Dwindling Panthers’

With all its lawmakers walking out, Panthers Party is probably disappearing at a time when Bhim Singh, its founder, is fighting health issues and old age, writes Masood Hussain

The Singh family of Udhampur (L to R)Harsh Dev Singh, Bhim Singh and Balwant Singh Mankotia. The tensions within led to Mankotia’s resignation.

Bhim Singh, 81, is not keeping well for a long time. Off and on, for a varied set of health reasons, he shuttles between his home and the hospital. Much before the deterioration in his health, the Jammu and Kashmir Panthers Party, the political outfit he set up in 1982, had started disintegrating. With three of its four former lawmakers actually joining the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the political analysts have started writing the party’s obituary.

For Singh, who in the early 1980s opened a front against two powerful politicians – Indira Gandhi on one side and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah on the other side must be feeling the pain over his creation disintegrating before his eyes. Kashmir politicians who have visited him in recent days said the ailing Singh is depressed partly because of the party feud and partly because of his failing health.

Frequent Tensions

The tensions within the Udhampur based Panthers’ have been a frequent occurrence. Though they have had perpetual tensions ever since they failed to secure even a single berth in 2014 assembly polls in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, off late the party has been in news for all the wrong reasons.

Prof Bhim Singh National Panthers Party supremo accompanied by party colleague Anita Thakur interacting with the members of the PAfGD in Jammu on Saturday, November 7.2020

The first major shock was on November 7, 2020, when Harsh Dev Singh, the then president of the Panthers Party, ousted its founder Bhim Singh from all party positions. This was in quick response to Bhim Singh’s routine meeting with Dr Farooq Abdullah led PAGD delegation that visited Jammu. This marked the beginning of the crisis in the party that has been literally campaigning for the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A and the state’s full integration with the country.

Gradually, the chinks in the armour started showing up. It was very visible on February 10, 2021, when Balwant Singh Mankotia resigned as the president of the party. Almost the same month, the party’s Samba district functionaries put in their papers.

Family Feuds

People aware of the developments said the party faced a crisis within the dynasty. Harsh Dev Singh is Bhim Singh’s nephew. Balwant Singh Mankotia and Harsh Dev Singh are cousins. Off late, insiders said Harsh Dev was being seen as not respecting his uncle and, as party president, was allegedly not listening to the elders. In DDC elections, he had fielded his own wife, who lost and it also became an issue. Recently, it even led Bhim Singh to formally write a letter to SSP Jammu accusing Harsh Dev of issuing threats against him.

NC leaders with Panthers Party Leaders at Jammu on November 11, 2021.

Within days after the complaint, a video went viral showing Harsh Dev apologising to his uncle while blaming him for “ruining” the party just for a “woman”, whom he did not identify.

Later on March 22, Jaya Mala, wife of Prof Bhim Singh and cofounder of Panthers Party addressed a news conference and supported Harsh Dev. Jaya Mala and Bhim Singh have had issues throughout.

“I have seen his relentless fight for the cause of common masses during the past 7-8 years and feel deeply inspired by his indefatigable spirit and indomitable will to corner the government over varied issues,” Mrs Bhim Singh, a lawyer, said. She said there was a deep rooted conspiracy behind the vilification campaign launched by certain vested interests against Harsh Dev.

This, however, did not help the party.

Crumbling Walls

The walls, however, started collapsing soon. On April 10, 2021, the party’s two former lawmakers – Balwant Singh Mankotia and Yash Paul Kundal, drove to Delhi with 100 others and joined the AAP. They joined the new sunrise party in the presence of Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Environment Minister Gopal Rai.

AAP senior leader Manish Sisodia welcomed Panthers Party MLA, Yashpal Kundal to the party in Delhi on April 8, 2022.

This was not an ordinary event. Mankotia is the Panther who was elected to the assembly twice. Kundal was also elected twice and was a minister once.

As the insiders had predicted, it was just the beginning. On May 10, Harsh Dev drove to Delhi and joined AAP with Arvind Kejriwal personally receiving him.

Three Decades

Floated by Bhim Singh in March 1982, the people have started writing the obituary of the Panthers Party days after it completed its three decades of noisy existence. Bhim Singh was personally elected to the assembly in 1977 and later was nominated as a member of the Legislative Council. Though he contested almost all the Lok Sabha elections, he never got into the parliament.

Panthers Party started becoming relevant post-militancy when the 1996 assembly elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir. In 1996, Harsh Dev won a seat for the party. In 2002, it won four seats including all the three berths in the Udhampur district and became part of the PDP-Congress ruling coalition. In 2008, it could win only three seats, however.

Harsh Dev Singh
Harsh Dev Singh

The worst performance of the party was in 2014 when it failed to even win a single seat. It was the BJP that dominated the scene and the party got almost all the votes in the Tawi catchment belt, the so-called cow belt of Jammu.

After August 2019, the situation completely changed in Jammu and Kashmir. Now the elections will have a different agenda and political parties will have to work hard to draft their manifestos. “The shades of grey have evaporated from Jammu and Kashmir,” a BJP leader, who does not wish to be named, said. “Now, you and me, are living in the era of black and white politics, no grey shades anymore.”

No Scope

Political analysts believe that Jammu, especially the Tawi catchment, is an area where the scope for the survival of a regional party is very difficult. “Praja Parishad was the strongest party at one point in time, it was so strong and confident that it would even make Prime Minister Nehru angry,” journalist and political analyst Zafar Choudhary said. “Within a few years later, it was subsumed by Jan Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP.”

The problem in Jammu is that, unlike Kashmir, it is strongly connected with the politics of the plains. It lacks an agenda that can have a local emotional connection. At one point in time, an outfit seeking a separate state for Jammu tried to make an impact and won a berth in the assembly. Eventually, it was also subsumed by the BJP.

For most of its history, Jammu has had only two options – the Congress or the BJP. That is perhaps why the people who resign from Congress join the BJP and vice versa. The Panthers Party had gradually started offering an option but its geographic limitation, pan-Jammu agenda and complete dynasty control had prevented it from growing further.

Jaya Mala, wife of Bhim Singh talking to reporters on March 23, 2022 in support of Harsh Dev Singh.

Lacking An Agenda

The major issue, however, remains a viable agenda. What are the issues that will make a regional party viable to Jammu? Panthers Party for instance is being seen as the outcome of Bhim Singh’s inflated ego to fight Delhi and Srinagar at the same time.

For all these three decades, the party had a very basic kind of an approach to politics – discrimination against Jammu by Kashmir; abrogation of Article 370, undoing of Article 52A and integration of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the union. This agenda the Panthers shared with BJP and to a fair extent with Congress. “If the BJP has achieved the entire agenda Panthers’ stood for, why should people support Panthers and not BJP,” asked one Jammu resident, who has seen the peak days of Bhim Singh. “There is a huge limitation in the Tawi belt.”

Balwant Singh Mankotia

A politician and a former minister termed it incorrect that Jammu can not sustain a regional party. “In Jammu, there is no possibility of a regional party unless it cannot take Pir Panchal Valley and Chenab Valley along with it,” the politician said. “There is no will and that blocks this option.”

Zaffar said the Panthers are not the only formation that will collapse. “Choudhary Lal Singh will also face the same situation,” Zaffar said. “Lal Singh has been a very popular and dynamic leader, who was in the assembly and in the Lok Sabha. But this also is a fact that in the last DDC Polls, he could not win anything. So I believe in the coming days, he will also choose a party that suits him.” Lal Singh has been a migrant to BJP from Congress. Later, he resigned and floated his own political party.

In Jammu, the key elements of the local politics have all along been around Kashmir, accusing it of discriminating against, not sharing power with Jammu, being soft separatist in outlook and policy making and leaving no room for Jammu to ever have a Hindu Chief Minister.

All these issues were tackled by BJP in a single stroke. It has completely changed the politics of the region. Apparently, there is no room for a regional party, not even the Congress because BJP has interrupted the systems in such a way that Kashmir will eventually remain a fragmented political structure, which will help Jammu to have better legroom in governance.

“The fact of the matter is that the power centre has shifted from Srinagar to Jammu,” Zaffar said. “We may like it or not, it hardly matters.” Three key Panther lawmakers migrating to the AAP is a natural corollary of this reality.

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