Rahul Gandhi’s J&K Visit Isn’t Enough — Only On-Ground Action Can Save Congress
Rahul’s visit was a healing touch as he spoke of unity. But that won't be enough to win over voters in the region.
Temple, mosque, wedding. That’s the briefest account one can give of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Kashmir.
Rahul came on Monday and returned on Tuesday. The stated purpose was to inaugurate the party’s new office in Kashmir. But the visit served, albeit in a small way, to normalise political activity in the Valley just a little more than two years after Jammu and Kashmir ceased to exist as a state.
Rahul referred pointedly to being sent back from the airport the last time he had tried to visit. Other Opposition leaders, too, were prevented from coming to Kashmir after the constitutional changes on 5 August, 2019.
Rahul’s message was a healing touch. He spoke of unity and mutual affection, but also determination to oust the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
Ancestral Nehru Connection
The Congress leader emphasised that his ancestors were from Kashmir and that he felt like this was a homecoming. That rang a bell for older Kashmiris.
Rahul’s great-grandfather had said that he was a Kashmiri Koul, and had acquired the name ‘Nehru’ since his ancestors had lived by a nehr, or stream. Nehru had said this from a stage in front of the Palladium cinema in the heart of Lal Chowk, not half a kilometre from the Congress office at which Rahul spoke.
Palladium has since been destroyed by Islamist extremists, but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was there in November 1947. He had just returned from Baramulla with his daughter and Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi. Nehru had gone to inspect after tribal raiders from Pakistan had been repelled from Baramulla.
Nehru spoke powerfully from that open stage in Lal Chowk, hugging Sheikh Abdullah as he recited Amir Khusro, “Man tu shudam, tu man shudi” (I am you, you are I).’
That had set the place buzzing. But Rahul’s visit did not in quite the same way. Not nearly. In fact, the Congress has done little to lift itself out of the desultory torpor that the loss of the 2008 Assembly election brought about.
2008 Was a Turning Point
2008 was a crucial year, when agitations in Kashmir and counter-agitations in Jammu over the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board brought down the government of Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress Chief Minister.
Before those agitations, Azad had been set to win a near-majority in the state Assembly election that took place that year. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was set to win zero seats. Instead, those agitations set off the rise and rise of the BJP. Jammu was the laboratory for the ascent of Hindutva, as Gujarat had been six years before.
Unlike the Modi government, which has taken tight control of the bureaucracy, investigating agencies, and forces, those who thought they ran the government of that time were blissfully unaware that the processes by which Hindutva would take over were moving smoothly ahead right under their noses.
While Nehru had cottoned on to Abdullah’s duplicity and gave him hard-knuckled treatment off and on after 1952, Rahul and his mother focused only on protecting Abdullah’s grandson, Omar, in 2010, when he, too (like them), was oblivious to the nation-changing moves at play in his backyard.
The Congress is now weak in Jammu and Kashmir, riven by the rivalry between Azad and Pradesh Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir.
Rahul attended the wedding of Mir’s son. No doubt his visit, and the inauguration of the not-so-new party headquarters, was timed to coincide with the wedding.
Azad kept trailing Rahul, arriving after him at both the Kheer Bhawani temple, and the Hazratbal mosque, before catching up for the office inauguration. Apparently, Azad’s plane was late.
A few hundred people attended the function at the party office. It went well and people liked what Rahul said, but it’s unlikely that the party will be significantly shored up unless it rebuilds a cadre to put in hard and united work at the grassroots.
An Opportunity Lost in 2010
Looking back, one can say that if Rahul had taken the risk to foray into Downtown Srinagar during the war of stones and lead pellets in 2010, he might have had a chance to take history in his hands and soar into a leadership role.
No doubt he was not advised to take assertive political action by officers like the Home Secretary and the Army Chief of the time. Both are now Ministers in the Modi government.
Rahul certainly cut an impressive figure as he prayed to Mata Kheer Bhawani at the temple in Tulmulla (which has been a magnet for Pandits ever since the ardently vegetarian maharaja Ranbir Singh boosted its popularity in the 1870s). But there is little chance that Rahul’s bhakti (devotion) will make a dent in the minds and hearts of Pandit voters.
Rahul stated that he would also visit Jammu and Ladakh. He should, for those visits might actually do more to spark his party’s revival in that region.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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