Jammu and Kashmir’s top two political families—the Abdullahs and the Muftis—are facing a real challenge for the first time. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its president, former CM Mehbooba Mufti, are facing a rebellion within, even as the emergence of a ‘third front’ led by Sajad Gani Lone looks imminent. Even though not a single legislator from J&K’s grand old party, the National Conference (NC), has raised the banner of revolt so far, former CM and NC vice-president Omar Abdullah is repeatedly seeking dissolution of the J&K Assembly—worried that New Delhi is orchestrating the defection within the PDP to create a new political formation that could form the government in alliance with the BJP.
The 87-member assembly has been under suspended animation since the break-up of the PDP-BJP alliance. The PDP has 28 MLAs, making it the largest single party, followed by the BJP with 25, NC 15 and Congress 12, while Lone’s People’s Conference has two. The BJP is 16 short of forming the majority.
On Sunday, July 8, Mehbooba had one-on-one meeting with her party MLAs. According to the PDP, 18 MLAs turned up or called her on phone, though other sources say only 12 met her. The interaction started at 11 am and continued till 6 pm. Omar, however, says there is a lot of “confusion about how many MLAs attended the PDP meeting…and, in any case, speculation is meaningless”.
The revolt against Mehbooba’s leadership and her party is led by Shia leader Imran Raza Ansari, who has a strong base in his own constituency of Pattan. He says Mehbooba turned the party into a family fiefdom, accommodating her brother, her uncle, nieces and others in positions of authority when she was CM. “In party and cabinet meetings,” says Ansari, “I had warned Mehbooba of simmering discontent when I was minister for technical education. Now I am saying it openly.”
Ansari is said to be close to Lone and former J&K finance minister Haseeb Drabu, who was removed from his post in March, following his controversial remark that J&K shouldn’t be seen as conflict state or a political problem, but as a society with social issues. Drabu and Lone, who are both reportedly close to the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, had a meeting in Delhi last week, which Drabu described as “a chance lunch, a few light-hearted laughs, back slapping bonhomie”.
Ex-CMs Omar Abdullah of NC (left); Mehbooba Mufti of PDP
It was with Ram Madhav that Drabu had put together the PDP-BJP Agenda of Alliance document. Sometime after the fall of the coalition government, when the BJP’s state unit admitted that some PDP legislators approached it, Ram Madhav insisted his party is for continuing with Governor’s rule in the Valley in the interest of peace, governance and development.
Blaming Delhi for creating a rebel group in her party, Mehbooba warns that the Kashmiri people’s trust in Indian democracy will be eroded if her party is split and Lone or somebody else is appointed the CM. Omar says the BJP’s guiding philosophy is power at any cost. However, there is a consensus that almost nobody in Kashmir shed tears over the fall of the PDP-BJP government. In fact, there was jubilation among many sections, especially visible on social media.
“Who will vote for the PDP or the NC if a new grouping led by a dynamic leader comes to the fore?” asks MLC Yasir Reshi, a PDP rebel.
“When Mehbooba says Delhi is doing it (fomenting rebellion in the PDP), does she know she is branding all dissenters in her party as stooges of Delhi? Thousands have been killed due to such irresponsible utterances,” says Ansari, reflecting the larger security-dominated discourse in the Valley, where everything originating from Delhi is seen with suspicion.
According to one of the PDP rebels, Yasir Reshi, a member of the Legislative Council, legislators moving away from the PDP, the NC or the Congress are doing it on their own, with intelligence agencies playing no role in it. “Don’t we have the ability to think for ourselves?” he asks. “Why do they always bring up the role of agencies, giving an impression that raising voice against family rule is an intelligence operation, which should be discredited. When in power, the two families speak a different language. Don’t you remember what Mehbooba said about stone-throwing youth when she was CM? And look at her statements today. They don’t match. We should always remember we have integrated with India, not just when in power, but also when out of it.”
Coming to what he claims is the real reason for the turmoil in the PDP, Reshi says the new crop of legislators is not interested in family rule. “Across the world, people have fought against kings and family rule. Why should we expect the people of Kashmir to keep family raj intact?” he asks. “That is also Omar’s fear. He and Mehbooba are not up there because of extraordinary intelligence or a people-friendly approach. Mehbooba almost tried to end the political career of Muzaffer Hussain Baig, an intelligent lawyer and able PDP leader. She kept him out of circulation for a long time.”
Baig has not uttered a word since the PDP legislators, six so far, began speaking out openly against Mehbooba.
Going by J&K’s anti-defection law, the PDP rebels need two-thirds of the MLAs—19 out of 28—to elect a new leader. In 2011, the BJP had invoked the law when it sought disqualification of seven of its members for voting against the party candidate in the Legislative Council election. The party couldn’t disqualify them until the term ended in 2014 as the matter remained pending in court.
“In case the BJP stakes claim to form the government, with 12 PDP members supporting it and some others from the Congress and the NC abstaining during the confidence vote, the BJP will make it as only the votes of those present will be counted,” says former J&K advocate-general Jehangir Ganai.
Reshi says the new front in the making will be a threat to both Mehbooba and the NC. “Who will vote for the PDP or the NC if a new grouping led by a dynamic leader comes to the fore? You will see different Kashmir in the months ahead. We will not keep Kashmiris hostage to false promises. We can sit in Opposition, but we won’t lie to the people,” promises Reshi.
Lone is most likely to be anointed leader of this prospective formation. Mehbooba’s party is seemingly in tatters. With a strong voter base in his constituency of Kupwara, Lone and his like-minded friends can cobble up an alliance that will see a new electoral force emerging in Kashmir. It would pose a grave challenge to the NC too—a tough test indeed for the oldest party in Kashmir, founded by Omar’s grandfather, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, .
A senior PDP leader says Mehbooba didn’t allow any room to the BJP in J&K and didn’t let the BJP to move closer towards its goals vis-à-vis the special constitutional provisions for the state. “We fought for Article 35(A) and Article 370. We put up a strong defence,” he says. “We will see how the third front with the BJP will deal with such issues. We will see who will be the new CM. That will tell us a lot.”
As the PDP has come to be synonymous with Mehbooba, she would have to build her party anew, in case the defection becomes large scale. Can she meet the Lone challenge, given her three years as CM, in which a large number of civilian killings took place, and in the absence of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed—and apparently with no blessings from the Centre.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar