A Fall and a Rise

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It was interesting to see a political party getting undone within months of losing power and the fragmented political landscape of Kashmir witnessing the emergence of new players, reports Khursheed Wani

Mehbooba Mufti

Holding elections of any brand to catapult unionist political entities to the leadership roles at varied levels has an inherent function to stymie the anti-India constituency in Kashmir. In the post-militancy era, the mechanism flung mixed responses and results at different periods leading to varied interpretations. If a complete boycott for parliamentary polls in 1989 reflected the separatist sway on the ground, the high turnout in 2002 assembly polls was not less than a turnaround. Despite the massive public uprisings in 2008 and 2010, the tug of war continued on the ground.

The time period starting from the evening of July 8, 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed is a definite deviation. The Kashmir polity slipped from being manageable and posed a potent challenge to the unionist political class to re-establish its toehold. The year 2018 was completely exhausted in this struggle without achieving any noticeable result. Consequently, the establishment was left with no options than to wind up the spread out political theatre. The aim is to re-arrange the unionist polity to sustain the ancient arguments for the future. This explains the sacking of Mehbooba Mufti, a year and a half before the completion of her term and subsequent dissolution of the state assembly.

Sajad Lone

During the year, by-poll for South Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency could not be held. National Conference and People’s Democratic Party were compelled to boycott the lacklustre municipal polls primarily due to the defiant ground. They took alibi of the pending bunch of litigations in Supreme Court challenging state’s special status. The tested antidote of neutralizing the public antipathy through elections miserably failed. This scenario continuously refused a breather to the unionist parties to establish their ground contact, especially the south Kashmir.

The major brunt of this state of affairs was borne by the PDP that failed to strike a balance between its ‘core ideology’ and compulsions to remain in power. Six months after she was sacked, Mehbooba repents her party’s decision to cobble up a coalition with the BJP. Earlier she was swearing by the political astuteness of her late father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed who sealed the unusual alliance in 2015. It rarely happens that a party with a meteoric rise in a span of 19 years suddenly struggles for its existence. Having led the coalition twice and acted as a potent opposition when out of power, the PDP’s imminent decline is the biggest saga of 2018. As the year draws to close, the PDP’s castle is full of chinks and crevices. A battery of top leaders including former ministers, Imraz Reza Ansari, Haseeb Drabu and Basharat Bukhari have parted ways along with a battery of former legislators and known workers. Ansari and Bukhari joined the rival camps, and the grapevine is that many prominent leaders are mulling to jump off the ship at the appropriate time.

The PDP has never encountered such an existential crisis. After it pulled out of an alliance with Congress in 2008, the party survived six years in opposition under Omar Abdullah’s regime. In six years, no significant leader left Muftis’ as the leadership could sustain the hope to bounce back.

Six months after the humiliating dismissal, Mehbooba has no face to show to the people. The arguments that she had developed to survive as a potent alternative to the NC have been lost. The tyrannical regime she inherited from her late father and the justifications she gave for every wrongdoing during her regime, brought her down much lower to her competitors.

Mehbooba clung to power with a hope that the situation may tilt in her favour. It never did. How immaturely she handled the affairs could be gauged from the fact that she had no wind of getting sacked even when BJP legislators were unexpectedly summoned to Delhi. Had she understood the BJP’s plan and terminated the alliance beforehand, she could have saved a little face and a niche to re-start her politics.

Abid Ansari and Imran Ansari.

Mehbooba is now confronting massive challenges. She has no bankable advisors. Her amateur brother is untraceable and party insiders are continuously raising fingers on the role of her confidantes. She is in a tough struggle to keep her flock together. She does not talk about regaining power but tries to make people believe that she would not leave the ground quite easily. “Politics is all about expediency, permutations and combinations. Power is transient and is not something I have strived for. However, I stand firm in my commitment and resolve towards rebuilding a party I built brick by brick with my late father and its patron,” she said in a tweet after some of her trusted colleagues joined NC.

The PDP’s downslide has raised the confidence of NC by several notches. Over the years, the opposition NC gained many points that may help change perceptions. Omar Abdullah did not form a government with BJP in 2015 and his offer of support to the PDP to keep the BJP away earned him many accolades. Omar had no argument to counter Mehbooba when she would raise the brutal response of his government to the 2010 unrest. At the culmination of 2018, Omar has no dread of street-fighter Mehbooba who would carry pictures of 2010 mayhem and seek justice for the brutalized people. On social networking sites, Mehbooba’s clips in the company of Rajnath Singh justifying the killing of 15-year boys makes Omar’s job easy.

Raja Aijaz Ali

On the ground, however, NC is as detested as the PDP. The NC patron Farooq Abdullah faced the wrath of people inside Hazratbal shrine before offering Eid prayers. This is the same place where his later father Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was almost worshipped by the people. During the year, the NC could not organise sizeable public rallies anywhere in the Valley. Its politics and argumentation remained confined to TV debates, press releases and rhetorical utterances.

Unlike PDP, the NC is looking more assertive. While Mehbooba has been left to fend for herself, the NC has the lethal combination of two Abdullahs. Interestingly, over the years, the difference of opinion between the father-son duo seems to have narrowed down. Farooq Abdullah is again taking crucial party decisions. Party insiders say that decision to stay away from the municipal polls was unilaterally announced by Abdullah Sr. While attempting to manoeuvre amid the new ground realities at the home turf, Farooq is actively engaged at the national level to cobble up an anti-BJP alliance. This engagement buttresses his party’s argument against the BJP and the party that aligned with it to bring the state to its current situation.

Peer Hussain, Dr Farooq Abdullah, Basharat Bukhari, Omar Abdullah.

The NC is developing its new politics around the restoration and safeguard of the state’s special status. The PDP’s misrule and failure of BJPDP has offered it another chance to approach the people. In the upcoming parliament and state assembly elections, the NC would plunge with an edge over its arch-rival. The NC’s role would be more important in Jammu and Ladakh regions.

The emergence of Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference and the anti-climax of his claim to become the Chief Minister hours before the dissolution of the assembly, at least, introduced a new factor to the unionist politics. Lone returned the party to its basics to strive for power that his late father Abdul Gani Lone had aspired for, around half a century ago. Sajad completely divorced the separatist politics his father had joined in the heydays of militancy. Lone Sr was killed by militants in May 2002 a day after he had declared that elections were not a ‘forbidden tree’.

Sajad exhibited grit to shed ambiguity on his politics. He joined the unionist politics and went into BJP’s lap much before the 2014 assembly elections. Describing Narendra Modi as his ‘elder brother’, Sajad began his modified political journey from winning his father’s borough Handwara. The BJP took his better care by reserving a ministerial berth in the coalition government.

Mehbooba’s sacking brought out Sajad’s high point. The ambitious BJP began thinking of forming a government by engineering a split in PDP and NC. Ram Madhav did a lot of legwork to translate the hypothesis into reality. But for the stringent anti-defection laws and non-availability of a horde of dissenters, the plan did not come to fruition.

Sajad’s predicament is that his alliance with BJP is loathed in Kashmir. Until the assembly was in suspended animation, he was in currency but his stock market value drastically declined after the assembly was dissolved. A day before dissolution, heavyweights like Muzaffar Beigh were seen throwing indications of getting cosy with Sajad, but after the dissolution of the assembly, the situation completely turned around.

Post-dissolution, Sajad’s party got a major boost by Imran Reza Ansari’s formal joining into his party along with his uncle. The PC is now planning to field candidates in 87 constituencies, but keen observers say that it would be a major challenge for him and Ansari to defend their own seats in Handwara and Pattan, respectively.

The surprising political developments in Kashmir, however, dashed the aspirations of BJP to establish its base, to ground. Despite pampering a host of individuals through the luxuries of power, the BJP could not find acceptance in the Valley. At the end of the year, the BJP is in the list of untouchables, even for the people who at different stages, boasted their association with the party. The dread of BJP taking over the state has gone and anti-BJP rhetoric is gaining more currency.

The upcoming elections, in this backdrop, would be the most interesting to watch.

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