December 31, 2008 1:44:25 am
Omar Abdullah, 38-year-old president of the National Conference (NC), will be the country’s youngest currently serving Chief Minister. The NC and Congress agreed to form a coalition government in Jammu & Kashmir after a 45-minute meeting between Omar and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at 10 Janpath today.
Details of the arrangement will be worked out by an eight-member committee of four representatives from each side. The NC will have former ministers Mohammad Shafi, Abdul Raheem Rather, Ajay Sadhotra and Mian Altaf on the panel, Omar said. Congress general secretary in charge of J&K Prithviraj Chavan, state Congress president Saifuddin Soz and former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad are likely to be among those representing the other side.
Sources in the two parties said Omar is likely to have a Congress leader from Jammu as Deputy Chief Minister. The date of the swearing-in would be decided keeping Muharram in mind, Omar said. The new government must be in office before January 10, the day Governor’s Rule ends.
On the terms of sharing power, Omar said: “There was no indication (in the meeting with Sonia) that it would be a term of three years. It was not a pre-condition for alliance or any stumbling block.” There were indications that Omar may be Chief Minister for a full six years, though some in the Congress were continuing to push for a three-year rotational arrangement.
Minutes after firming up the alliance, Omar outlined an inclusive agenda for his government, undertaking to induct a Kashmiri Pandit in his ministry, and appealing to the community to return to the Valley.
It was “impossible” to keep the Pandits out of the Cabinet, Omar said. “There has to be a voice of Kashmiri Pandits in the government. They have suffered. Perhaps the Congress or the NC may get them into the Legislative Council. I have a huge responsibility towards Kashmiri Pandits. I would seek to create an atmosphere in which the displaced Pandits can come back to the Valley.”
First on his list of personal priorities, Omar told The Indian Express, is bringing governance back on track. “We have lost a full work season in Kashmir and a substantial part of the work season in Jammu. The government was distracted first because of the Amarnath land agitation and then elections.”
To reporters in Delhi, he announced his intention to work with the Government of India to review cases against “innocent” youth lodged in jail, and to set up a commission under a retired judge of the Supreme Court to examine if there was any neglect to any region (Jammu). “We will also review PSA (Public Safety Act) cases,” he told The Indian Express.
He said he would immediately begin talking to the Centre to push political initiatives to engage the separatist leadership. The separatists, Omar said, were “down but not out”. “I still believe New Delhi needs to reach out and start a dialogue process. I will also talk to the Government of India about this. But it takes two hands to clap … New Delhi can continue reaching out but unless they reach as well, it cannot happen. They (separatists) should also take lessons from the elections.”
He will also try to play a positive role to help Indo-Pak relations, Omar said. “Over the years, I have developed contacts in Pakistan. I have been visiting Islamabad as well.” Asked if he received any congratulatory messages from Pakistan, Omar said he had spoken to Shah Ghulam Qadir, Speaker of the House in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. “I had a busy day and haven’t found the time to see all the missed calls on my phone,” Omar said.
There will be no politics of vindictiveness by the new government, Omar said. “We will not go for immediate transfers and reshuffle of the government. I want this to be loud and clear to everybody. I don’t want officers to exhibit their loyality to NC but they will have to prove their loyality to the state and people of Jammu and Kashmir.” There will be zero tolerance for dishonesty, Omar said. “This includes everybody, those from the NC and those who are close to my party.”
On the question of autonomy, Omar said it was “a way forward”. “NC believes autonomy is a way forward in resolution of the Kashmir problem and I do not think why anybody should have serious reservations against it. It’s not unconstitutional to talk about it. It’s all within the framework of the Constitution… “We are not talking about inclusion of Pakistani currency into Kashmir. Autonomy was not a gift from the Maharaja. It was something to which Pandit Nehru agreed.” He added, “some middle ground could be worked out”.
Omar said he would like to make the J&K RTI Act on par with the Central Act, and would speak to Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah to ensure more information is available in the public domain. “I am not going to be corrupt. And we have a strong coalition here. So it won’t be difficult for us to shunt ministers out if they are found to be corrupt. I can start looking at e-governance and strengthening RTI in the state,” he said.
“Fortunately, I will not have to spend 90 percent of my time on security related issues,” he said. “Instead, we can focus on governance.”
Asked if the NC would be a part of the UPA, Omar joked he had forgotten to ask Sonia about it, but added, “I assume that will be the case.” Congress sources later said the NC would be part of the UPA, but efforts would be made to “co-opt” the PDP as well. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti however told The Indian Express over the phone that her party was yet to take a decision on the issue of remaining in the UPA along with the NC. “The party has to take a decision on it,” she said.
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