Farooq was sworn in 90 minutes after Sheikh passed away: template was set for post-Indira scenario.
Governor B.K. Nehru created a template on 8 September 1982, which was somewhat replicated by President Zail Singh when he swore in Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister on 31 October 1985. The selection of Farooq Abdullah as Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah’s successor as Chief Minister of J&K was ratified by National Conference MLAs on 11 September. Likewise the Congress Parliamentary Party gave post facto ratification to Rajiv Gandhi’s anointment three years later. Usually a leader is invited to be Chief Minister or Prime Minister after a legislative party has elected him or her. The Constitution gives omnibus right to the President (or Governor, in a state) to choose the incumbent. If the head of state is satisfied that the person being chosen can command the support of the majority in the legislature then discretion may be used—B.K. Nehru did so in 1982 and Gyaniji in 1985. These two successions, though essentially dynastic, had the veneer of democratic sanction. In both cases the chosen heir of the deceased ruler were novices in politics, they triple jumped over the heads of experienced politicians—but they were applauded by their respective parties, which had roots in the Freedom Struggle, by cacophony of hallelujah. Many dynastic successions have taken place since. Parties born post 1980 have done better than both National Conference and Indian National Congress—dynastic parties seem to have been accepted as norm by a section of the electorate as well. Bihar saw Lalu Yadav handing over the baton to his spouse, Rabri Devi in 1997. Since Hemant Soren came under a cloud there is talk of a similar exercise being contemplated in Jharkhand. Narendra Modi and BJP’s diatribe, that dynasty is nasty, did not prevent DMK’s Stalin and Rahul Gandhi addressing each other as “Brother”, while Congress yatra was flagged off at Kanyakumari. Seeds of this brotherhood of dynasties were sown in Srinagar in the autumn of 1982.
B.K. Nehru’s template was a sharp departure from precedents in similar situations. West Bengal’s iconic CM, Dr B.C. Roy, passed away on his 80th birthday, 1 July, in 1962.This was the first death of a head of government in Free India. Governor Padmaja Naidu imposed President’s Rule and waited for the Congress legislators to elect a successor—P.C. Sen was sworn in on 9 July. President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was at the helm when Jawaharlal Nehru and his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died. Padmaja Naidu’s template could not have been followed at the Centre, hence on both occasions Dr Radhakrishnan appointed Home Minister Gulzari Lal Nanda as caretaker PM, awaiting election of the new leader of Congress Party in Parliament (CPP).
Sheikh Abdullah, who was restored as CM in February 1975 after he was released from prison, fell ill in June 1982. Farooq Abdullah, a qualified medical doctor, had stayed away from politics (just as Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot, had) and was drawn into statecraft when he was made President of the J&K National Conference in 1981 (Rajiv Gandhi was made AICC General Secretary after Sanjay Gandhi’s death). Till then his brother in law, Ghulam Mohammed Shah had been the Sheikh’s trusted family member in the Cabinet. As Sheikh’s health deteriorated, he wanted to induct Farooq into the Cabinet. Internal squabble in the ruling party surfaced—on 15 August a group of MLAs led by G.M. Shah boycotted the Independence Day function in Srinagar presided over by the Sheikh and held a parallel flag hoisting ceremony in Ganderbal. Three days later Shah quit the Cabinet. On 23 August, Farooq was sworn in as the Health Minister. Sheikh fell seriously ill on 5 September. PM Indira Gandhi air dashed to Srinagar a day later and took cardiologist Dr Khalilullah along with her and left him behind to look after the critically ill CM. The end came on the evening of 8 September. Farooq, who was praying for his father at a shrine, rushed back. The rest of the ministers were summoned by the Finance Minister, D.D. Thakur, who was the Number Two, and they collectively signed a letter to the Governor saying that none of them were willing to be sworn in as CM and that Farooq, who was the sole non-signatory to the all-minister letter, be made CM. B.K. Nehru swore in Farooq within 90 minutes of the Sheikh’s death being announced. G.M. Shah, popularly known as Gulshah, came to know of these developments later in the night.
Sheikh Abdullah, who is today remembered as a controversial figure, was a mass leader who styled himself on Turkey’s Kamal Ataturk, who had dismantled the Caliphate and ushered in Islamic reform. Abdullah carried out land reform in J&K in the early 1940s and also advocated women’s emancipation—like Ataturk he asked women to discard the purdah and he set up a women’s college in the heart of Srinagar in 1950. He was instrumental in J&K’s accession to India—but in 1953 his desire for “Independent Kashmir” led to his imprisonment and banishment—which ended when Indira Gandhi’s regime signed an accord by which he was made CM again in 1975. Popularly known as “Baba-e-qaum” (patriarch of the community) in the State and Sher-e-Kashmir (Lion), his death was a seismic moment for J&K—lakhs turned out for his funeral in which the only slogan raised was, “Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshaad: Hindu Muslim Sikh Ittehad”. Riding the gun carriage which carried the Sheikh’s cortege and took 11 hours to reach the burial site, Dr Farooq Abdullah inherited the affection the people had for his father. An affection which was to evaporate in the years to come, when in spite of winning elections, Farooq could not stymie Gulshah from walking out with MLAs and forming a government in alliance with Congress in July 1984. What followed thereafter created a fertile ground for the machinations of Pakistan’s ISI, who intensified the proxy war in the valley. Dynastic succession in J&K was later reinforced when Omar Abdullah succeeded Farooq. The Abdullah bête noire, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, too was succeeded by daughter Mehbooba Mufti.
At a time when Narendra Modi is waging a crusade against political dynasties—families of Mamata Banerjee, Soren, KCR, Stalin’s DMK, Deve Gowda’s JDS, Lalu’s RJD, Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, Pawar’s NCP, Abdullah’s NC, Mehbooba’s PDP—are being sought to be aligned against Modi, it is pertinent to recall how precedents were set aside to further family interests—the grey areas in the Constitution of India which give leeway for ultimate discretion being the handmaiden of these developments.