Mehbooba’s Litmus Test


A bad governor but a street fighter, Mehbooba Mufti fought odds to build the PDP as an alternative political platform, now, a tattered party in the last five years. Syed Shadab Ali Gillani offers an idea about the challenges that Kashmir’s key woman politician faces

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The ongoing Lok Sabha election is a litmus test for everybody. For Mehbooba Mufti’s JKPDP, the target is to prove that the party exists and survived. Had she contested with JKNC under the aegis of PAGD, both would have got the benefit of the doubt. Since they walked against each other, they landed in testing times.

Both the Kashmir parties are part of the pan-India INDIA alliance but PDP is apparently less than equal. Local Congressmen have made it public that the real constituent of the alliance is JKNC. The PDP, however, continues to assert its membership within the broader alliance.

In this situation, Kashmir’s key rabble-rouser, Mehbooba Mufti, is in the contest, literally solo. Everything apart, she has a load of baggage, as her rival accuses her of, getting BJP into Jammu and Kashmir.

Mass Desertion

Between 2018 and 2024, especially after the abrogation of Article 370, hoards of leaders deserted the PDP and landed in brand-new or older but refreshed parties. Most of its second-line leadership landed in the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), the party’s erstwhile treasurer and business tycoon, Altaf Bukhari founded.

With Mehbooba in detention, when the JKAP was launched, its front row was almost entirely from PDP. “Nearly 40 of our former ministers and legislators were forced to leave the party because BJP has worked with me in past and they knew that PDP and Mehbooba Mufti would be a headache so that is why they tried everything possible to destroy PDP,” Mehbooba said, insisting the BJP did not touch any other party in Jammu and Kashmir. “In the present time they force, blackmail and even use money and greed are also a factor and all these were the driving factors in the undoing of our party.”

With flocks out, Mehbooba said the party is with “ultimate heroes’, the people who defied everything and stayed put. One of them is her youth leader Waheed Parra, who is the party’s Srinagar candidate.

“PDP may not be receiving full support within this (INDIA) alliance, but that’s alright; our focus lies on garnering support from the people,” Parra said. “Mehbooba Mufti has resolved not to fragment votes in Jammu or contribute to polarisation. We have opted for a broader objective, ensuring its continuity regardless of Congress’ reciprocal support. While sections within Congress endorse Mehbooba Ji, electoral dynamics present distinct challenges. Despite obstacles, including external pressures, we remain steadfast in our commitment.”

Chequered Past

In the 2014 assembly elections, the PDP secured the highest number of seats in Kashmir and BJP emerged as the largest party in Jammu. Both parties initiated talks and drafted a common minimum programme (CMP) aimed at bridging divergent ideologies of the north pole-south pole.

The alliance was viewed with scepticism by many, given that two parties with opposite ideologies had come together. PDP managed a better voter turnout by creating the fear of the BJP. They faced a backlash for this alliance, as they had campaigned on the promise to prevent the BJP from entering Jammu and Kashmir. In September 2016, Tariq Hamid Karra, a founding member, resigned from the party and Parliament, accusing the Mehbooba government of ‘promoting the RSS’ ideology.” The Kathua rape and murder case in 2018 started creating a gulf within the coalition. In April 2018, Mehbooba threatened to end the alliance with the BJP. On June 19, the BJP withdrew from the alliance and the alliance was dead.

In subsequent days, all non-BJP parties including PDP came closer but the die was cast already. PDP is not escaping the blame that is very public now. When PDP was negotiating with the BJP, there was a movement to get JKNC to support them in forming a government, an offer the party declined.

“If PDP had accepted support from other parties instead of forming a coalition with BJP, the outcome might have been different,” Aga Ruhullah believes. Added Vikar Rasool: “PDP-BJP collaboration in 2014 led to deceit and disappointment for both the people and us. We had requested the PDP not to forge an alliance with the BJP and allow them entry into the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. The repercussions of the results we witnessed in August 2019. Had the PDP heeded our warnings, the situation would have been vastly different.”

Fighting the Rival

For most of the last five years, Kashmir’s political class was very close to each other – first in a protest in 2019, then in jail for less than a year and finally in the formal PAGD. Then it started falling apart.

Now, the PDP is also being accused of contributing to the undoing of PAGD. Omar said it publicly that alliances require respect, a parameter PDP breached many times. “PAGD was influenced by external pressures, particularly from Delhi, aiming to create rifts among political parties in Jammu and Kashmir,” Parra’s rival, Aga Ruhullah said. “To understand why PAGD fell apart, we need some serious self-reflection. I encourage journalists to dig deep and critically examine the events that led to its dissolution.”

Back to Congress

As the anti-BJP alliance shaped up, Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti were among the first to be invited.

“We align with the INDIA bloc and supported Congress leaders in Jammu, respecting the people’s choice regarding inclusion. Even if we secure seats despite the odds, we will remain part of the alliance, unless rejected,” explains Naeem Akhter. “Our support for Congress stems from its role as the primary resistance against threats to the idea of India. If this idea crumbles, so does everything.”

Mehbooba Mufti addressing a press conference in Srinagar.
Kl Image by Bilal Bahadur

That was not to be. Congress’s Jammu and Kashmir president Vikar Rasool made it clear when he visited the Nawa-ie-Subh Complex, the JKNC headquarters. In Jammu and Kashmir, he said the INDIA alliance comprises only the JKNC and Congress and all others are “proxies for the BJP”.

As the situation reached seat sharing, PDP did not matter. JKNC argues that of the six seats, three are already with the alliance and three are with the BJP. Eventually, they were asked to retain the Kashmir three seats in exchange of the support they would extend to the Congress candidates in Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh.

Naeem Akhtar has a different take. “Much unfolded behind the scenes. None of this was openly discussed, not even with Congress, to be fair to them, until the very end,” he said. “NC played a shrewd political game, aiming to sideline Mehbooba Mufti, but Congress proposed a 2:2:1 scheme. NC cleverly included Ladakh in this equation, presenting it as three versus six, insisting on the necessity of a three-way contest. Despite this, Congress made a prudent decision by allowing itself to be pressured regarding Ladakh, recognising the potential for unity there akin to Kashmir.”

Ladakh eventually became a very interesting story, thanks to the politics of the JKNC.

Governor N N Vohra and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti with the new ministers after the cabinet reshuffle

A BJP Proxy?

Now JKNC is openly attacking the PDP. Omar Abdullah termed the party “BJP’s C-team”. This attack emanated from Pahari leaders in Poonch Rajouri asking their people to support Mehbooba.

“We have said from the start. If we have to defeat the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, if we have to defeat the communal forces trying to spread poison across the country, people should only look towards candidates of the INDIA bloc — National Conference candidates on three seats of Kashmir and Congress candidates on two seats in Jammu,” Omar said. “The rest have connections with the BJP somewhere — be it B-team or A-team who hold late-night meetings with BJP leader Tarun Chugh or the PDP. BJP leader Mushtaq Bukhari has openly announced to cast his vote in favour of Mehbooba Mufti.”

Mushtaq Bukhari has been a long-time JKNC lawmaker and a minister. Post-2019, he resigned from the party and stayed aloof for some time. After the government of India announced the ST reservation for the Pahari-speaking people, he joined the party. As the BJP is not contesting, he asked his followers to vote for Mehbooba. Many others gave similar calls in the Pir Panchal region.

Omar further said he understands that the PDP chief will put pressure on the BJP to make Bukhari change his statement. “The cat is out of the bag now. After the A-team and the B-team, PDP is the new entrant as the C-team of the BJP,” Abdullah added.

“If a BJP Pahari leader urges his supporters to vote for me,” Mehbooba reacted, “he’s simultaneously stating that he supports me as a Pahari leader, not as a BJP member.” If an NC worker supports me, she added, it does not mean JKNC is supporting me. “It is a personal endorsement, and this distinction is crucial.”

A Solo Show

In this election, this has created a situation in which the PDP president is a ‘solo traveller’, literally a political backpacker. She is in a contest against the BJP, and the JKNC and is not-so-welcome in the INDIA alliance. This must be heavier on a lady, who has built the party and represented the area in the Lok Sabha, she is now defending from her arch-rival.

Home Minister Amit Shah with Mehbooba Mufti.

Parra believes the people know it all and they are the strength. She emerged as the first voice against the abrogation, lockdowns, and rights violations, inviting leaders for dialogue despite facing detentions after August 5, he said. “We were dismissed as obsolete, which was disparaging. Still, for us, the focus remains on confronting the BJP, and not fighting the rivals.”

A Turnaround?

Mehbooba has been the lone fighter in Kashmir’s recent politics. A bad governor, though, she, right now is not in the mood to get engaged with JKNC, or at least it seems so. “Omar Sahab can say anything,” she recently said, “but my current battle is not against Omar or the JKNC; it is against the power that seeks to strip us of everything, that aims to disempower us.”

In her campaign speeches, she talks about how the administration investigated her, her mother, the funeral and the grave of her father, India’s only Muslim Home Minister ever and how the family had to fight in the court about passports, a basic prerequisite for the citizens. People relate to the situation.

PDP leaders insist that they are fighting a survival battle. “We have had no communication with the cadres for the last five years,” Parra said. “We are using this election as a means to reconnect. It is not about winning at all but if we win, what is the harm.”

Parra said the entire campaign revolves around certain basics. “We are fighting for a jail-free, (police) case-free Kashmiri and Mehbooba Ji has the capacity to create a consensus on issues confronting Kashmir. She is the only vociferous voice,” Parra said. “We are seeking support from voters, prayers from mothers and apologies from youth. This is all we are campaigning about.”


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