When polling booths across the Kashmir Valley saw a healthy outpouring of voters on November 28 for the first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) elections, there was a general impression that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plan of incubating an alternative mainstream leadership sans the Abdullahs and the Muftis, whom it missed no opportunity to berate as anti-national and corrupt, would be abortive.
The election outcome upheld that point of view. The Abdullah- and Mufti-led People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) emerged as the largest formation with 110 wards when the votes were counted on December 22. Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, widely seen as a BJP proxy, secured just 12 wards, with its veteran leaders such as Dilawar Mir and Javaid Beigh tasting defeat.
The most striking feature of the PAGD’s victory was its surprise ascent in the Jammu region, where it was ahead in Ramban, Kishtwar, Poonch and Rajouri districts. There are 280 wards in total, 14 in each of the 20 districts of Jammu and Kashmir. For a party or an alliance to capture a district council, it has to secure a majority in its 14 wards. The BJP wrested only six of 20 districts—Jammu, Kathua, Udhampur, Samba, Doda and Reasi (all in Jammu region). The PAGD, on the other hand, won 13. Srinagar is up for grabs and its fate will be determined by the independents.
Yet, the election outcome should not be misconstrued as a positive vote for the two influential political families in Kashmir, who have long attracted cynicism from the disgruntled and alienated masses. Until the Abdullahs and Muftis fell out with the Narendra Modi dispensation and were detained on August 5, 2019, the day when Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was ended, they were widely seen as a vehicle of Indian rule in the erstwhile State. In the words of Omar Abdullah, “there were enough Kashmiris that were happy to see us detained”. That perception remains.
The people voted for them because they knew that the BJP was out to capture all of Kashmir’s institutions through its proxies. They also voted because the elections were made to look like a referendum on the Centre’s August 5 decision and it was imperative for them to make their disapproval known. In that context, the favourable outcome of these elections for the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has not erased the magnitude of the challenge they would encounter in rebuilding the wreck of mainstream politics.
In the public domain, the PAGD’s constituents were euphoric. They described the results as a measure of how much the political battle lines have been redrawn. “The ruling BJP should read the writing on the wall and undo the decisions taken on August 5, 2019,” said Farooq Abdullah, who heads the coalition.
In private, they were circumspect and aware of the hard combat that awaits them. The elections were hardly an exercise to bolster the process of democratisation, and the BJP will use every tool available in its armoury to divide the PAGD’s ranks. The past months have witnessed renewed investigations into the Roshni scheme and repeated summoning of Farooq Abdullah as the agencies actively pursued the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association scam, among other elements of “vendetta politics”.
An interaction with close aides of Mehbooba Mufti gave one the sense that there was widespread apprehension in the party that the former Chief Minister could be implicated in a terror case. It is pertinent to mention that the Youth PDP’s president Waheed Para was recently arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a terror case involving Davinder Singh. This correspondent learnt that some officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs “had not taken Mehbooba Mufti’s utterances lightly and were watching her moves”. Since her release on October 13, the former Chief Minister has attacked New Delhi’s office holders in her characteristic truculent spirit, calling them “dacoits” on more than one occasion.
However, the election outcome has made several upsetting revelations for the BJP. One, its sharp and constant assailing of the Gupkar signatories will only give them political succour and improve their ratings among a populace otherwise hostile or indifferent to them. Two, Kashmiris will spurn any defectors from within the N.C. and the PDP, no matter the resources, capital and political facilitations made available to them. Three, the kind of negativity the BJP pioneered in Jammu, trying to scare voters against the “Muslim other”, has outlived its utility.
When one keeps the above scenarios in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that the BJP will likely recalibrate its approach vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir, with overtures to the N.C. as its natural outcome. Ever since Farooq and his son Omar Abdullah were released in February, they have battled perception of “a deal with New Delhi”. This correspondent is given to understand that the Centre, at that point of time, had hinted at restoring Statehood, provided the Abdullah duo “showed good conduct”. In political terms, it meant eschewing any anti-Delhi politics. Their initial quiescent behaviour pointed in that direction. But when New Delhi offered trifling domicile guarantees to the Union Territory, the lines of communication blurred.
Now, with the Apni Party experiment failing to take off, there is optimism within the N.C. that New Delhi will avoid further conflict and engage with them pragmatically. But will the N.C. be willing to break away from the PAGD? As Frontline had reported earlier, that formation was architected by Farooq Abdullah essentially by his realisation that “an independently acting, bellicose Mehbooba Mufti could be detrimental to the N.C.’s interests”, as a member of Omar Abdullah’s inner circle told this correspondent at the time.
The Abdullahs knew that whenever the PDP leader was released, she would articulate the need for a large-scale street mobilisation against the August 5 action of the government, and were keen to pre-empt any such move. While public display of resentfulness would improve her standing with the people, the Abdullahs’ plan of incremental resistance would be seen as “abandoning the cause”. The PAGD was the Abdullahs’ safety valve to preclude their bete noire’s drift towards radical politics.
When one inspects the ongoing contrasting politicking of the N.C. and the PDP, one senses that the political fracas may reassert itself at the slightest provocation.
Mehbooba Mufti has been hitting the streets. She has been seen at different locations, often expressing solidarity with the nomads rendered homeless by the Manoj Sinha administration. She holds freewheeling pressers and is clearly aiming to rebuild her party. A confidant of the former Chief Minister admitted as much: “Her most urgent task is to revive the party’s image and support base. She knows she has no shot at the government for the next five years. Importantly, she doesn’t want to become the Chief Minister in such chaotic times.”
The Abdullahs’ circumstances are different. Before August 5, 2019, the N.C. looked certain to sweep the next Assembly election in the erstwhile State. In the general election, it comfortably won all three Lok Sabha seats in the Kashmir Valley, with new entrant Justice (retd) Hasnain Masoodi dealing Mehbooba Mufti a blow in her stronghold, Anantnag in south Kashmir. In the past 15 months, while the BJP has been successful in engineering a vertical split in the PDP, the N.C. has managed to keep its flock together.
A private conversation with N.C. leaders revealed that the party was looking to counter New Delhi incrementally, without engaging in provocations. Winning a majority in the Assembly, bringing in resolutions to empower it, and waiting until a less hostile Central government replaces the current dispensation are critical components of their calculus. According to informed sources, in one of the N.C.’s internal meetings Farooq Abdullah issued a clear warning to dissenters to either abide by the party line or quit.
The N.C. admits privately that no party in Kashmir can hope to form a government unless it repairs ties with New Delhi and decides to work together on areas of agreement. A guessing game has begun within the N.C.’s ranks, with several senior leaders speculating: “Is Omar Abdullah talking [to New Delhi]?”
If voices from within the N.C. are to be believed, Omar Abdullah may be talking to New Delhi through a Sikh leader of the party who is his conduit to the Centre. A senior N.C. leader told Frontline : “Omar has not been articulating much in the PAGD meetings.” The senior leader views Omar’s aloofness as an indicator that he might be engaged in parallel talks elsewhere.
However, Salman Sagar, the party’s influential young leader, asserted that the coalition would not fragment. “This alliance was formed to restore whatever had been taken away from Jammu and Kashmir unilaterally rather than to capture power; it was formed when we weren’t even aware that any elections would be held.”
Siddiq Wahid, an ace scholar and political commentator, said the PAGD’s credibility would be tested in the days following its victory. “It is imperative for the Gupkar allies to resist the temptation of seeking individual glory. One can sense that whereas the N.C. is acting as a moderate force, the PDP is rooting for aggressive politics. The two need to get rid of any emerging tension.”
A close aide of Mehbooba Mufti warned: “Whoever exits [PAGD] will do so at his own peril, as his public standing would be dented.” While that is true, there are other grave considerations facing the N.C. Within the N.C., there is a rising fear that if they do not minimise fissures with New Delhi, the Modi government could bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir yet again, giving Statehood to a separate Jammu province and keeping Kashmir under its direct control. If that happens, Kashmir would be doomed for a long time. The Congress’ flip-flops on issues pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir has made it obvious that if it returns to power, it would opt for realpolitik rather than show magnanimity to the Muslim-majority Valley.
The senior leaders of the N.C. are unanimous that their strategy of incremental resistance is the only pragmatic and implementable option. But several questions remain: What price will the BJP exact for setting the terms of rapprochement? Will it include abandoning the struggle for restoration of special status? Can the BJP be trusted?