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. 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.
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, 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. 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.
Farooq initially had no interest in politics. 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.
Rajiv was sure he could trust Farooq to end the impasse in Kashmir, and integrate the state into the Indian polity. 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. 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.
But these political shenanigans had happened during Indira Gandhi’s time. Rajiv had a different view on Farooq and the Congress leadership in the state when he came to power in 1985. He was aware that the Congress’s old guard in the state had its own ambitions and their own sub-regional politics. 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.
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.
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, Rajiv and Farooq signed an accord that reinstated the latter as chief minister and proposed a roadmap for stabilising the state.
Many senior Congress members in the state, including Mufti Sayeed and Arun Nehru, were opposed to Farooq’s reentry. Arun Nehru was moved out of discussions on Kashmir, and besides Mufti Sayeed, even the old family confidante and Kashmiri politician ML Fotedar was kept out of the loop.
Negotiations with Farooq were either directly conducted by Rajiv or through his loyalist Union Surface Transport minister, Rajesh Pilot. Rajesh was a new MP who had served as an Air Force fighter pilot. After coming into contact with Sanjay and Indira Gandhi, he had dropped his surname Prasad and added Pilot to it, in order to identify himself more closely with the Gandhi family’s love for flying. With his infectious laughter and shrewd sense of discretion, Pilot soon moved from being an important aide on Sanjay’s, and then Indira Gandhi’s, radar to Rajiv’s ace troubleshooter.
Even as a caretaker coalition government was being cobbled together, silent dissent was brewing in both the Congress and the National Conference. Sections in both parties were apprehensive about the secret goings-on. Soon after the announcement of the Rajiv-Farooq Accord amidst much fanfare, Farooq took the chief minister’s oath of office alone. No other minister was sworn-in with him because the list of ministers was still in the making, with all sides indulging in intense lobbying. The council of ministers was however scheduled for swearing-in at 4.15 p.m. on 7 November.
Excerpted with permission from The Lotus Years: Political Life In The Times Of Rajiv Gandhi, Ashwini Bhatnagar, Hachette.