Rediscovering Party Democracy

Often accused of promoting personal fiefs in politics, parties in Kashmir have started holding elections internally. With results mostly favouring the family members, the essence of the idea does not move beyond the four walls, writes Tasavur Mushtaq 

File image of Dr Farooq Abdullah

Summer was at its peak in 1981. Besides, the heat waves, the hot discussion was about the deteriorating health of Kashmir’s tallest leader and serving chief minister, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. The functioning of the government apart, the concern was to uphold the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), Jammu and Kashmir’s grand old and largest cadre-based political party.

With not much to think about, Sheikh’s flamboyant medico son, Dr Farooq Abdullah assumed the charge. Already a Member of Parliament (MP), he was still a greenhorn in politics. A year later, Sheikh passed away in 1982, paving the way for his son to become Chief Minister at the age of 45. He continued to be the party chief.

Four decades later in 2022, as the autumn has already allowed winter to have its way, 85-year-old Dr Abdullah decided to quit the post of NC president, permanently. An interesting development, Dr Abdullah while announcing his decision has said “neither he will review his decision nor participate in party elections anymore”. That seemed an end to his role in the active affairs of the party.

Fighting Old Age 

Being the oldest active politician, Dr Abdullah is on the move, always. Though there is no timeline, tempers have started to run high ahead of elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which are believed to be held anytime soon. But even much before that, Dr Abdullah, many times being helped by his associates, keeps on visiting different areas. He meets people across the places.

His many-day visit to remote areas of the Chenab region including almost inaccessible Warwan and Marwah in Kishtwar was in awe given his age and ailments. He rode off his horse, a postcard picture of a man who crisscrossed Srinagar streets on a motorcycle as a Chief Minister. Interestingly, he would always prefer to have a guest along as a pillion rider.

Recently, Dr Abdullah flew to Lucknow and paid a courtesy visit to the Yadav family to express condolences after the demise of Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. He does not stop. He is taking part in every activity, wholeheartedly. But there is a slight change in his behaviour. He gets angrier, easily. His close associates reveal that “as if he is disappointed with things happening around”. Now his speeches have the necessary remembrance of Allah and the world hereafter.

Pertinently, in the last assembly election, which the erstwhile state witnessed in 2014, Dr Abdullah was off the pitch. He was far away fighting his kidney ailment. Finally, he underwent a successful kidney transplant surgery in London, his second home. Earlier in 2012, he spent many days in AIIMS Delhi to get his right lung issues resolved. When Coronavirus gripped the world, he tested a positive couple of times and had to stay in the hospital for better monitoring of the vitals.

Change of Guard 

Barring a few years in between, Dr Abdullah headed NC for more than four decades. If insiders are to be believed, the old guard in the party “did not like the new ideas of Omar” during his years of presidency. Omar then was 34. However, as now the senior Abdullah has decided to leave the reigns, Omar has already crossed the 50 mark. Party insiders in the party say he has come off the age in the last two decades. “He is not Omar of the yore,” said a party leader, adding “things have changed, there is generational shift almost for every politician of previous decades.

National Conference president Dr Farooq Abdullah and Vice President Omar Abdullah

Taking it further, there is every possibility that Omar, 54, would repeat what Farooq did at 44, and assume charge of the party permanently. However, this is not true for Abdullah’s only. Senior politicians of Jammu and Kashmir have already introduced their children to a formal setup, with a twist. Same family, different parties.

Jammu and Kashmir’s long-time finance minister,  Abdul Rahim Rather, till recently, was the sole Charar-i-Sharief leader. Now, there are four parties in the fray. Interestingly, the kitty goes to only two families, Rathers and Lones. The two families are now in four parties.

As business tycoon Hilal Rather, Rather’s son, left his father in politics to join the Peoples’ Conference (PC), the son of PDP’s general secretary did the same. Muzaffar Nabi Lone, son of Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjura joined hands with Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose recently floated party is reportedly going for a name change.

On the other side, veteran NC leader Ali Muhammad Sagar’s son Salman Ali Sagar is now in charge of the Hazratbal constituency of NC. Father-son duo share two nearby constituencies of Srinagar city.

In the Sonawari belt, firebrand NC leader and incumbent MP from north Kashmir, Muhammad Akbar Lone has left his place to his son Hilal Akbar Lone. Lone Sr has been unwell for a long time now. For faraway Uri, senior NC leader Muhammad Shafi Urvi seemingly has paved the way for his son Dr Sajjad.

At the organisational level, the main roles in NC rotated within the Abdullah family. However, after the poll debacle in 2014, the first intervention made was the appointment of Sagar as the new general secretary of the party, replacing veteran Sheikh Nazir after decades, after his demise.

Now as senior Abdullah has decided to quit, the party has come out with a notification to hold elections on December 5. Choosing the birth anniversary of its late founder, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, to make a choice, it is believed that this “exercise is an attempt to ward off allegations regarding holding posts without regular elections.” Interestingly, the venue to witness the new man in the chair is the secured grave of Sheikh Abdullah on the banks of Dal Lake.

Election and Political Parties 

NC is not the only party to go for elections. The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference (JKPC) recently held its first election in its 44-year history. Its former chairman, Sajjad Lone was re-elected, unopposed. As per the party statement, “eight sets of nominations were received and all of them have proposed the name of Sajjad Lone for the post.” Later, Lone was administered the oath of office on November 16, in presence of all 732 members of the party’s Electoral College.

For the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which saw an exodus of almost all the senior leaders, Mehbooba Mufti continues to hold the top position. The last time she was elected, unopposed as party president was in 2021 for three years.

Congress has its system. However, recently, after having overstayed, Ghulam Ahmad Mir was replaced by Vikar Rasool Wani after serving as JKPCC chief for eight years.

Beyond the borders of Jammu and Kashmir, much-awaited party elections in Congress, and the mainland’s main opposition party were also held. Mallikarjun Kharge, an old hand, became the first non-Gandhi president of Congress after 24 years. The contest was not unopposed as Shashi Tharoor also participated, but the Nehru-Gandhi family did not compete. But there is an addition to the details. Kharge was the unspoken choice of Gandhi family, seen as the favourite, while Tharoor emerged as an outsider rallying for change within the party.

Political analysts believe that holding elections at this time and paving way for non-Gandhi chiefs was a “strategy to shed the image of being a family party.”  BJP has regularly denounced the Congress party’s family dynasty. Meanwhile, staying away from the process of elections, Rahul Gandhi is on a 3500-kilometre walking tour of different villages, towns and cities, a programme of over four months.

If records are read, the main attack on the political parties is about the lack of internal democracy. The members who leave their parent parties also have the same accusations. When political leaders left PDP, their main accusation was that “It had become a family show.”

During the recent visit of Home Minister Amit Shah to Kashmir, he referred to erstwhile partners of different times as “Mufti & Company and Abdullah & Sons”. He was subtly conveying the “family fiefdom” in the regional parties ruling Jammu and Kashmir for 70 years. However, both parties responded to the accusations, in different formats.

Post Script

Looking back at the annals of history, absolute control does not lie in people away from the family. There may be a chance where a non-family man assumes the top position, but moving at his own will has not been reported yet.

As now Ghulam Nabi Azad cries hoarse over the functioning of Congress in Delhi, he takes pride in saying that he sided with Sonia Gandhi in ousting Sita Ram Kesari in 1998. But, reasons reveal, Kesri had an unceremonious ouster. Shocked, he died a disturbed and disillusioned man.

Kashmir is no exception. The tussle for power in the 1980s in the family led the sister to side against his brother, which later led to the coup of Dr Abdullah’s government.

When PDP came into power with BJP, the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s choreographer son was inducted as a minister. He would have captured only a few clicks that the government was toppled and he had to leave.

In the case of PC, two brothers fought to claim ownership over a brand of politics established by their assassinated father, the late Abdul Gani Lone. They opted for two different ways to stay relevant.

More importantly, when someone from the family decides to leave, either the next in the family is chosen or he wins hands down unopposed.

This sometimes leaves a question, is dynasty a destiny?

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