New Delhi: With the release of top National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah from detention on March 13, and the recent formation of a new political entity – Apni Party – in Kashmir, the focus is back on which political forces New Delhi may side with in the Valley next.
In the last assembly, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was in alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), headed by former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. However, Mehbooba herself has been kept in detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) at the orders of the Narendra Modi government following the reading down of Article 370 in August 2019, along with another former chief minister and NC president Omar Abdullah.
On March 14, a former Kashmir advisor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee – A.S. Dulat, whose visit to Farooq Abdullah during his detention was facilitated by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on February 12 and is widely being treated as the much-needed ‘back channel’ for the Centre to find a way out in a locked-down Kashmir – told The Wire that the government of India would talk to Mehbooba too.
“I think they (the government) need to talk to everybody. She (Mehbooba) has been in alliance with them (the BJP); she is a big player. And Dr Farooq (Abdullah) did not mention Mehbooba’s name (on the day of his release in Srinagar, he demanded the release of Omar and Mehbooba too) for nothing yesterday. I mean, it all adds up.”
To a pointed question on whether like he went to meet Abdullah senior in detention, anyone went to meet Mehbooba too, Dulat said, “Who knows. But I don’t know, I have no idea.”
Playing down his role of being an intermediary between the Centre and senior Abdullah, he also added, “I had to meet Farooq as a well-wisher and not as an emissary (of the government).” Though in sections of media his ‘secret visit’ to Abdullah has been mentioned, Dulat has confirmed it only in the exclusive interview to The Wire.
Though Dulat said the government would talk to Mehbooba too, the former Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) chief and special director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) categorically stated to the interviewer, Karan Thapar, that he was confident of Omar Abdullah being the next chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
“He will be the next chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, whenever the elections are held.”
On asked what has triggered that confidence in him, he replied, “I said this in 2008 as well, about six or eight months before he became the chief minister. He is the obvious choice. The National Conference is the only party which is spread all over the state.”
He also stated, “Not only will they (the government) talk to Omar Abdullah, Delhi for whatever reasons has always been more comfortable with Omar than Farooq. It is very strange.” Though he said he didn’t know whether Modi and home minister Amit Shah felt the same as Vajpayee did with Omar, he added, “I am saying, New Delhi, in general, has always felt more comfortable with Omar than Farooq. Farooq doesn’t generally make you feel so. It is a pity because he is a much taller leader, tallest in Kashmir, but people in Delhi have not been able to understand him.”
He also pointed out that the recently formed Apni Party leaders too have hinted at working together with the NC.
In his critically acclaimed book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, Dulat, who has also served in Kashmir as a joint director of the IB, particularly mentioned Vajpayee’s comfort and “fondness” for Omar. In the exclusive interview to The Wire post his ‘secret’ visit to Abdullah, Dulat also highlighted that aspect. “He (Vajpayee) was very impressed with Omar. Omar was his minister, first in commerce (ministry) and then in the external affairs (ministry). If you remember, on his trips abroad, at least two or three times Omar had accompanied Ataj ji. He was very keen for Omar to go there (Kashmir) and Farooq to come to Delhi.”
Dulat said even in 2015, before BJP forged an alliance with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of the PDP, an effort was made to reach out to the NC first. “My feeling is, there was an attempt, or there was a thinking, of reaching out to the National Conference first. Unfortunately, at that point of time, Dr Farooq was in London undergoing surgery for a kidney replacement. And, what I heard was, somebody actually went and met him there. I think he was in intensive care then and said, ‘Look, I can’t say anything, you need to meet Omar.’ Possibly, Omar turned it down. I don’t know. What I am saying is, even in 2014, people in Delhi were thinking whether NC will be a better option than PDP. Somehow, there were always doubts about the PDP.”
On asked whether New Delhi’s comfort with the NC than with the PDP was behind the release of senior Abdullah, he replied, “(it) could be”.
Dulat also underlined that he understood from a conversation he had with Vajpayee, then the prime minister, that he had wanted Farooq to come to Delhi as the vice president. Dulat also highlighted that this was conveyed to Farooq by Vajpayee’s trusted aide and media advisor Brajesh Mishra at Dulat’s house (in 2002) when both were having dinner with him. It was later conveyed to him “directly” by both Vajpayee and then deputy prime minister L.K. Advani. Dulat, though, added that Farooq didn’t trust Delhi on that.
Ultimately, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat became the BJP’s choice for the vice president. National Democratic Alliance partner Shiv Sena was opposed to the idea of Farooq being the NDA candidate, specially after Omar and the NC came out openly against the Gujarat riots under a BJP state and didn’t back the party in parliament on the issue. Omar had resigned from the Vajpayee cabinet then.
The former top intelligence officer, however, pointed out an incident to state that “Farooq doesn’t forget but he forgives easily”.
“At Mr Vajpayee’s death anniversary, when everybody else was present, the present BJP leadership including Mr Modi and Amit Shah as well, he (Farooq) said, Bharat Mata ki jai (Hail Mother India). Ever since, more so since Vajpayee’s passing, he has repeatedly praised Atal ji.”
On asked whether the current BJP leadership is aware of it, Dulat retorted, “Of course.”
Watch the full interview with A.S. Dulat below.