In the Kashmir valley, where the government’s normalcy narrative is at odds with popular murmurs against an iron-fisted bureaucracy and alleged criminalisation of dissent, the widening cracks within the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) have added a new twist amid renewed fears of a “forced realignment” of demography following the Election Commission’s recent announcement on the enrolment of 25 lakh new voters. Former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s inundation of the Jammu region with rallies and public meetings, with little clarity on the course of his politics, adds to the general sense of foreboding.
On August 22, soon after an inter-party meeting chaired by National Conference president Farooq Abdullah, the party tweeted about “ill-treatment” meted out to its members. This signalled that all was not well yet again within the PAGD. “The participants of the Provincial Committee denounced an unfair treatment meted out to JKNC in PAGD [meeting],” the NC posted on its Twitter handle. It also announced its intent to contest all 90 seats of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, thus ending the coalition that the PAGD formed to contest the District Development Council elections of November-December 2020.
The public has been left clueless about the NC’s scathing tweet despite knowing that many NC leaders are sceptical of an understanding with Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Frontline has reliably learnt that the PDP leader’s repeated references to the “rigged election” of 1987 at the meeting riled NC leaders.
A senior PAGD leader told this reporter that “when Mehbooba Mufti’s turn came to speak, she tried to characterise the entire political mess in Kashmir as a fallout of the rigged elections of 1987”. The leader said: “It was an indictment of the National Conference for not just the eruption of militancy in 1990 but also the eventual stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.”
A source close to Omar Abdullah confirmed this and added: “Mehbooba Mufti brought the BJP to power in J&K. Instead of assailing her politically for that imprudent choice, we buried the hatchet to unitedly struggle for restoration of J&K’s special status. During the DDC elections we parted with a chunk of winnable seats to allies, majorly to the PDP. And now Mehbooba Mufti is trying to pin the blame on us by unnecessarily raking up the 1987 election.”
Some senior leaders of the alliance tried to defuse the crisis. PDP spokesperson Suhail Bukhari said: “PAGD was conceived for a much larger cause than just an electoral alliance. If some constituent of the alliance has reservations for any kind of electoral alliance, that will not impact our unity for the larger goal.”
The inter-party meetings in Srinagar in August and in Jammu in September were convened to chalk out a road map to foil the BJP’s perceived ploy to influence election outcomes by swelling the ranks of the electorate with migrants. Significantly, several political parties which are not part of the PAGD but which espouse politics opposed to the BJP’s attended the meeting in Srinagar. These parties are especially opposed to the BJP’s alleged attempts to dilute the authority of public institutions and the constant hounding of individuals and groups holding dissenting viewpoints.
Representatives from the Congress, the Shiv Sena, the Janata Dal (United), and the Shiromani Akali Dal (of Simranjit Singh Mann) were present. There was unanimity among PAGD constituents and representatives of other parties that the fundamental right of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to elect their government is sacrosanct and must not be diluted by pulling in non-locals.
Threat posed by migrants
The PAGD meeting in Jammu on September 10 discussed strategies to counter the challenge posed by a potential addition of “25 lakh new voters”. The Union Territory’s chief electoral officer, Hirdesh Kumar, had stated that “20 lakh to 25 lakh new voters are likely to be added based on the 2011 Census population projector for the 18 plus population”. Kumar described the qualifying metric for inclusion in the voter list as “ordinarily residing” in Jammu and Kashmir. “Before abrogation of Article 370, there were many people who could not vote in the Assembly election in J&K, but now they can also become voters. For them, provisions are already there in the Representation of the People Act. A person should be ordinarily residing in the UT,” he said.
NC spokesperson Imran Dar shared with Frontline his party’s apprehension of an insidious intent to stifle the political voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir by throwing open voting rights to non-locals. “The Election Commission needs to clearly define the term ‘ordinarily residing’. People are worried that non-locals who may proliferate into J&K now will become eligible to vote six months down the line, thus changing the dynamics of the election,” he said. Mehbooba Mufti has described the 25 lakh potential new voters as “a posse of BJP loyalists, inducted to precipitate a BJP victory in the next election”.
The Department of Information and Public Relations on August 20 dismissed these apprehensions as a “misrepresentation of facts, which is being spread by vested interests”. A DIPR communique stated: “This revision of electoral rolls will cover existing residents of the UT of J&K and increase in numbers will be of the voters who have attained the age of 18 years as on 1.10.2022 or earlier.”
The DIPR statement suggests that Hirdesh Kumar’s statement about 25 lakh new voters referred merely to people who had attained the age of 18 since the last election. The strength of the registered electorate in the Union Territory is 76 lakh. The projections of the Registrar General of India put the total count of 18-plus population there at 98.96 lakh.
The BJP sought to play down the issue of new voters. A party spokesperson from Jammu, Rahul Sharma, told Frontline that the Narendra Modi government has extended voting rights to West Pakistani refugees and people from the Valmiki and Gorkha communities. “The abrogation of Article 370 enabled deprived sections to avail themselves of their basic democratic right to vote. There is also a new generation of young adults. So there is nothing shady about the addition of 25 lakh voters; vested groups are playing politics as usual,” he said over the telephone from Jammu.
Also read: Operation Kashmir
Yet the controversy refused to die down. Before Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, barred any individual who was not a permanent resident of the State from registration in electoral rolls. The Representation of the People Act of 1950 and 1951 became applicable to the erstwhile State following the abrogation of Article 370, changing the dynamics. The two Acts of 1950 and 1951 stipulate that any citizen of India who has attained the qualifying age and is “ordinarily residing” at a place is eligible to be registered in the electoral rolls of that place, if not disqualified otherwise. In Jammu and Kashmir, it has led to an overwhelming perception that non-locals would not need a domicile certificate to be eligible to vote.
What is Azad’s game?
In this charged-up atmosphere, Ghulam Nabi Azad’s bid to form a new political party is being watched closely by all stakeholders. He asserted at a rally in Baramulla on September 11 that he would not “mislead people and promise restoration of Article 370”. His critics see the statement as validating perceptions of a clandestine arrangement with the BJP. His supporters say he is only being “pragmatic and realistic”.
Azad recently undertook an energetic tour of the Chenab valley. In his public meetings and rallies at Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban districts, he harked back to his work as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister (2005-2008). He spoke of how under his watch the road network was taken to far-flung regions, the Tulip Garden was constructed in Kashmir, a golf course came up in Jammu, and a host of new colleges and hospitals were established. His detractors point out that he refrained from criticising the BJP’s majoritarian agenda.
Azad’s yet-to-be-announced party is not expected to register any major success in the next election. But his presence is likely to benefit the BJP by fragmenting the Muslim votes in the Chenab Valley and the Pir Panjal region. If that happens, the BJP, which is likely to do well in Jammu district and in the border districts of Kathua, Reasi, Samba and Udhampur, may well be within striking distance of power.
The BJP, however, rubbishes speculation of any tacit understanding with the former Congressman. “Ghulam Nabi Azad was pioneering the rebel G-23 faction within the Congress, and in due course he left the party. People are exiting the Congress in droves because of lack of internal democracy. There is no point in blaming the BJP for it,” said BJP leader Kavinder Gupta, also former Deputy Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in an interview to Frontline.
The Resistance Front, an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and blamed for the recent killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, issued a letter describing Azad as a “political chameleon”. The letter, which went viral on social media, alleged that Azad had a closed-door meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval before announcing his intention to form a new political party.
Azad’s key team members are riled by aspersions cast on his integrity as a secular leader. They point out that he has put on record that he will not join hands with the BJP, before or after elections. Speaking to Frontline, Ashwani Handa, an Azad loyalist who left the Congress recently, said: “Azad is the tallest politician in the [erstwhile] State with vast experience as a Union Minister and Chief Minister. His acceptability cuts across region and religion. The rival parties are perturbed and are trying to malign him.”
About Azad’s remark on Article 370, he said: “Azad has always said that the BJP did the biggest betrayal of the State by snatching from its people exclusivity in land and job rights. When he says that he will not promise restoration of Article 370, he is only trying to underscore that the majority needed to do so in Parliament is not with the opposition at present nor is it foreseeable anytime soon.”
But such clarifications are unlikely to make a difference to public perceptions and sentiments. The Congress is in disarray after Azad’s exit, and nobody is ready to bet on the PAGD’s sustainability.
These developments have come at a time when the BJP is honing up its election machinery in the Jammu region and readying a band of proxies to usurp space in the Kashmir Valley.
- Cracks appear in Kashmir’s Gupkar Alliance.
- NC leaders are reportedly unhappy with PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti’s repeated references to “rigged election” of 1987.
- Ghulam Nabi Azad holds a series of rallies where he refrains from criticising the BJP’s politics.
- Azad’s efforts are expected to help the BJP by dividing non-BJP votes in the Chenab valley.
- Anxieties deepen over the announcement that there are some 25 lakh new voters in Jammu and Kashmir.
- There are fears that the BJP might engineer a favourable electoral outcome by enfranchising immigrants from outside Jammu and Kashmir.