April 21, 2020 11:13 pm

Of Two Buddies, Accord, and Lotus in Kashmir: A Blast from Past

As Abdullahs became freemen on the heels of an Indian spymaster’s ‘new JK CM’ prediction recently, a new book penned by a senior Indian scribe started doing rounds for its journalistic take on Srinagar-Delhi furtive dealings.

Soon after his mother’s assassination, as Rajiv Gandhi took over as India’s next Prime Minister, he sent his loyalist to Kashmir to break bread with his “buddy” — whom his late mother had hounded for his “secessionist” past.

Later those parleys would shape up into the much-talked about Rajiv-Farooq Accord, floated on the pattern of the 1974 Indira-Abdullah Accord.

Back in the day, negotiations with Farooq were either directly conducted by Rajiv or through his loyalist Union Surface Transport minister, Rajesh Pilot.

With his infectious laughter and shrewd sense of discretion, Pilot was Rajiv’s ace troubleshooter.

But as behind-the-scene deliberations began at Gupkar, many senior Congress members in the state, including Mufti Sayeed and Arun Nehru, were opposed to Farooq’s reentry.

Rajiv Gandhi, however, moved out his cousin, Nehru, of discussions on Kashmir, along with Mufti Sayeed, and the old family Kashmiri confidante, ML Fotedar.

Among those covering these intriguing political developments then, was journalist Ashwini Bhatnagar.

Farooq Abdullah with Rajesh Pilot

Thirty five years later, Bhatnagar, now a seasoned scribe, has come out with his book, ‘The Lotus Years: Political Life In The Times Of Rajiv Gandhi’.

Published by Hachette, the book offers a “360-degree view” of politics in India during the time of Rajiv Gandhi.

“Rajiv and lotus are synonyms,” Bhatnagar tells those who wonder: Why BJP’s symbol, ‘Lotus’, has been used with the Congress leader?

“His grandfather named him Rajiv after the name of his own wife Kamala. So, I went back to Kamala — hence the Lotus Years. Moreover, I thought the title will intrigue the readers because much of the reference to lotus is currently in the context of the BJP!”

If you look at it closely, the author writes, much of the current BJP agenda is directly drawn from the ideas of the Rajiv regime.

“[It was] Rajiv [who] initiated the majoritarianism process after his landslide win in 1984 by opening the locks at the Ram Janmbhoomi in Ayodhya,” Bhatnagar notes. “He started drive against corruption and his hectic foreign tours in which he was heartily feted by governments across the world.”

Compare even the PM Rajiv’s sartorial style with the current dispensation, Bhatnagar adds, and you will quickly realize where the inspiration is coming from.

“Many, many things are being repackaged now and are being palmed off as original ideas,” he says.

Rajiv not only triggered the Aspirational India but also Delusional India, the writer says.

“Arun Nehru, his cousin and political chaperone in 1985-86, convinced him of the power of the Hindu vote and how it could consolidate the Congress rule forever,” the book mentions.

“But one development that Rajiv Gandhi was keen to bring about was an end to the political squabbling and brinkmanship that had dogged the state of Jammu and Kashmir since Partition in 1947.”

He also had a personal reason for wishing to do so.

The Nehrus originally hailed from Kashmir and, though the family had settled in Allahabad for the last few generations, the roots still tugged at the offshoots, the writer notes.

“Rajiv’s grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had an abiding fascination with Kashmir, whose tallest leader Sheikh Abdullah was also his good friend. Indira Gandhi had also been similarly inclined,” the book notes.

Jawaharlal Nehru with his daughter Indira Gandhi

“Both Nehru and Indira, during their innings in power, had gone out of their way to appease Sheikh Abdullah by accommodating his demands for special status to the state. They had hoped the “nationalist” Sheikh would ensure the seamless integration of the region into mainstream polity.”

But on each occasion, Bhatnagar writes, their expectation had been belied.

“First Nehru, and then Indira, had to extern the Lion of Kashmir from his den to contain his anti-Centre tirade.”

The family relationship though had persisted in fits and starts, Rajiv and Farooq had virtually grown up together.

“Whenever the Nehru–Gandhi family was in Kashmir, whether on vacation or a short tour, the Abdullah family was always available to them,” the scribe writes.

“Rajiv, therefore, knew Farooq well and, in fact, quite liked the ebullient Abdullah scion, who had studied medicine and then moved to the UK to practise. He had also married a British girl, Molly, and seemed like a modern liberal at heart.”

But Farooq initially had no interest in politics, the book says. “But with his father’s failing health, he took the plunge into dynastic politics.”

In 1980, about the same time as Rajiv was starting out in his political career, Farooq contested his first Lok Sabha election and won unopposed.

A year later, in August 1981, he was appointed the president of the National Conference (NC) by his father and, when Sheikh Abdullah died on 8 September 1982, he succeeded him as the chief minister. Rajiv called to congratulate him on both the occasions.

A photo showing Farooq-Rajiv family Gulmarg vacation

“Rajiv was sure he could trust Farooq to end the impasse in Kashmir, and integrate the state into the Indian polity,” Bhatnagar writes. “He believed the nitty-gritty of power sharing would not stand in the way of their overall vision of Kashmir being the showpiece of his politics of constructive accords – a policy of give and take in the larger interest of nation building.”

Rajiv’s belief, however, ran contrary to the feedback on Farooq’s first brush with administering the restive state. His performance had been far from spectacular. In fact, there were verified reports that Farooq had a cavalier attitude towards his responsibilities, Bhatnagar notes.

The disenchantment with his potential was to such an extent that his elder sister’s husband, GM Shah, had plotted his ouster from power. And, with a little help from the Congress, he garnered enough defectors from the party to form his own government on 2 July 1984.

“Senior Congress leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had played an important role in the formation of the new government,” the book says.

Farooq Abdullah with Mufti Sayeed

But these political shenanigans had happened during Indira Gandhi’s time. And Rajiv had a different view on Farooq.

“Unlike other Congress politicians, who believed in politics of platitudes or ‘jumlas’, Rajiv was extremely committed to the delivery mode,” Bhatnagar writes. “The aspirational India that we recognise so well today — India of the 21st century are his substantive legacies. Rajiv was not an arm chair visionary. He was a doer. He could quickly identify problems and move swiftly to find viable solutions.”

In Kashmir, Rajiv was aware that the Congress’s old guard had its own ambitions and their own sub-regional politics, the book notes.

“This was part of the reason that the waters of the Jhelum were muddied time and again at the cost of political stability in Srinagar.”

Rajiv wanted to move away from it and get his own man in – a man who shared his vision of politics aligned with the idyllic setting of the “paradise on earth”.

“Farooq’s persuasive ways convinced him that he was the go-getter that Kashmir so desperately needed,” the author writes.

Ashwini Bhatnagar, author of The Lotus Years

Mufti Sayeed’s own actions were also proving to be his undoing.

Shortly after the locks were opened in Ayodhya in February 1986, he allegedly engineered attacks on Hindus in his home district of Anantnag. It was the only location where violence against Hindus and their shrines had taken place in the otherwise peaceful Valley.

“It was reported to Rajiv that Mufti Sayeed had instigated the violence as he was keen to be chief minister. GM Shah had served long enough,” Bhatnagar writes.

On 7 March 1986, Rajiv had Shah sacked and imposed Governor’s Rule on the state. He shifted Mufti Sayeed to Delhi, gave him a seat in the Rajya Sabha and also made him the Union minister of Tourism.

In November 1986, after months of hectic parleys mediated by Pilot, Rajiv and Farooq signed an accord that reinstated the latter as chief minister and proposed a roadmap for stabilising the state.

“Even as a caretaker coalition government was being cobbled together, silent dissent was brewing in both the Congress and the National Conference,” Bhatnagar writes. “Sections in both parties were apprehensive about the secret goings-on.”

But then, soon the announcement of the Rajiv-Farooq Accord was received with much fanfare. And with that, Rajiv’s friend took the chief minister’s oath of office alone.

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