ON January 19, the Sajad Lone-led Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (JKPC) exited the Farooq Abdullah-led People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). The decision followed a public articulation of discontent by JKPC leaders such as Imran Reza Ansari and Abdul Ghani Vakil over forging electoral agreements with the PAGD in the recently held District Development Council (DDC) election, an arrangement they viewed as counter-productive to the party’s plans to rebuild itself.
Sajad Lone cited internal pressure on him to chalk out a separate course of action while announcing the decision to Farooq Abdullah in a letter that asserted that they [JKPC leaders] would not spar with regional satraps in Kashmir or deviate from the PAGD’s stated objective of restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. He said that the lack of ground-level coordination between the PAGD allies and the fielding of proxy candidates in the DDC election were the immediate trigger for his departure from the coalition. He added: “We fought against each other in Kashmir province, not against the perpetrators of August 5.”
The JKPC’s departure did not come as a surprise to anyone in Kashmir, least of all his erstwhile partners in the PAGD, who had been alluding to select journalists, including this reporter, off the record that “Sajad was being arm-twisted by New Delhi and he may succumb to the pressure”. The Gupkar allies refrained from personally attacking the JKPC chief. The PAGD convenor, Yousuf Tarigami, said, “There can be legitimate concerns and difference of opinion as well but there should also be willingness to sort out the issues keeping in mind the larger interests of the people. The widest unity of the democratic and secular forces is required to face the continuing onslaught on the identity and rights of our people.” However, the development makes apparent the internal rumblings within the PAGD. The questions being asked are: Is the PAGD a mere facade put together to create an impression that Kashmir’s mainstream players are determined to take on New Delhi? Was the coming together of six political parties more about creating space for themselves rather than restoring Jammu and Kashmir’s special status? Where is the coordinated action plan that would inspire faith in the PAGD’s stated objective?
So far, the alliance has been fruitful only to its constituents. The biggest worry of the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party was that if Altaf Bukhari, president of Apni Party, was not reined in, there would be an influx of defectors into his party and the structures of their own parties—in the PDP’s case, whatever remains of it—would crumble. The coming together of Kashmir’s mainstream leaders turned the elections into an ideological choice between those who were reconciled to the altered status of Jammu and Kashmir, such as Bukhari and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and those who sought to undo that. In the end, Bukhari ate humble pie.
The PAGD also enabled the two political families of Kashmir to demonstrate to New Delhi that its hopes of replacing them with a new, more pliant formation are delusional. But will this temporary and fragile victory lead to a more confrontationist posturing against New Delhi or will the two principal parties, in particular the N.C., leverage it to reopen channels of communication with the Narendra Modi regime?
Frontline had earlier reported that the N.C. believed that the outcome of any confrontation, especially one that plays out on the streets, would be wholly futile. The predominant sense in the party is to repair ties with New Delhi, persuade them to hold elections, return to power and then aim at incremental resistance or wait it out until 2024 when Modi’s term ends. The recent developments within the N.C. uphold what Frontline reported. The N.C. has been sending delegations to Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha in quick succession. While the first N.C. delegation that met Sinha on January 5 highlighted alleged horse-trading on the part of Apni Party, the delegation of January 18 sought his intervention in mitigating day-to-day people’s issues.
The second delegation’s visit was close on the heels of former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s recent week-long trip to New Delhi and is seen to have a larger political connotation. According to sources in the N.C., Omar Abdullah sent emissaries to North Block while he was in New Delhi, “signalling that they could do business together”. This view is shared by insiders in the PDP well as JKPC. However, the sum total of the observations shared by individual sources is that “New Delhi is not game to engage with the N.C. immediately”.
At least two sources informed this correspondent that New Delhi “wants to be seen talking with Omar Abdullah”. Apparently, New Delhi responded to Omar Abdullah’s overtures saying that they were willing to hold deliberations with the N.C. on the way forward in Kashmir, provided Omar Abdullah himself met the Home Minister. The N.C. maintains that Omar Abdullah’s visit to New Delhi was personal and that neither he nor the party is talking to New Delhi.
If the talk about New Delhi’s onerous rider to Omar Abdullah is true, it is unlikely he will accept. In the words of a close aide of Mehbooba Mufti, “he would be finished politically”. But the N.C. is hopeful that New Delhi will relent. A senior leader in the N.C. told Frontline that Farooq Abdullah is reading the developments positively and has told partymen that New Delhi would eventually be softer on them and hold elections.
From New Delhi’s perspective, a public meeting between Omar Abdullah and the Home Minister is desirable as it would dent the credibility of the PAGD, which has become a thorn in its side. With the Altaf Bukhari experiment done and dusted, the Centre knows that it will have to engage with the traditional mainstream in Kashmir sooner rather than later. But it suits the Centre better to do so selectively with any one of the parties rather than all of them together as a formidable amalgam.
Sajad Lone’s departure is an important development in that direction. An independent Sajad Lone can now be used to poach leaders from the PDP and distract Mehbooba Mufti from rebuilding her image and constituency.
A source in the JKPC hinted that it would absorb people from the PDP, an assignment it had been working on before the developments of August 5, 2019. The source added: “Senior leaders of the JKPC feel that the party should invest in rebuilding itself. While in the PAGD, it was next to impossible for us to accommodate politicians from other parties who may be signalling to us their willingness to jump ship.” The source also said that the JKPC was getting feelers from PDP leaders, particularly those in North Kashmir. In early 2019, the JKPC absorbed several former MLAs of the PDP into its fold, such as Imran Reza Ansari from Pattan and Abid Ansari and Abbas Wani from Tanmarg.
There is renewed hope among the PAGD leaders—except for Omar Abdullah—that the Centre may hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir sooner than later this year. Farooq Abdullah is said to have alerted his partymen to prepare for possible elections. The PAGD leaders believe that while New Delhi may not restore Statehood, it may carve in special guarantees for Jammu and Kashmir within the framework of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act.
They are of the opinion that with President Joe Biden at the White House, there would be shriller voices from the human rights advocacy groups in the United States against India, including from Democratic Party senators. Although the India-U.S. bilateral policies are not likely to be impacted by how India acts on Kashmir, New Delhi may choose to pre-empt any discordant notes from within the Democrat establishment by holding elections in Kashmir. However, Omar Abdullah, say sources close to him, is sceptical there would be any election in the next year or even longer.
Amid this political opacity, one thing is clear. If the thinking within the Gupkar alliance is that elections are in the offing, they would not scupper that possibility by going ballistic on New Delhi or chart out any meaningful and coordinated programme to press for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Lone’s departure, hence, is less likely to rattle them.