Alternatives are emerging in J&K’s political landscape

National Conference and Congress MLA's protest inside the J&K Legislative assembly during the budget session in Jammu on Wednesday. PTI

Ever since the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP) lost power in June last year, it has been facing a revolt from within and the party seems to be in total disarray ahead of the crucial assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Prominent and senior leaders, including former ministers and legislators, have defected from the floundering party in the last seven months.

As high-profile leaders were defecting the Mehbooba Mufti-led party for greener pastures, the PDP suddenly decided to expel former finance minister Altaf Bukhari for “anti-party activities.” A businessman-turned-politician, Bukhari is seen as an overzealous leader whose ambitions to continue in power didn’t end even after the collapse of the PDP-BJP alliance in June. 

There were serious differences between Bukhari and the PDP leadership, especially Mehbooba. In the last party meeting in December, Bukhari had reportedly warned the party chief of quitting if his demand of removing some “political sycophants” around Mehbooba was not heeded. Bukhari had reportedly expressed the feelings of some disgruntled leaders in the meeting by describing the party as one that had transformed into a ‘Family Democratic Party’ that caters only to the interests of a small coterie and not for leaders who wanted to work for the state. 

When the PDP and its arch rival National Conference (NC) came together on November 19 last year to form the government in the state with the help of Congress, to checkmate the BJP, Bukhari emerged as a consensus candidate for chief minister. However, for Mehbooba, he happened to be the same “bad bishop” who was once accused of trying to dethrone the queen after the death of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in January 2016. 

If grapevine in Srinagar is to be believed, Bukhari is in the process of forming his own party, which may take a final shape before elections. There are rumours that Bukhari, his close relative and senior PDP leader Dilawar Mir and two other former MLAs — Hakeem Mohammad Yaseen and Ghulam Hassan Mir — are coming together to form a new group. The players in this group are known for toppling the NC government led by Farooq Abdullah in 1984 with the help of the then Indira Gandhi government in Delhi.

Come elections and Bukhari, with the support of his friends, should manage to win at least 4-5 seats in the Valley. And already, BJP-ally People’s Conference (PC), headed by separatist-turned mainstream leader Sajjad Lone, is challenging Kashmir’s oldest regional party, the NC, by bringing together some of the disgruntled leaders deserting the PDP. In the 2014 elections, Lone had two MLAs in the 87-member J&K Assembly. The possibility of his emergence as a leader and the PC as an alternative to the NC and the PDP has unnerved those who got the reins of the state from their fathers. Lone, too, is expected to improve his seat tally and win 4-5 seats.

Son of separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone, who was killed by militants in 2002, Sajjad stirred the hornet’s nest when he publicly declared his proximity to the BJP days before the 2014 assembly elections and called Prime Minister Narendra Modi his ‘bada bhai’ (elder brother). If the BJP returns to power in Delhi in 2019, Sajjad’s dream of occupying CM’s chair in J&K will get a big boost.

On a sticky wicket

Though Mehbooba has shrugged off the exodus of Bukhari and other leaders from the party saying that “this is election time (when) people do go and come (from parties)”, for the first time since its inception 20 years ago, the PDP is on a sticky wicket ahead of the crucial polls. From cash-rich Bukhari to former minister Imran Ansari, considered among the few of its vote-pullers for his also being a religious head of the Shia community, it seems the PDP has lost the plot this time. Ansari, along with his uncle Abid Ansari, have joined Sajjad Lone and both uncle and nephew are expected to retain their own seats.

The heavyweight leaders who left the PDP have publicly criticised Mehbooba over her “domineering” behaviour as party president and also accused her of shielding the corrupt, including in her family. In its poll debut in the 2002 assembly elections, the PDP had won 16 seats and formed the government in an alliance with Congress. In 2008, it improved its tally from 16 to 21, but remained in opposition as that time Congress preferred NC over the PDP. In the 2014 polls, the PDP emerged as the single largest party, with 28 seats. 

But as things are shaping up, the PDP will be the biggest loser in the coming elections and its tally may shrink to 10-12 seats. The NC, on the other hand, may gain from its present tally of 15 seats and win 25-28 seats. That’s when groups like that of Bukhari and Lone will hold the key to form the new government. In the 87-member assembly, any party or alliance will need 44 seats to form government.

As they say, ‘politics is all about interest’ and J&K is no exception. The coming months will see which party or formation outwits the other. The collapse of the PDP-BJP alliance in June last year has given rise to a new force and an alternative to the major established political parties. This alternative, and its leaders, will remain relevant after poll results are announced as in all likelihood there won’t be a clear mandate in favour of any party.

The rise of a third or fourth force is seen as succour and relief by many people in Kashmir, but it may not be in the interests of the NC and the PDP as it may end their decades-old dynastic monopoly on J&K politics. It can’t be ruled out that the two regional parties may join hands after 2019 results to stop the entry of a new force into the state’s political landscape, much like they almost did in November last year to keep Sajjad Lone out.

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