Mayor Making

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As independents dominated the outcome of Srinagar’s lowest-polled municipal election, the politics reinvented the past to create a future that is in a sharp debate in the beleaguered city, reports Masood Hussain

Junaid Azim Mattu with Sajad Lone at a press conference.

“In the Mayoral elections, there was not much to be surprised for,” one print media commentator said. “But Kashmir must get ready to get more surprises, in a way shocks, in coming days because the political season is changing this autumn.”

The biggest surprise was publicly talked about by Peoples Conference (PC) leader, a lawmaker and now the closet BJP ally, Sajjad Lone. “If the NC and PDP stayed away from the municipal polls, where were their councillors born?” Lone asked in a news conference. “If they boycotted the elections, why they were so keen in the Mayoral election?”

The revelation was surprising that both NC and PDP had stepped up their activities to deny the BJP-supported candidate the top-slot in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC). Congress mooted the idea for a “secular” Mayor for Srinagar, a dilapidated municipal body that has enough resources but lacks a direction and a system. This initiative led to the formation of an informal Front comprising Congress, NC and the PDP.

In the 74-ward house, Soura did not send a representative.  Junaid Azim Mattu won from three berths and another councillor from two. That makes three wards vacant. It left the ‘house’ with 70. But the numbers were interesting. Barring Congress’s 16 members, BJP’s 4, PC’s Mattu, all others were independents.

In that crowd of independents, there was a good number of proxies. PDP said it had 18. NC informally claimed to have nine. BJP was supporting one in heart of the city. PC also had almost seven more. Insiders said the numbers were much more.

It became an easy arithmetic. The Congress stated formally that they have sealed the fate as they had 45 berths to win the coveted position that normally requires 38 votes only. It eventually led to another surprise. They got only 26 votes. “We are happy they were united,” Lone laughed at them while talking to media. “We are happier that they lost.”

In between the two sentences of the statement is a series of surprises. The element of surprises was there from day one. One smart candidate “encouraged” 18 of his “friends” to contest. “Three took the nomination forms but did not file, three filed and then withdrew, four filed and fled to Jammu and eight contested of whom six won,” one political activist, who is privy of the drama said. “Even managing the winners, post-election was hectic for their master.”

While the contestants took the risk and filed their papers, those who were eying the top slot took a slightly bigger risk, later. “Almost a score-odd corporators were actually flown to Delhi and kept in a hotel,” one insider said. “Another player hired a hotel in the city and kept his men and women literally under tight guard.”

Since securing the safety of the elected lot was the responsibility of the police, there were murmurs in response, partly tension and partly frustration. But all those concerns were set-aside by the system.

Managers had an interesting problem: the independents were promising support to everybody who sought it. This kept everybody in good humour for a day or two till the reality dawned that anything can happen. Once the main players got serious, the situation started tilting.

The balance had started tilting the day the ‘seculars’ sat in the first meeting. As Ghulam Rasool Hajam was pitch-forked by the Congress for the top slot, tensions started. In the nomination, an incumbent lawmaker took affront to the possibility that it was deliberately done to undermine his status. Even within Congress, insiders said, almost half a dozen ward members were unhappy with the ‘consensus’ candidate.

Within a day, the opposition camp got the whip of the mess in the ‘secular’ Front and intelligently contributed to tilt the situation. In NC, an urban face supposed to be in charge of things saw the situation changing and jumped in to retain some stakeholding. This earned him a serious displeasure from the party leadership.

What shocks the ‘mainstream’ is that the system played unfairly and kept on loading the dice. On the very initial day when the ‘secular’ Front decided to stake the claim, it collected signed support letters from the ward members.

Both NC and the PDP leaders insist that the decision of helping Mattu to get into the SMC was “pre-decided and deliberately announced”. Governor Satya Pal Malik had stated in anticipation of the elections that Srinagar will have a “foreign educated” Mayor. This, they insist, was aimed at helping garner the support. Kashmir has historically believed that Delhi holds the keys to the power in Srinagar.

In the State Administrative Council (SAC) when the Governor’s cabinet amended the law paving way for ‘secret ballot’, it was aimed at neutralising the Congress-led Front’s decision-making, according to the NC, PDP and the Congress. All tensions followed this decision.

The election of Sheikh Imran was all the more interesting. Part of the ‘secular’ Front, Sheikh had faced embarrassments from day one. Amid intermittent debt-recovery notice from the J&K Bank, he was declared a loser during the counting of votes in his deputy Mayoral election. His insistence led to the counting of votes again in which he won by a vote!

But the question is: If ‘secular’ Front’s Deputy Mayor got 35 votes and won, why did Hajam scored only 26 and lost? Anybody who knows the answer to this question will hold the bodmas for solving Srinagar’s mayoral puzzle.

With the SMC constituted, now everybody is so keen to know – how, and why. The South Asian democracy has not set any standard for minimal democracy. That is why scorer of two of the three votes won in Safa Kadal and two Congress candidates won by taking all the eight votes, each, from Chanpora and Syed Ali Akbar wards. This interesting brand of democracy sees majority from the people who participate and not the people who are supposed to participate.

Right now, the delivery is too early a question for anybody. The new Mayor has only talked about ‘chastity belt around Srinagar’ but has neither opened nor closed it.

But the people who were counted last week is a grand mix of men and women who were on the margins of politics, were ambitious or simple fortune hunters knowing well how the peculiar ‘political economy’ works. “I was amazed to see young college going boys and girls contesting and actually knowing what their goals are,” one government official, who was a presiding officer in Srinagar, said. “Intelligent, they knew they carry a value.” One insider said the windfall was historic and unprecedented.

Many people are talking in ideological terms – pro and anti-BJP. That sounds far-fetched because all the political parties operating in Kashmir have had a window for India’s rightwing, since 1947. BJP has come out of Congress and in Jammu; every election season sees migrations between the two parties.

NC in 1999 sacked Prof Saifuddin Soz for voting in the fall of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Quickly, Omar joined as a junior minister in External Affairs Ministry.

In 2014, PDP did the historic handshake and shared power. It helped the rightwing party to understand the space and scope in Kashmir. This eventually formed the basis for the new alliance that Lone is so keen to strengthen and BJP so happy to nourish. Insiders said it is just the start of a new politics.

Sheikh Imran

Politics, after all, does not take morality so seriously these days. Opportunity is a natural basis. If Omar and Mehbooba can have their parties and friends, what prevents Lone from having the same objective, goes the argument in nascent pro-Lone camp. Historically, Kashmir’s peculiarity is that legitimacy follows the power and not the vice versa.

It does matter, however. “This change has opened the chastity belts for bringing typical BJP mainland politics to Kashmir,” one PDP leader said. “The municipal polls had the signature style of BJP president, and in coming days, the politics of exclusion will be more obvious.” He foresees better boycotts in next elections.

“I do see efforts at changing the politics,” an NC veteran admitted. “I fail to understand, does Delhi hate us more than PDP?”

“We did mistakes in past and Kashmir is suffering for that,” admitted a Congressman, also a lawmaker. “But in last few years, there had been a process of improvement going on at the political front; sort of a morality was being reclaimed by the politics. I see that slipping away.”

But was this a ‘mock drill’ for the government formation. Indications are positive. A day after BJP general secretary spent hours at Srinagar’s Taj Hotel with the Team Sajad – interacting, dining and clicking group photographs with the debutant “politicians”, the ‘Lone Ranger’ took off for Delhi. “If the government is formed, which, I think is a possibility,” one political activist said. “It would not be for two years but eight, add the six years term as well.”

Why and how can that be possible is a matter of details that keep Kashmir’s erstwhile power corridor, the Gupkar busy, these days.

(Names of the people quoted in this report talked anonymously)

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