LOSING ON HOME TURF

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PDP leaders at a gathering – Photo by: Bilal Bahadur

Peoples Democratic Party’s rise in Kashmir politics was sudden. The party struck all the right cords of politics to reach a position of strength until the debacle it faced in recent Parliament elections. Has the party reached a climax? Will it fall further? ZUBAIR A DAR analyses what could lie in store for the party in the future.

The assembly elections of 2008 had brought hope for 28-year-old Tariq Ahmad Shah of Bijbehara. A paramedic, Shah had been looking for a government job since 2006, when he completed his training. The local leaders in Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had promised jobs if they returned to power. Shah voted for PDP. Across south Kashmir, young men like Shah rallied behind the party and it secured 21 seats, a marked gain from 16 in the 2002 elections.

But the electoral victory couldn’t translate into power. Congress forged an alliance with National Conference (NC) to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir. As the 2009 Parliament elections approached, Shah – the unemployed young man – changed his mind. He voted for the party in power – NC.

“After the assembly elections, we went to meet the Omar Abdullah. He patiently listened and promised us help,” says Shah. Shah is a member of an association of unemployed paramedics and says that the union members discussed the issue of voting before the parliament elections. “Members unanimously decided to vote for NC as the prospect of help from government was bright.”

And as the counting trends in Parliament election 2009 poured in, the mood in the PDP camp sank. Any chances of victory in north Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency had been made bleak by Sajjad Gani Lone’s decision to contest. And Srinagar parliament constituency had never been a PDP stronghold. But the hardest blow came from its presumed bastion – south Kashmir. PDP had won 12 out of 16 seats in south Kashmir in 2008. This time, the voters had chosen NC.

Though the overall voter turnout in south Kashmir was low, shocking results came from two assembly segments – Wachi and Islamabad. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti had won the Wachi assembly constituency securing 12,810 votes against his NC rival who got 4474 votes. In Islamabad, party patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had defeated his NC rival Mirza Mehboob Beg by a margin of 4891 votes. This time, however, Beg managed a comeback. PDP’s candidate in parliament elections, Peer Mohammad Hussain, trailed Beg by 1053 votes in Wachi. In Islamabad too, Beg managed a thin lead – he got 8620 votes while Hussain got 8554.

The effect was visible in other constituencies as well. Shopian, that had elected Abdul Razak Wagay of PDP to assembly in December 2008 favoured NC’s Beg in parliament elections. In a high turnout election, the electronic voting machines had recorded 52.72 percent votes in 2008. This time, the voter turnout was low.

Whilst the low turnout is regarded as a major reason for PDP’s loss, the elections have exposed a fault line in PDP’s electoral politics. Youth across Shopian and Kulgam districts decided to stay away from voting, delivering a blow to PDP and severely reducing their chances of winning the south Kashmir parliament seat. In 2008, they say, they had consciously decided to vote for PDP after Jamaat-e-Islami followers showed intentions of participation.

“Jamaat-e-Islami followers had decided to vote and they were making it evident. So there was no fear of reaction,” says Tufail Amin Malik, a resident of village Memander near Shopian. With Jamaat followers’ participation, the taboo associated with voting became easier to overcome. “In our group, my friends and I decided to vote for PDP. The party had brought us relief from security forces’ excesses,” says Malik.

In Kulgam district, the Jamaat factor was even more visible. Voters identified with the pen and inkpot symbol, the symbol of Muslim United Front, and voted for the symbol, shifting the balance in favour of PDP.

When Sayeed founded PDP in 1999, he competed with other parties to get the pen and inkpot which being an independent symbol was up for grabs. A draw of lots at Deputy Commissioner’s office in Budgam settled the issue. Mounted on a green flag, the symbol along with the party revitalised Kashmir’s electoral politics at a time when government and separatists had taken two extreme positions and the then ruling party, NC, faced credibility crisis.

Before forming PDP, Sayeed had been active in Kashmir politics as a Congress leader.

However, after setting up a regional party, he came up with a new agenda. The seasoned politician understood well that Congress’s unionist agenda had never succeeded in valley and the only alternative was a Kashmir centric agenda.

“The bedrock of the agenda was to restore the self respect and dignity of the people by giving them rights that citizens in any democratic set up deserve,” says Mehbooba Mufti, PDP president. Thus PDP projected a “healing touch” agenda and vehemently opposed the human rights violations.

NC’s popularity on the other hand was on a decline. Its alliance with BJP-led NDA had come under severe criticism after New Delhi binned the autonomy proposal. Gujrat pogrom added to the resentment.

“NC had appeared to surrender to temptations of power and given up its Kashmir centric politics,” says Prof Gul Mohammad Wani of political science at Kashmir University.

PDP had the perfect opportunity to fill the vacuum. And they grabbed this with both hands. The father-daughter duo began visiting slain militant’s homes. After coming to power in 2002, PDP called militants ‘our boys’ and started releasing separatist leaders from jails. Soon, the party demanded opening of Jhelum Valley Road and other travel points across the Line of Control. This policy found many supporters.

“There was a sense of siege and separation which had taken over our part of state in wake of partition. State was divided against its wishes,” says Mehbooba Mufti.

Unlike Farooq, Mufti Sayeed had his share of luck while being in power. The composite dialogue process between New Delhi and Islamabad was on track. Post 9/11, militancy was on a decline as the situation forced Pakistan to control militant groups on its own territory. Sayeed, greatly benefited from the new situation and set out to ease security restrictions. New Delhi was also engaging a faction of All Parties Hurriyat Conference in the dialogue process.

“Mufti Sayeed thus was in the know how of things being discussed with Islamabad,” says Prof. Wani. “People began to perceive that Mufti was no longer a manipulator that he had been for a better part of his life.” Wani says that flagging off of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh was a clear indication that the opening points were an initiative of New Delhi rather than Mufti.

As Ghulam Nabi Azad took over from Mufti Sayeed, PDP began to further its political agenda vehemently. It took steam out of NC’s autonomy demand by including an external dimension to the resolution of Kashmir issue. A party that had begun its chapter in Kashmir politics with ‘peace with dignity’ slogan had finally ended up at proposing Kashmir resolution through self rule. The main proposal of the self rule was a cross LoC senate with political, economic, legislative and security powers.
“The external dimension had earlier been discussed as well,” says Prof Wani.

Kashmir Study Group (KSG) established by Kashmiri businessman Farooq Kathwari in 1996, had also proposed “suzerainty” on similar lines.

However, PDP could not deliver on all the promises it made. New Delhi never initiated a dialogue with militants, as PDP had promised. The Centre-Hurriyat talks largely failed. The process of demilitarisation – an issue that began with PDP’s demand for thinning of troops and projected by media as demilitarisation – also failed, especially after New Delhi was irked. Sensing the popularity of the word, PDP had held on to the demand of demilitarisation that has much wider dimensions than thinning of troops. Troops did not even move out of the orchards and other agricultural land. But the party went on to take up issue after issue despite failure on many fronts.

Despite setbacks like Amarnath land row, PDP’s political manoeuvring and poll management secured the party 15.35 percent votes in J&K in the Assembly elections –increase of six percent over 2002. It also emerged as the highest vote getter in Kashmir valley, pushing National Conference to number two.

“It (PDP) was able to cash on the floating vote, especially that of the Jamaat-e-Islami who have a history of hostility with NC. They have not forgotten the destruction post Bhutto’s hanging,” says Prof Wani. “Mufti was able to take that vote along strategically not ideologically. Jamaat perceived Mufti as lesser evil than NC.”

What then went wrong with PDP in the parliament elections?

As reports poured in that Jamaat-e-Islami followers had voted for PDP, the pro-separatism party that largely relies on organisational discipline sought explanations from its cadre for voting in assembly elections.

“This largely restricted the voters in parliament elections,” says Wani. “The restriction limited other floating voters from casting their vote and PDP suffered.”

Beg says that voter patterns of 2008 assembly elections showed that Jamaat-e-Islami was secretly trying to rout NC despite a boycott call from the party leaders. “But in the process, they got exposed,” he says.

But that was not all. NC had entered the contest for Parliament berth from a position of advantage. The party allied with Congress that has its own vote bank in South Kashmir. And the strategy paid off. Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed of Congress, a rival of PDP, worked hard for Beg. The direction, insiders in the party say, had come from the party’s high command as Rahul Gandhi had asked leaders to report back on votes polled in each Congress MLAs constituency. “Joint candidature of NC and Congress helped,” says Mehboob Beg.
Despite his loss in Assembly elections, Beg was considered to have a wider appeal as compared to his PDP rival Peer Mohammad Hussain. Beg, scion of a prominent political family in south Kashmir, had been the provincial president of NC until Farooq Abdullah reorganised the party after 2008 elections.

Hussain did not have any such credentials. He had begun his political career in Al-Fatah and later joined plebiscite front lead by Mehboob Beg’s father Mirza Afzal Beg in South Kashmir. It was the Beg family that later accommodated Hussain and gave him a job. Hussain was a strong candidate for Devsar constituency in assembly elections, but gave up his candidature in favour of his son-in-law Peer Mansoor Hussain. But he lacked a pan-south Kashmir appeal. PDP in the past had fielded party stalwarts like Mehbooba Mufti from south Kashmir and Hussain was no match.

Mufti Sayeed also had lost the appeal among the floating voters as power no longer was on his side. “In assembly elections, Mufti projected himself as the future chief minister and gave an impression that the alliance with Congress was going to continue in future,” says Beg.

“Till 2008 elections, Mufti had been able to keep the floating vote intact and organised a grass root party structure that would propagate his policies,” adds Prof Wani.

Beg this time had the rebels and independents on his side as well. Mohammad Rafiq Khan, the independent contestant from Devsar in Islamabad who bagged 8,000 votes in assembly elections had joined the party. “Some of the independents found an opportunity in joining NC. Their aim is to contest the next assembly elections on NC ticket,” says Prof Wani. “It was minute engineering.”

“There was resentment among people at the time of 2002 elections. Mufti became a mascot of change,” adds Mehboob Beg. “But he could not fool people for long. We have a longer history of struggle for Kashmir issue than any party.”

Political analysts, however, differ with Beg. They say that Muftis’ had successfully eaten away at the peasant vote bank of NC by giving concessions to orchard owners and farmers. PDP withdrew toll tax on apple exports and also did away with irrigation tax.

“It was a social engineering whereby Mufti had secured votes in peasantry that had been traditionally voting for NC since land to tiller reforms,” says Prof Wani.

With these policies, Sayeed had reached the climax of Kashmir endeavour. A bit of democracy in the party – Muzaffar Hussain Beigh had managed to be the deputy CM after Mufti Sayeed’s chief ministerial tenure was over – party had been able to keep its youth brigade intact.

But the failure to form an alliance with Congress in the state or at the centre turned PDP’s electoral victory into a loss. Despite increasing the seat tally to 21, the party had to sit in the opposition. The party’s vote share though was growing. In 1999, when the party first fought Parliament elections, its vote share in Jammu and Kashmir was 5.65 percent. In Legislative Assembly elections of 2002, its share grew to 9.04 percent. It formed the government while National Conference – with 28.22 percent had to sit in opposition.

The Parliament elections of 2004 took PDP’s vote share up to 11.94 percent. By 2008, its vote share had fattened by another 3.41 percent. Despite its loss in 2009 parliament elections, PDP had taken its vote share to 20.08 percent. But the votes had come from other constituencies as much as from the south Kashmir bastion. While Peer Mohammad Hussain secured 143093 votes in south Kashmir, Iftikhar Hussain Ansari – PDP fielded him in Srinagar against NC’s Farooq Abdullah – bagged 1,16,793 votes. PDP’s north Kashmir candidate, Mohammad Dilawar Mir also registered 1,38,208 votes.

At the party’s nerve centre is Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a septuagenarian with experience of politics in state as well as New Delhi. But the strategist is getting old. Another six years and Sayeed might not have the same energy level as now.
The younger brigade in PDP is energetic, ready to work at grassroots, but lack experience and vision. Mehbooba Mufti, whose role will be pivotal in determining the future of the party, is not regarded in the same league as her father. Her election to Indian parliament, insiders say, did not bring desired results for the party. Unlike her father, she could not network with leaders and parties at New Delhi. Her father is more acceptable to New Delhi than her. Another major issue facing the party is that of political renegades – PDP has many in its ranks and has suffered in the past as well.

The situation favours National Conference whose young leader Omar Abdullah is more acceptable to Delhi than his flamboyant father. Loyalty in NC camp is deep rooted compared to PDP.

Can Mehbooba Mufti defend the party especially after ruling NC’s new look approach to enter the middle ground of Kashmir politics?

Party ideologue, Nayeem Akhter, says that it was too premature to write Mufti Sayeed off. “Mufti Sayeed has changed the political reality in Kashmir. We are the only party to pursue a pro-Kashmir agenda within the (Indian) constitution,” he says. “Mufti Sayeed believes that accession has taken place and Kashmir continues to be a part of India. So the issues we are raising are within the framework of constitution.”

“Mufti Sayeed, over the years, has been very open to suggestions. Unlike Farooq, he is less witty but takes more intellectual inputs,” says Prof Wani.

The differences with Congress had been a feature of coalition throughout the last three years of Congress-PDP rule. Analysts say that Mufti Sayeed had begun to push his pro-Kashnmir agenda too far. Though it withdrew support after the Amaranth land row bringing down Ghulam Nabi Azad government, the situation still seemed under control. In fact, senior Congressman Pranab Mukherjee visited Kashmir to indicate that coalition could continue. But the final blow was dealt by the controversy over National Security Act. Both NC and PDP opposed the application of this law in Jammu and Kashmir. Mehbooba Mufti’s reaction, insiders say, was more adverse than Omar Abdullah’s. And that became the turning point.

“But PDP has emerged as a party that is likely to stay in Kashmir politics for a longer duration. Writing them off for a setback in one election will not be fair” says Noor Mohammad Baba, head of the political science department at Kashmir University.
A lot will depend upon how the situation between New Delhi and Islamabad plays in the coming years. With Congress returning to power in New Delhi with strength, future of Kashmir centric political parties will hinge on how Kashmir issue is dealt with on bilateral level between India and Pakistan and how Kashmiris are allowed to participate in the dialogue process.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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