National Conference, PDP

Turf war

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah with his father and National Conference president Farooq Abdullah after the latter filed his nomination papers on April 7 to contest the Srinagar-Budgam Lok Sabha seat. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti during a campaign rally in Anantnag district on March 20. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

JAMMU and Kashmir elects just six members to the Lok Sabha. Given the overall composition of the Indian Parliament, this number is insignificant. This is cited as one of the reasons why major political parties do not take much interest in developments in the State.

However, in a situation where the elections throw up a fractured verdict, even a single seat matters in government formation. A single vote, cast by National Conference (N.C.) Member of Parliament Saifuddin Soz, brought down the A.B. Vajpayee government in 1998. His vote was against the wishes of his party, which was supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. Soz is now the Pradesh Congress Committee chief .

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the two main parties in the State, the ruling N.C. and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), are apparently trying to fit into the future coalition politics of the country. But it will depend on their performance in the coming elections.

National Conference

The oldest political party of Jammu and Kashmir, with strong grass-roots support, the N.C. has substantial presence in all the three regions of the State, namely, Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. Originally called the Muslim Conference, which was until then fighting against Dogra rule in the State, the party assumed its current name in 1938. Its founder, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, believed in secularism, and his proximity to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru led to this renaming. The N.C.’s political agenda of “Naya Kashmir” (New Kashmir) was deeply influenced by the communist ideology. Until August 9, 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed as the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, the N.C. was the only party in the State. The N.C. later led the Plebiscite Movement —demanding a plebiscite on the State’s status—for nearly 22 years, until Sheikh Abdullah entered into an accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975. The accord materialised owing to Sheikh Abdullah’s personal decision to shift from the demand for plebiscite in order to embrace power. The Congress, which was in power in the State at that time, handed over the reins of government to Sheikh Abdullah’s N.C. without any conditions, though the N.C. did not have a single member in the Assembly. But it withdrew the support a year later.

Sheikh Abdullah emerged as the State’s undisputed leader again in 1977 when he swept the Assembly elections. This notwithstanding the fact that some of those who were part of the Plebiscite Movement had revolted against him for his decision to enter the accord. Sheikh Abdullah died in September 1982.

Sheikh Abdullah’s son Farooq Abdullah then took charge of the State. A sympathy wave helped him to sweep the polls in 1983. The N.C. ruled on its own. However, Farooq Abdullah’s flamboyant nature led to his ouster a year later.

The immediate cause of his ouster was a conclave he hosted in October 1983 of 59 top opposition leaders who represented 17 political parties. Veterans such as Jyoti Basu, N.T. Rama Rao, I.K. Gujral, Chandreshekhar, Chita Basu, Jagjivan Ram, Sharad Pawar, H.N. Bahuguna, Parkash Singh Badal and S.S. Barnala attended the conclave. This did not go down well with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was their prime target. The Congress engineered a split in his party in 1984 and 16 MLAs defected; subsequently, Farooq’s government was dismissed and his brother-in-law G.M. Shah was made the Chief Minister. This served as a bitter lesson for Farooq, who later confided to his close aides that he would never take up the cudgels against the party that was in power at the Centre. After Indira Gandhi was killed in October 1984, Farooq Abdullah picked up the thread of the decade-old bond between the Nehru-Gandhi and Abdullah families and befriended Rajiv Gandhi, her son and the next Prime Minister. This resulted in the ouster of G. M. Shah. The N.C. joined hands with the Congress to form a new coalition government in 1986. This was followed by the infamous Assembly elections of 1987, which the two parties fought together. The large-scale rigging in the elections is considered a major factor that pushed Kashmiri youth to militancy.

Things started to settle down, and the N.C. returned to power again in 1996, this time on its own, winning 57 out of the 87 seats in the Assembly. However, it started losing ground thereafter and in the 2002 Assembly elections its tally was reduced to 28. As it decided to sit in the opposition, paving the way for a PDP-Congress coalition government, it felt the need for alliances. In 2008, it joined hands with the Congress to form a coalition government. Both parties fought the 2009 Lok Sabha elections jointly and won five of the six seats in the State. One seat, Ladakh, was won by an independent with the tacit support of the N.C.

In this round of elections too, the N.C. and the Congress are fighting jointly, mainly against the PDP. The N.C. has conceded the seats of Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh to the Congress and retained three in the valley. The N.C. is part of the UPA, and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has reiterated that his party will never be part of the NDA. Political grapevine suggests that both parties will go together in the Assembly elections that are due in December this year because the N.C. is not in a position to fight the anti–incumbency factor on its own. It may be noted that the N.C’s vote share went down from 22.2 per cent in 2004 to 19.11 per cent in 2009. The noted political scientist Gull Mohammad Wani believes that a power-sharing settlement on Jammu and Kashmir has been reached between the third-generation scions of Nehru-Gandhi and Abdullah families. “Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah have settled for a long-term relationship as both need each other for survival in the State” he said.

PDP’s fortunes

This “long-term” understanding, however, throws a challenge to the PDP. Though it is a young party on the State’s political turf, its founder, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had been a Congressman and brings the Congress culture to his party. His disappointment with the national parties on the Kashmir issue was the reason why he chose a regional platform. After being with the Congress and the Third Front led by the Janata Dal for more than three decades, he formed the PDP in 1999. His move was a calculated one as he intended the party to be an alternative to the N.C. His daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, who was until then the Congress Legislature Party leader in the Assembly (elected in 1996), played a pivotal role in achieving public acceptance for her party. She peddled a “soft separatism”, talked about resolution of the Kashmir dispute and, moreover, reached out to the people who suffered at the hands of the security forces. This lent her legitimacy in a span of four years and culminated in her party bagging 16 seats in the 2002 Assembly elections.

The Congress, which won 20 seats, formed a coalition government with the PDP. The latter thus came to power in its first attempt at the hustings. To a large extent it tried to address its constituency, which was desperate for relief. But from day one it did not get along well with its coalition partner. The two parties finally fell apart in June 2008, when the PDP withdrew support to Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad following the Amarnath land row. It failed to return to power in the 2008 elections but its tally improved by five seats. It increased its vote percentage and also consolidated its support base.

Today the PDP is fighting the electoral battle on its own. Even if it is in a position to get a seat or two, it will be difficult for the party to join a BJP-led coalition at the Centre. The Congress, with all its defects, is still an acceptable option in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, while a government led by the BJP’s Narendra Modi is not. This dilemma explains why the PDP is harping on the Kashmir policy of former BJP Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. The N.C. is already part of the UPA, so the PDP may have to look at offering some kind of support to the NDA if it needs it. “Both these parties realise that without the support of a national party they cannot form a government in the State nor can they afford to be distant from a government at the Centre even if it does not require their support,” notes Gull Mohammad Wani.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the PDP could not win a single seat but it improved its vote share to 20.05 per cent from 11.94 per cent in 2004. This time, party president, Mehbooba Mufti, and two other stalwarts, Muzaffar Baig and Tariq Hamid Karra, are in the fray.

Likewise, for the N.C., its president, Farooq Abdullah, and two other sitting MPs are again trying their luck.

The results of the parliamentary elections will be a pointer to the outcome of the State Assembly elections in December.

Shujaat Bukhari

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