substantially eroded its electoral base from 49 seats in 1977 to 28 in 2002 and 2008 elections. The constituency wise electoral result of 2014 parliament elections is indicative that even in miniscule of electorate that voted the base of the NC has further shrunk. One, of the important factors for its losing support even in its own party cadres has been as an alliance partner of the NDA or UPA, the party failed to work independent of New Delhi’s Kashmir policy and address the concerns of the general masses. It in fact even delinked itself from its own party cadres.
Nevertheless, politics is a game of probabilities; it will be will be too early to predict what would be voting pattern during 2014 Assembly election. In electoral politics, the party can make a comeback if it adopts pro-people and pro-sentiment policies and unlearns what Farooq Abdullah had learnt in 1984.