With the parties busy fielding candidates, stitching alliances and readying for enigmatic ‘friendly contests’, the dominant feeling in the air is to deny space to BJP in the state. But Shams Irfan reports the rhetoric is not necessarily required to be real especially in Jammu and Kashmir
A few days after the announcement of dates for the Lok Sabah elections, Kashmir’s grand old party National Conference (NC) got an offer from Congress for a pre-poll alliance for six parliamentary seats in Jammu and Kashmir.
Party’s vice president Omar Abdullah was quick to respond by giving an outline of the alliance NC wanted. “We have told them (Congress) clearly that only NC candidates will be there on the three seats in the Kashmir Valley,” Omar told a news gathering agency. But Omar’s offer had a catch!
“If it suits them (Congress), then we can talk about other seats. Let’s see what response we receive,” Abdullah has said.
Omar’s non-negotiable clause for three Kashmir seats and offer of talks over remaining three (two in Jammu and one in Ladakh) was seen as, having a cake and eating it too, by Kashmir based Congress leaders.
The days that followed saw consensus over the alliance hitting a roadblock over seat sharing, particularly over Anantnag parliamentary seat, which both the parties were keen to contest. Both have their own reasons to contest and win Anantnag. While NC sees a victory in Anantnag as a morale booster for its cadre before much-awaited assembly elections, and perhaps marginalization of the PDP; for Congress leaving this seat to NC mean party’s total absence from Kashmir.
“We had asked NC to have two seats in Kashmir and one in Jammu, and likewise Congress will contest on one seat each in Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. But it seems NC is not in a mood to contest elections in Jammu for reasons known to them only,” Ghulam Ahmad Mir, President Pradesh Congress Committee, J&K, told Kashmir Life.
However, putting speculations to rest, Omar announced former High Court Judge Hasnain Masoodi as NC candidate for Anantnag constituency. The news of Masoodi’s entry into politics drew mixed reaction from party loyalists, especially those who have managed to survive BJPDP coalition and post-Burhan Wani uprising in volatile south Kashmir.
A section of people in Congress considers Masoodi as an “outsider” with little or no influence outside his hometown Khrew, and its adjoining areas of Pampore and Awantipora.
“He (Masoodi) was never accessible to people like a grass-root level politician should be,” said G A Mir. “People in south need someone who can be accessible to them all the time in their hour of need. Not someone who has no experience of public dealing as a grass-root politician.”
Interestingly, Masoodi’s son Yawar Masoodi contested 2014 Assembly elections unsuccessfully for NC from Pampore constituency. Being a novice in politics like his father, Yawar still bagged over 12741 votes against his PDP rival Zahoor Ahmad Mir, who got 16239 votes and has been undefeated since 2002.
“I don’t think choosing a retired judge is a sane idea that too for south Kashmir which has suffered a lot so far,” said a local NC activist who wished not to be named. “Here in south, Judges are presumed to be the people who sign PSA orders. They do not know, they quash it actually. Rest people don’t care about what they have done or not.”
In fact, a number of NC loyalists were ready to back Congress’ G A Mir as alliance candidate from Anantnag constituency in order to keep their archrival PDP out. But that option seems to be over now as Dr Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad finally stitched an alliance by agreeing that Congress will contest on Jammu and Udhampur and NC on Srinagar seat. In Baramulla, Anantnag and Ladakh both parties will have a friendly contest between them!
“Friendly contest means both NC and Congress will field their candidates from Anantnag and Baramulla, which will ultimately help third party,” said a senior Congress leader sarcastically. “In case of Anantnag, it will help PDP, and in Baramulla, it will help PC.”
With both NC and Congress candidate eyeing for Anantnag seat, the contest is not at all going to be a “friendly” one as thought by Azad and Farooq. But amidst all the bonhomie between the two, there is another strong contender they seem to neglect: PDP.
According to political experts, Omar’s over-ambitious plan to put the last nail in PDP’s coffin by winning Mehbooba’s south Kashmir stronghold, now seems to be a distant dream rather than an achievable reality. Perhaps Omar has forgotten his own words that “PDP’s loss (in the post-Burhan scenario) is nobody’s win in south Kashmir”. This still holds true as far as south Kashmir is concerned.
At the peak of 2016 uprising, when PDP lawmakers were hiding in their official residences in Srinagar and Jammu, the political vacuum left on the ground was not filled by any NC leader, rather they helped the situation to take its own course.
The thinking in NC at that time was to sit back and wait as PDP gets crushed under its own weight of expectations that they had raised in south Kashmir before coming to power.
But it was wishful thinking on behalf of NC to think that PDP will be erased from Kashmir map by its own follies. If that had been the case then NC would have been erased long back from people’s memories. But politics is not a game of single events, rather a long bumpy inning with ups and downs.
“We were not approached by NC for an alliance which should have been the right thing to do,” said a senior PDP leader who wished to remain anonymous. “NC is acting arrogantly. They don’t consider PDP as a challenge or a force anymore. But they have forgotten that we have over 11 lakh voters with us who can be a game changer in keeping BJP out.”
However, Omar doesn’t see it that way, it seems.
But if we go by last Lok Sabah election statistics then numbers are in Mehbooba’s favour, at least in Anantnag. In 2014 Lok Sabah elections, PDP managed to win all three Kashmir seats by defeating its rival NC in Baramulla, Srinagar and Anantnag.
The Anantnag seat was won by Mehbooba Mufti who defeated NC’s Mehboob Beg by over 65000 votes. Interestingly, Beg left NC and joined PDP in November 2014, just before state assembly elections. Now PDP’s chief spokesperson Beg was a key campaigner for then party president Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
For former independent lawmaker from Langate Er Rasheed an alliance between two main regional parties, NC and PDP would have been ideal. “If that would have been done, all small parties like mine will support such a coalition happily,” said Rasheed. “An alliance with Congress cannot strength regional parties which is the need of the hour.”
But for Yousuf Tarigami, former CPI (M) lawmaker from Kulgam, any coalition that will help keep BJP out is welcome. “We are committed to maximize our efforts in bringing together all secular parties and use their strength to keep BJP out of power.”
Tarigami believes last four-and-half years of BJPDP rule has left Kashmir bleeding, and most of the bloodbath happened in south Kashmir, a part of which he represented.
“It is good that NC and Congress have joined hands. Any coalition with PDP would have been a bad idea as they are the ones who brought BJP to Kashmir in the first place,” said Tarigami.
NC’s Provincial President and former lawmaker, Nasir Aslam Wani, out-rightly rejects any idea of a coalition with PDP, saying allying with them would mean “political suicide” for any party.
“Who is going to join hands with PDP given the baggage of past four and half years they carry with them,” said Wani. “PDP’s graph is very low right now.”
However, in a recent statement, senior PDP leader and former minister Naeem Akhtar said NC is deliberately thwarting any attempt of regional parties to forge an alliance against BJP. “NC’s entire politics is right now hostage to Farooq Abdullah’s cricket scam in which no action was initiated since July 18 last year when CBI filed charge sheet against the NC president.”
Akhtar said, “The theatrics being done by the NC to stop joint resistance by the political groups in J&K against BJP reflects how much under pressure NC’s President is due to his corruption case.”
As the confusion deepens in south Kashmir keeps political analysts on their toes, the contest on north Kashmir’s Baramulla seat is equally interesting and open.
The contest for Baramulla may not be a matter of prestige for NC and Congress as is the case in south Kashmir’s Anantnag seat, but winning it is equally important for both the parties to check the rise of Sajjad Lone. Often mentioned as BJP’s B-team, Lone’s Peoples Conference cannot be ignored as just another rabble-rouser, as it has both the strength and resources to get votes.
While “friendly contest” in Baramulla is between NC’s Akbar Lone and Congress’ Haji Farooq Ahmad Mir, it will be former Jammu and Kashmir Teachers Forum (JKTF) president Abdul Qayoom Wani replacing PDP’s Muzaffar Hussain Baig, who represented the constituency in the last term. Er Rasheed, who represented Langate constituency in the state assembly, has announced his candidature from Baramulla. For BJP it will be Mohammad Maqbool War who will contest. But the interesting face in Baramulla contest is of Raja Aijaz Ali’s, who quit PDP and joined Lone’s PC recently. Ali, a former IGP rank state police officer, unsuccessfully contested last assembly election on a PDP ticket from Uri.
Interestingly, in last Lok Sabah elections, Sajjad Lone fielded Salamuddin Bajad as PC candidate from Baramulla seat, while there was no PC contestant on rest of the two valley seats. Bajad was the second runner up with 71154 votes. Last week, Bajad quit PC and joined NC.
However, Lone’s meteoric rise on the Kashmir’s troubled political landscape is often viewed with scepticism for his closeness with BJP. After winning state assembly election from Handwara seat in 2014, Lone was inducted into BJPDP government’s cabinet from BJP’s quota. After the fall of the BJPDP in 2018, Lone was one of the Chief Ministerial contenders despite his party having just two MLAs including him.
“There is nothing left to the imagination about him (Lone) being BJP’s proxy in Kashmir,” said a PDP leader. “Else how was he claiming to be state’s CM, with whose help?”
However, since Lok Sabah 2019 elections were announced Lone has tried to keep a ‘tactical distance’ from BJP. “We will fight elections independently,” Lone told reporters after Ali filed his nomination papers.
Another emerging face from north Kashmir is bureaucrat turned politician Shah Faesal, who recently launched Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM). But, so far, Faesal has not revealed his plan to contest Lok Sabah elections.
However, his entry into politics, especially in the already congested north Kashmir is seen as someone who can disturb the set political equations.
The last time Srinagar went to polls it left eight civilians dead in CRPF firing in poll-bound Budgam. These poll-day killings led to the cancellation of by-elections on Anantnag seat left vacant after Mehbooba Mufti took oath as Chief Minister in April 2016.
Since then conducting elections in Kashmir has become a big challenge for Delhi. But, in November 2018, after a series of encounters in south Kashmir which saw the killing of some of the top militants including Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s Saddam Padder and Sameer Tiger, Panchayat elections were conducted in Jammu and Kashmir after a break of 17 years. These back-to-back encounters between August and November 2018, in which paramilitary forces killed over 130 militants, was seen as an attempt to make grounds favourable for “peaceful conduct of Panchayat elections” in Kashmir.
However, Panchayat elections saw poor participation of both candidates and voters especially in south and central Kashmir. For instance, out of 2135 Panchayat halqas only 30 percent saw polling in Kashmir. Interestingly, 708 halqas remained vacant as no candidate filed nomination from there. Also, 699 halqas saw single candidates who won without a contest or polling.
But given Srinagar’s history of staying away from polls and the overall lack of interest in Lok Sabah elections, NC will be counting on Farooq Abdullah’s charisma to retain the seat. In 2014, Srinagar was won by PDP’s Tariq Hameed Karra by defeating Dr Farooq. But since then, Karra has left PDP and joined Congress, who has left Srinagar to NC under pre-poll alliance mechanism. So the contest in Srinagar is mainly between PDP and NC. Though BJP has fielded Khalid Jehangir from Srinagar, but despite a strong Modi wave, the saffron party could only manage 4465 votes in 2014.
Despite BJP’s negligible vote percentage in Kashmir valley, the new buzz word in Srinagar’s political circles is ‘let’s join hands to keep BJP out’. “The purpose of the alliance with Congress is to keep BJP out in Jammu and its proxies out in Kashmir,” said NC’s Nasir Aslam Wani.
But last time, a political party sought votes with a promise to keep BJP out of Kashmir, ended up stitching a coalition government with the same BJP! So given then the past experience of Kashmiris, is BJP really going to figure largely on people’s mind when they go to vote this time?
“Both NC and PDP were in alliance with BJP in the past. They both have equally facilitated BJP’s entry into Kashmir. So, in reality, none of these parties is serious about keeping BJP out. They just use these hollow slogans to fool the masses,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Srinagar based political analyst.
Given the small number of Lok Sabah seats in J&K, slogans like ‘defeating BJP’ seem more like rhetoric or out of context. The real test of Kashmir’s political parties and their promises will be in upcoming state assembly elections. It would be seen how Kashmir based political parties plan their fight against BJP.
As of now, political workers are trying their best to do whatever canvassing between day-to-day killings and encounters, trying not to fiddle with the already fragile emotional state of people.
“If unfortunate incidents like Rizwan’s custodial killing happen again, then the voting percentage will go down drastically, especially in the already volatile south Kashmir,” a senior PDP leader said.