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The sarpanch war: Rahul Gandhi vs Omar Abdullah

Rahul Gandhi speaks rarely, which explains why when he does most leaders in the Congress take him very seriously. In contrast Omar Abdullah, manages to look serious while saying almost anything, including throwing an open challenge to militants to attack him, instead of defenceless sarpanches in the state.

It was Gandhi's observation in the recent Congress Working Committee meeting that the issue of two sarpanches being killed was a 'serious issue that required attention' that set the ball rolling, and erupted into what now seems to be a war of words between the two parties.

Chief Minister Abdullah chose to react to the issue only after Congress leaders made disparaging comments about the security of the heads of panchayats in the state. And perhaps playing to the gallery, Abdullah chose bravado as a counterpoint.

“These (militants) cowards are attacking defenseless people. If they have the courage let them carry out an attack on me. But they will not do it as they know they will get a befitting reply,” he told reporters.

Rahul Gandhi with the delegation of sarpanches from J&K. PTI

He also chose to lament the fact that an impression was being created that the situation in the Valley was spiralling out of control and senior members of the panchayats were resigning almost daily.

“So far, we have only received 50 resignations since the panchayat elections were held last year,” he said.

While Abdullah refused to accept the resignations or the fact that there could be a sense of unease among the elected representatives, some of the sarpanches went over his head and met Gandhi, in whom they seem to have found a sympathetic ear.

“We told him that if the other party (NC) was not listening to it, why doesn’t the Congress walk out of the government? How long can people be expected to watch this drama where Congress leaders say the amendments should be extended while the NC refuses to do so?” Shafiq Mir, Poshana sarpanch and convener of the J&K Panchayat Coordination Committee told Indian Express.

They were also quoted as saying in a report that Gandhi has promised to address rallies about their condition. They also had the added bonus of meeting with Minister of State for Home Jitendra Singh who reportedly spoke with the Home Secretary about providing more security to the sarpanches.

For the Congress, the issue will be a good one to use to target its alliance partners in the state and the Youth Congress has already promised to up the ante, now that they have the backing of Rahul Gandhi.

The youth wing's attempts to raise the issue earlier had failed to elicit much of a response from the state government or the party high command, but with fear over the targetting of the sarpanches currently a hot topic, they are on a more sure footing and want to make the most of it.

The Congress' decision to take on the Abdullah government may also force its hand when it comes to giving more power to panchayats in the state, something it has managed to delay for some time now. While Abdullah may have said the two coalition partners can have separate views on the subject, he just might find it easier to give greater powers to the panchayats than to give the Congress the upper hand politically over the issue.