Clearly, in the battle between the security agencies and the Congress establishment, the latter has emerged victor; in the tussle between the Centre and the Congress state unit, the former has yielded.
If the security agencies had advised the Centre to continue with current chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed for at least another six months – to at least tide over the crisis brought on by the earthquake which had apparently not deterred the militants from continuing with their activities -- the Congress establishment had stressed that if the party did not take advantage of the power-sharing arrangement it had signed with the PDP three years ago and take over the reins of power now, it would face political extinction in the state: Worse, it would yield political space to its chief rival, the BJP, in the Jammu region.
Given that Jammu and Kashmir is unlike any other state in the country and any political change there has international ramifications, the view in Delhi was that the Centre’s view would prevail and that Mufti would be allowed to continue for a year: Mufti, when he had initially been told that he should continue for a few months more, had made it clear that he either stayed on for a year more, or demitted office on November 2, as agreed. But on Wednesday, when 21 Congress MLAs shot off a letter to the Speaker of the J& K assembly, threatening to resign , unless the Congress was permitted to head the coalition, alarm bells went off in Delhi, adding weight to what a majority of the Congress’ top functionaries had been telling Sonia Gandhi : The Congress must take over on November 2.
On Thursday morning, Sonia Gandhi met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to discuss the matter with him. Later, in the day, she met Azad, her Political Secretary Ahmed Patel and general secretary in charge of J&K Ambika Soni and then phoned Mufti and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed to tell them that the Congress would like to take over, a decision they readily accepted. The official announcement came at 8 pm.
Given the course of events that led to the Congress decision to head the coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, the opposition to it from the intelligence agencies and the PM’s other advisers on Kashmir, and the current state both of the peace process with Pakistan, and the tragedy that devastated a state already riven by militancy, what are the challenges that lie ahead?
Shortly after he was named as CM-designate, Azad indicated clearly that he knew what he was up against: "This is a very big responsibility, and I want to assure the people of all the three regions, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh that I understand their sentiments and that I will work equally for the development of all parts. The peace process is underway and I shall not only strengthen the foundations laid by Mufti Saheb but carry his work forward."
Anticipating questions on his "outsider" status – he is not just the state’s first chief minister from Jammu, not the valley, but he has also only won a Lok Sabha seat from distant Washim in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region – he turned that into an advantage: "The 26 years that I have spent in national politics has given me a national perspective. For me, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are one entity and there is no place for caste, religion or region in my politics. " With that remark, Azad was sending out a message to all three regions, all three religious communities – the Hindu-dominant Jammu, the Muslim-dominated valley and the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh that he was not about to play favourites as also to the OBC community of Gujjars who have been among the worst affected by the earthquake and who have never really had much political backing.
Azad also made an appeal to all political parties in the state, whether in the ruling coalition or opposition "to rise above party politics" and assist him in the rehabilitation and development of the state.
But clearly, this is just the beginning: On Friday, Azad will be in Kashmir to hold a meeting of his party legislators and begin planning his new government . The most key appointment will be that of the deputy chief minister, who will be from the PDP, replacing the Congress’s Mangat Ram Sharma. In the weeks and months ahead, Azad will be in the spotlight, on test. As the longest serving member – longer than even union defence minister Pranab Mukherjee -- of the party’s powerful working committee, he may have been mocked for his lack of a political base. But no one has any doubts about his political skills that have kept him in the forefront of the party for so many years. All those skills and more will be required in the next three years.
PS: The biggest spin-off of Thursday’s decision will be that the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle will have to take place in the next three weeks before the winter session of Parliament commences. The government has done without a coal minister all these months and the files have piled up; it has done without a youth and sports minister as well as NRI affairs minister. But it will be difficult to do without a parliamentary affairs and urban development minister. Party sources say a heavyweight like Ambika Soni will be in the running for the job, and this, in turn, will trigger off changes in the AICC, as well as appointment of governors.