Can PDP survive the new paradigm of Kashmir politics?

Two decades after its formation, Mehbooba Mufti’s party is perhaps facing its worst-ever crisis

Mehbooba Mufti
Mehbooba Mufti - facing an uncertain future | File Photo: PTI

Two decades after its formation in the late 1990s, the Mehbooba Mufti-led Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is perhaps facing its worst-ever crisis, as many of its leaders, including a co-founder, either desert the outfit or join other lesser-known political groups.

Is the PDP’s current crisis indicative of an impending collapse? Is the party finding itself on the precipice of complete irrelevance after the August 5, 2019, crackdown? Or, is the current phase only going to help the PDP to gain more sympathy from the public?

A lot will depend on Mehbooba’s handling of the current crisis. Her leadership skills will be tested as never before. There is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, which says, “In defeat: defiance; in victory: magnanimity.” For now Mehbooba is on her weakest wicket and therefore her defiance will be one of the defining factors.

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How did the PDP reach this stage? Let us go back to the beginning. Multiple theories have been floated with regard to the formation of the PDP in 1999. The most talked about is that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was allegedly behind the PDP’s creation.

The aim, according to this theory, was to thwart any future attempts by any single regional political party to blackmail New Delhi through the institution of the J&K Legislative Assembly. On June 26, 2000, Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest political party, the National Conference (NC), had passed an autonomy resolution in the assembly.

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BJP leader Advani, in his autobiography My Country My Life, while talking about the NC’s autonomy resolution in a chapter entitled ‘Dealing With The Kashmir Issue’, writes: “The nation was shocked on June 26, 2000, during the Vajpayee government’s rule in New Delhi, when the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly adopted a report of the State Autonomy Committee (SAC) and asked the Centre to immediately implement it. The SAC recommended the return of the constitutional situation in Jammu and Kashmir to its pre-1953 status by restoring to the state all subjects of governance except defence, foreign affairs, currency and communication.”

The perception among Kashmir’s intelligentsia is that the unanimous demand for autonomy through the J&K legislative assembly became one of the main factors behind New Delhi’s need to create another regional force in Jammu and Kashmir. The aim was to cause fragmentation of the mainstream opinion in the restive region.

The PDP obviously rubbishes this deep-rooted perception.

Fast forward to 2014: The PDP, then headed by the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, won the most number of assembly segments. In the 87-member assembly, the PDP’s tally was 28. This was its best ever performance since the party was formed. The BJP won 25 seats, mainly from Jammu’s Hindu heartland. The saffron party drew a blank in the Kashmir Valley and the Ladakh region.

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It is now clear that Mufti Sayeed’s controversial decision to stitch a coalition partnership with the ideologically antithetical BJP cost the party its reputation. Key Kashmir watchers had warned that the PDP-BJP alliance was an “unholy partnership” and would eventually prove to be a “political suicide” for the PDP. That is exactly what happened during the next three years. It was a foregone conclusion that a PDP-BJP alliance would create a dangerous political vacuum in the Kashmir Valley and the Muslim-majority parts of the Jammu province. It did.

After Mufti Sayeed’s demise in January 2016, his daughter Mehbooba committed another political blunder by endorsing the partnership with the BJP. In the public perception, she hankered after power at the cost of ignoring her voters and supporters, mainly from the southern parts of Kashmir.

The PDP was formed in 1999 in the wake of a perceived anti-Kashmiri policy practised by the Farooq Abdullah-led government. Human rights abuses were a new norm and the Special Task Force of J&K Police had earned notoriety. With a green flag and an ink pot and pen as its party symbol, the PDP’s aim was to represent the dominant sentiment on the street. The party flag was borrowed from the erstwhile Muslim Muttahida Mahaz (Muslim United Front or MUF), an amalgam of Kashmiri groups that lost the 1987 elections to the Abdullah-Congress alliance in a poll widely believed to have been rigged.

The people often J&K were hoping for an alternative to the National Conference. The PDP’s poll campaign was deemed as “soft-separatism”. In the 2002 assembly election, the PDP won 16 constituencies. The debut was impressive for a new party.

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Senior political analyst Noor Baba told The Federal that the PDP was formed in a facilitating atmosphere when there was hope for good times for the party. “Many people joined it at the time or subsequently in the hope of sharing the spoils of what politics of power could give them.”

At the time Mufti Sayeed controversially stated that “militants don’t need guns anymore because their representatives are now in the assembly”. Many of the MUF candidates either joined militancy or became part of the pro-independence conglomerate the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). One of the MUF candidates, Mohammad Yousuf  Shah alias Syed Salahudeen, currently heads the banned militant group Hizbul Mujahideen and the United Jihad Council (UJC).

Another interesting conjecture is that the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, a socio-political and religious party that for now stands proscribed, allegedly lent its support to the PDP in the 2002 assembly elections. One of the many allegations is that the PDP leaders in the past have also sought help from a banned militant outfit. No concrete evidence is produced to corroborate this premise, though.

The Caravan magazine in its January 2016 cover story reported on the view that the PDP “was a creation of the National Democratic Alliance government, launched to fill the need of a ‘pro-India party’” in Jammu and Kashmir. The  story quoted Liaqat Ali Khan, a former commander of the Ikhwan, a government-sponsored counter-insurgency group, that “all the Indian agencies were directed to support the PDP”.

Since the bifurcation of the state and withdrawal of special status guaranteed in Article 370, the PDP is in existential crisis.

According to Professor Noor Baba, “The scenario has changed since August 5. The party called for sacrifices. So, the only people left in the PDP are either the ones who cannot exercise any choice (like the Mufti family) or have no immediate options available. There might be a few for whom conviction matters. Rest who were there out of convenience have left or are in the process of leaving in search of greener pastures.”

As of now, senior leaders like Muzaffar Beg, Altaf Bukhari, Rafi Mir, Imran Ansari, Basharat Bukhari, Khursheed Alam, Peer Mansoor, Ashraf Mir, etc, have deserted the PDP. Altaf Bukhari has since formed his Apni Party, largely seen as the BJP’s proxy and therefore referred to as the King’s Party. Muzaffar, Imran and Basharat have joined the Sajjad Lone-led People’s Conference. Membership of the former cabinet minister Haseeb Drabu has been cancelled. The PDP’s youth leader Waheed Parra is in custody. Another PDP leader Naeem Akhtar is under detention.

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In Kashmir, it is often said that unionist politics is more about compulsion and convenience than conviction and contentment.

Mufti Sayeed had described the PDP-BJP joint venture as a “paradigm shift” in the political history of Jammu and Kashmir. In Spy Chronicles RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, a book based on conversations between Amarjit Singh Dulat and Pakistani spy chief Asad Durrani and written by journalist Aditya Sinha, India’s former RAW chief Dulat argues that “Mufti underestimated Modi, overestimated himself, and found himself in a fix”.

Dr Siddiq Wahid, a noted academic, historian and former vice chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), told The Federal that political parties are populated by various individuals. To wit: (i) persons committed to public service, (ii) persons who are snollygosters – ie who enter politics to make a living, (iii) individuals who wish to protect personal interests and (iv) persons in search of raw power, which is utterly corrupting. In Prof Wahid’s appreciation, “The PDP as a political party is no different in its demography. Its ‘stable’ population is to be found among the first two categories of politicians and its servile deserters among the other two – alas, not in equal proportion!”

Another key Kashmir watcher Professor Gull Wani has an interesting take. He argues that the post-colonial Indian State has placed personalities in Kashmir above institutions. “After 1953 [Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal as prime minister and subsequent long incarceration] and more particularly the eruption of armed resistance in 1989, we have witnessed a long shadow over Kashmir politics where politics and political parties are micromanaged by the Indian State,” Prof Gull Wani told The Federal.

In his opinion, the new paradigm of politics and governance in J&K could well be described as “garrison governance”. “The mighty and coercive arm of the Indian State intends to construct a new DNA of Kashmir politics. The pro-identity and pro-autonomy parties like the National Conference and the PDP are therefore in the line of fire.” Though Prof Wani believes that “the garrison governance model has a reputational cost for the Indian State. The fast changing geopolitics will increase the cost”.

The PDP, in the meantime, is finding itself on a deathbed. According to an insider, “We are on a ventilator, gasping for breath.”

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