The Peoples Conference’s rise in the north will further fragment the political landscape of Kashmir, writes Riyaz Wani
Ever since the withdrawal of Article 370 in August 2019, mainstream politics in Kashmir is going through some churning. The latest example of this is the return of Muzaffar Hussain Beigh to his parent party, the People’s Conference (PC), now led by Sajad Gani Lone. Beigh had started his political career with the PC in the early eighties, unsuccessfully contesting an assembly election as the party’s candidate in 1983 from Baramulla. He later moved on in his life, pursuing his legal career outside Jammu and Kashmir, returning only in the late nineties to co-found the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) along with late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 1998 and rising to become the then state’s Deputy Chief Minister in the subsequent PDP-led government.
Beigh’s presence in the PC is expected to add some political heft to the party whose electoral presence is still confined to a part of North Kashmir. Will Beigh help change this reality? The answer to this question is moot. Beigh has never been a mass leader, albeit he enjoys some support in Baramulla, his constituency that will certainly be helpful to the PC.
But the significance of Beigh’s joining the PC goes beyond its electoral impact, which, in any case, will be minimal. He helps the PC further shore up its presence in north Kashmir already bolstered by the leaders like Imran Raza Ansari. This could make Lone a formidable political player in future elections.
Lone is the son of the assassinated Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone. Though the PC is an old party, it re-joined mainstream politics after a hiatus of two decades. Initially, the party struggled to make the mark, losing twice in the parliament elections, but it won two seats in the last assembly polls. Lone became the cabinet minister in the suspended BJPDP coalition government.
As a very active constituent of the PAGD, Lone managed a better slice of the DDC polls in north Kashmir. It is in control of Baramulla and Kupwara DDCs.
The PC’s rise in the north, however, will further fragment the political landscape of Kashmir. Ever since 1996 when the National Conference got an absolute majority securing 57 out of 87 seats, no party in the state has secured a majority on its own.
Kashmir’s progressive political fragmentation is traced to the advent of the PDP as a credible opposition in 2002. The party ended the NC’s vaunted political monopoly in Kashmir but it also turned the Congress into a kingmaker over the subsequent 12 years. With Kashmir’s seats split between them, the NC and PDP were hardly in a position to form the government without Congress support. But now with Congress decimated and BJP stepping into the breach, the NC and PDP on a decent showing in polls are obliged to share power with the saffron party, even in Union Territory polls.
Following the August 5, 2019 erasure of autonomy, Delhi has attempted to remake the politics of the region. On March 8, 2019, Apni Party was floated by the businessman turned politician Altaf Bukhari, a former PDP leader and a minister in the Mehbooba government. Most of its members have been drawn from the regional parties, particularly from the PDP.
Introducing his party before the media, Bukhari made it clear that his job was not to seek restoration of Kashmir’s autonomy but to work for the development of the region. As things stand, Bukhari’s politics has had a free run in Kashmir as Delhi initially ensured he faces no challenge from the main parties whose top leaders were in jail. In recent District Development Council elections too, Bukhari’s party won control of two councils. Also, considering he has a number of leaders in his party who command some support base back in their constituencies, the Apni Party could pull off a smattering of seats. And who knows, even more, considering the way the new politics is shaping up in Kashmir.
New Political Generation
At the same time, there is no denying the fact that steadily and imperceptibly a new generation of politicians is taking over in Kashmir. The basic structure of politics, however, remains the same. One, it pivots around a binary of the separatist and the mainstream discourse. And second, Kashmir’s political landscape so far continues to be dominated by Abdullahs and the Muftis. While Abdullahs’ have been in power for most of the post-1947 period, PDP, the Mufti party, which emerged on the scene only in 1999, rode spectacularly to power in 2002. It was in power for six years through a rotational arrangement with the Congress, with the parties sharing the chief ministership for three years each. However, the Muftis as a political family precede the PDP by decades. Before he founded the PDP, the party’s late patron, Mufti Sayeed, was a Congress leader for four decades. Now following the exit of a majority of its leaders, the PDP has been reduced to a rump.
But it will be a mistake to write off the PDP. Mehbooba Mufti, its president, remains a formidable politician with a talent for public mobilization. The situation, however, is likely to get tougher in new Kashmir where political space is becoming crowded.