COVER STORY: Kashmir

The BJP game plan to consolidate its position in Jammu and Kashmir before it calls elections

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Union Home Minister Amit Shah being greeted by supporters on his arrival for a public meeting in Srinagar on October 25. Photo: PTI/Twitter image posted by@AmitShah

Farooq Abdullah, N.C. president, and Omar Abdullah, party vice president, talking to the media in Srinagar on June 26 on their return from New Delhi after attending an all-party meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Right from the time Farooq and Omar Abdullah were released from detention in March 2020, the N.C. has been making the mistake of believing that New Delhi would realise the cost of its impulsive actions, repair ties with it and work on areas of agreement. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

No matter the differences between them, the Gupkar leaders need to evolve a calibrated, nuanced and unified strategy if they have to take on the BJP, which is using whatever tactics it has at its disposal to ensure that it will reach the magic number of 46 seats in the next Assembly election.

As a repressive bureaucratic structure tightens its control over Kashmir’s polity, civil society and public institutions—stifling dissent with arbitrary use of anti-terror laws, coercing officials into absolute conformity, and intensifying cultural invasion with a name-changing spree of roads and public utilities—there are sporadic manifestations of a yearning in Kashmir for an elected government. Officially, the excuse for the delay in calling elections is that the Delimitation Commission is yet to finish its task of reorganising the Assembly constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir, which have increased to 90 from 87 (effectively 83 as four constituencies in the erstwhile State were in Ladakh, now a separate Union Territory). But hardly anyone buys that claim. General discussions in public underscore the fact that people believe that elections will be held as and when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) so desires.

Against that backdrop, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s actions during his recent, much-hyped visit to the Union Territory, which he used to illustrate his commitment to strengthening ‘nationalist’ rhetoric and to continue his derision of the two political families of Kashmir, are important indicators of the course the BJP is expected to chart and its definitive aims and objectives. On October 24, at an event in Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Convention Centre, Amit Shah assailed Kashmir’s “two families”, accusing them of corruption and nepotism and perpetuating an anti-India sentiment by calling for dialogue with Pakistan, even as he repeated his party’s fallacious claims of containing terrorism and boosting economic development in Jammu and Kashmir. “Today, we have succeeded in replacing guns with pens even in the militancy hotbed of Pulwama and other districts of Kashmir,” he said. He then retired to a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Pulwama and spent the night with security personnel.

The takeaways are not hard to discern. There will be elections and there will be an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir, as Amit Shah himself has reiterated, but as the BJP continues to circulate the idea that it is on its way to remaking Kashmir into something resembling its idealised past, hope of political inclusion is dim. The BJP will vehemently oppose any return to the old days when New Delhi’s “allies”, the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), rotated power between themselves and New Delhi was content with managing matters pivotal to law and order and national security through remote control. By using Kashmir as a theatre to whip up Hindu nationalist sentiments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has gone too far in its discourse to restore comity, no matter Modi’s assertions of mitigating “dil ki doori”. Both Modi and Amit Shah know that any staple of politics that does not promise to place the social and political hegemony of the Hindus at its core will be seen as a compromise.

Also read: Central government policies and escalation of violence in J&K leading to alienation of Kashmiri Pandits

The coming days will see the BJP attempting to consolidate its position in Jammu by vehement expositions of muscular nationalism. In the valley, its immediate task is to weaken its biggest challenger, the N.C. Apparently, a blueprint has been drawn to splinter the N.C.’s top ranks and facilitate the rebels’ entry into either Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference (P.C.) or the Apni Party led by Altaf Bukhari. Both the P.C. and the Apni Party are perceived to be the vehicles of the BJP in the Kashmir valley. It is imperative for the BJP to have that covert arrangement as defections of Kashmir-based leaders directly into its fold would discredit them. During the District Development Council (DDC) elections in November-December 2020, Apni Party candidates were flanked by security personnel and armoured vehicles even as several People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) candidates were restricted from campaigning on the pretext of security threat.

Bid to weaken National Conference

The BJP is hopeful of its “proxies” in the Kashmir valley clinching enough seats to help it reach the magic number of 46 in the 90-member House. Both the P.C. and the Apni Party deny any complicity with the saffron forces. When contacted, a P.C. spokesperson ascribed such a notion to a “discourse floated by the National Conference”. But a spate of developments suggests otherwise. Devender Rana, once the N.C.’s heavyweight leader from Jammu, and Hilal Rather from Budgam have quit the party. Rather joined the P.C. Ishfaq Jabbar, an N.C. leader from Ganderbal, sent the alarm bells ringing when he resigned from key party portfolios on November 4.

The N.C. could be facing more crises, as Frontline’s interactions with various stakeholders and informed sources indicate. Interactions with them give one the sense that the BJP allegedly has an armoury of tactics to engineer more defections. Some N.C. leaders are being offered plum portfolios in the Lieutenant Governor’s administration, while others have investigation agencies knocking on their doors over “shady business enterprises” they were involved in while in power. Emissaries of New Delhi are also in touch with the N.C.’s potential candidates from Pahalgam and Kokernag; some were allegedly warned that if they did not quit the N.C., their constituencies would be reserved for Scheduled Tribes. If these reports are true, it points to a blatant subversion of the Delimitation Commission. An erstwhile member of the administration who joined the N.C.’s ranks is being cajoled into shifting loyalties, and heirs of two well-known N.C. leaders are “under duress”.

It is unlikely that that the N.C., led by seasoned politicians such as Farooq and Omar Abdullah, is unaware of what is brewing in its backyard. In fact, according to party insiders, long before Devender Rana quit the party, Farooq Abdullah had alerted a colleague in Banihal to guard himself against him. But what is unsettling is that despite early information about sabotage, the N.C. was unable to thwart it.

Also read: ‘Alienation of people in Kashmir at an all-time high’

But that is not the N.C.’s only worry. Right from the time Farooq and Omar Abdullah were released from detention in March 2020, the N.C. has been making the mistake of believing that New Delhi would realise the cost of its impulsive actions, repair ties with it and work on areas of agreement as international scrutiny of the situation in Kashmir becomes intense, geopolitical contours realign to India’s disadvantage, and the obliteration of the middle ground pushes the region to the precipice of an anti-India implosion.

It is learnt that Omar Abdullah on several occasions (rightly) warned that New Delhi would not retreat even an inch, but the overwhelming sense in the party was different. This not only persuaded the N.C. to avoid a collision course with New Delhi but made the party appear reconciliatory each time Modi hoodwinked it with signs of relenting. For instance, ahead of the Prime Minister’s meeting with Jammu and Kashmir leaders on June 14, Farooq Abdullah distanced himself from Mehbooba Mufti’s call for dialogue with Pakistan. “Mehbooba Mufti has her own agenda. We have our own agenda. We do not want to talk about Pakistan. We will talk to our own PM,” he said.

National Conference’s advantages

Despite these mistakes, the N.C. has at least two advantages. One, wide-ranging discussions with a cross section of people across the Kashmir valley suggest that there is a rising sense of panic and frustration over the political vacuum in Kashmir and a yearning for leadership. This stems from an overwhelming sense that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s ideological experimentation in Jammu and Kashmir—of realigning the region’s demography and making Hindus numerically superior—will continue. In this anxious climate, the resistance the mainstream actors offer is expected to find a reception even if it is without the glamour of widespread public adulation.

Two, however hard the BJP may try to prop up a battalion of proxies, it is improbable that they will withstand the test at the hustings. The BJP’s howling campaign to vilify the Abdullahs and the Muftis and its preferential treatment of the Apni Party, and now also the P.C., has made its game plan obvious. This may prompt people to vote against defectors simply because that would be the only consistent way to register protest. The DDC elections of 2020 pointed to that. Several candidates who were either former legislators or Ministers and had defected to the Apni Party lost to the PAGD.

Also read: Jammu and Kashmir’s apparatus of repression

History tells us that any candidate who smacks of “Indian-ness” will be rebuffed in the Kashmir valley. In the 1977 Assembly election, in spite of popular discontent over the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord, the N.C. soundly defeated Janata Party candidates, no matter the resources made available to them and the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, travelling all the way to Srinagar to helm the electioneering. Perhaps, the BJP senses this. Informed sources say that the Union Home Minister, despite the optics he set in Srinagar and Pulwama, was not particularly happy with his assessment of how things are moving in Kashmir. All the same, the N.C. needs to get its act together. As the BJP’s primary challenger in Jammu and Kashmir, it has to articulate people’s fundamental concerns regarding the onslaught on their identity and berate Modi and his alleged proxies in public.

In August 2020, Omar Abdullah signalled that he would not hesitate to confront New Delhi. He said: “We will fight using the legal means at our disposal, which are two: one is the power that the Constitution gives us to challenge the decisions in the court, and the second is forums available, including Parliament, the media, social media and public meetings.” That combative assertion has to be renewed and it has to translate into concrete action to reinvent his party’s politics in the fractious Himalayan region.

According to sources in the N.C., Farooq Abdullah is in favour of an electoral alliance among the PAGD parties, but that idea cuts little ice with most of his colleagues, who contend that the PAGD has proved helpful only to Mehbooba Mufti. That said, wherever there is a keen contest with the P.C. or the Apni Party, the N.C. and the PDP have to ensure that they do not fragment each other’s votes. The onus for that understanding is largely on Mehbooba Mufti, who has been charting an independent belligerent course aimed at erasing the stain of her alliance with the BJP. She must resist the temptation to make it all about her political resurrection and let a calibrated, nuanced and unified strategy evolve among the Gupkar leaders. And that has to happen now.

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