Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has a penchant for stirring up controversies. And he lived up to his reputation when he recently remarked in an audio chat that the Congress would reconsider reinstating Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Predictably, his comment came in for immediate criticism by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), forcing the Congress to clarify that its stand on Article 370 had been spelt out by its working committee in August 2019 and that all party leaders should refrain from deviating from the official position.
Digvijaya Singh's remarks, subsequently endorsed by his party colleague Tariq Anwar, may have been forgotten after grabbing headlines for a day but they served as a grim reminder for the Congress about the tightrope walk it has been forced to negotiate on the sensitive issue of Article 370 ever since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government abrogated the constitutional provision giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir two years ago.
A divided house
The Congress was left red-faced when several party leaders including Janardan Dwivedi, Milind Deora, Deepender Hooda and Aditi Singh publicly supported the government move soon after Parliament passed the two Bills reading down Article 370 and bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir. To make matters worse, Bhubaneswar Kalita, the Congress chief whip in Rajya Sabha, switched over to the BJP shortly before the debate on the two Bills on the plea that he could not bring himself to issue a whip to party MPs to vote against the government as public sentiment favoured this move.
Faced with deep divisions in its ranks, the Congress was subsequently forced to dilute its stand on Article 370. After voting against the Bills in Parliament, the Congress working committee statement did not oppose the decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status but instead questioned the unilateral manner in which this decision was taken by the Modi government.
The working committee statement said the Congress "deplores the unilateral, brazen and totally undemocratic manner in which Article 370 was abrogated and the State of Jammu and Kashmir was dismembered by misinterpreting the provisions of the Constitution. Every principle of Constitutional law, States' rights, Parliamentary procedure and democratic governance was violated."
In fact, the meeting of the party's working committee, convened especially to fine tune the party's official position on the latest developments in Jammu and Kashmir, had further exposed these internal divisions.
Several leaders had then urged the leadership not to go against the national mood which overwhelmingly supported the Bills.
Silence on Article 370
The party's predicament is, once again, reflected in the stand it has decided to take at the all-party meeting called by Modi on Jammu and Kashmir with leaders from the region. At a meeting convened by former prime minister Manmohan Singh and attnded by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad and P. Chidambaram, the Congress agreed that its focus during these discussions will be on the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, early elections and the enactment of special provisions regarding ownership of land on the basis of domicile.
The Congress was, however, silent on Article 370.
The reason why the Congress has decided to skip any reference to the reinstatement of Article 370 is not far to seek. Secretly, the party is not unhappy with this provision's abrogation which, many Congress insiders maintain, has been diluted drastically over the years and was only of symbolic value.
Moreover, the Congress leadership is under pressure from its Jammu unit, which does not want the party to oppose the abrogation of Article 370 since this move has resonated with the public and become an extremely polarising issue in this region. The Congress local leaders don't want to upset the applecart as the party has traditionally had a strong base in Jammu (dominated by Hindus) and won most of its seats from here.
Now that it has been displaced by the BJP and given the Hindu consolidation in Jammu, the Congress believes it has to necessarily go with the mood of the electorate if it is to regain lost ground. According to the Congress leaders here, the party has a good chance of bouncing back because the Jammu public is disenchanted with the BJP since it has failed to deliver on its promise that the region will witness greater development once the Centre took over the reins of the newly-carved Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the Congress' dreams of staging a comeback in Jammu may prove to be just that: dreams. As in the case of other state units, the party here is dormant and organisationally weak. It is almost as if it has lost the will to fight the BJP even though it is on a weak wicket here.
On the other hand, the BJP is depending on the prime minister's charisma and the Hindu-Muslim divide to retain its supremacy in Jammu.
The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.