Mehbooba Mufti
Post-August 2019, Mehbooba has been raising her voice in favour of civil liberties, free speech, and rights of the Gujjar and Pahari communities. | File photo

Why Congress-NC seat-sharing agreement in J&K may be the proverbial last nail for PDP

Finding the PDP on a slippery wicket in 2024, the National Conference wants to take full advantage to get ahead of its major political rival

Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is finding itself at the precipice of political irrelevance in post-August 2019 Jammu and Kashmir. There are myriad reasons why the party is facing its toughest crisis to date.

It is no longer the same political force it once used to be (2002- 2018), but the party is relying on Mehbooba’s populism and oratory to stage a comeback. That’s perhaps why the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the Kashmir Valley is a litmus test for the PDP. It has to script a miracle to win at least one or two parliamentary constituencies in Kashmir or deal with possible redundancy on the region’s altered political landscape after abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, and removal of J&K’s semi-autonomy and special status in August 2019.

Therefore, the PDP has taken a ‘do-or-die’ decision to announce candidates for all three LS constituencies in the valley. Party president Mehbooba Mufti, youth leader Waheed Parra and Fayaz Mir are the candidates for the Anantnag-Rajouri, Srinagar (central Kashmir) and Baramulla (north Kashmir) Parliamentary seats, respectively.

“The manner in which Omar Abdullah, former chief minister and vice-president of NC, said about PDP inconsequential existence....Omar’s tenor was too harsh, and that has depressed and hurt my workers. How can I tell them to support the NC now?” Mehbooba said in Srinagar while announcing her party’s candidates for three Lok Sabha seats.

The PDP realises it has little or no chance in the Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh parliamentary segments though..

NC’s knockout punch

Undoubtedly, an important seat-sharing agreement reached between the Congress and the National Conference (NC) in New Delhi to confirm their electoral alliance for all parliamentary seats — five in Jammu and Kashmir and one in Ladakh — is a major setback for the PDP.

Omar Abdullah confirmed that his party finalized a seat-sharing arrangement for all six parliamentary constituencies of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Flanked by senior Congress leader Pawan Khera in New Delhi, Abdullah told reporters that “we have decided to share them (seats) equally amongst us”.

The Congress is contesting Udhampur, Jammu and Ladakh constituencies, while the NC is fighting Anantnag-Rajouri, Srinagar and Baramulla LS seats.

Against this backdrop, what are the possibilities for the Congress-NC combine, how will the Congress-NC partnership impact the PDP, and what are the chances for other political groups headed by Sajad Lone, Altaf Bukhari, and Ghulam Nabi Azad?

For and against

Post-August 2019, Mehbooba has been raising her voice in favour of civil liberties, free speech, and rights of the Gujjar and Pahari communities living in Poonch and Rajouri in the Pir Panjal ranges. As an Opposition leader, she would bat for a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC), opening of trans-LoC trade, and academic and cultural exchanges between people living on either side of the LoC dividing two parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

During her stint as chief minister from April 2015 till June 2018, there were large-scale alleged civilian killings during street protests in 2016, a government ban on the publication of an English daily Kashmir Reader, the reported blinding of 1,100 civilian protesters due to the use of pellet-firing shotguns, and mass arrests.

Mehbooba’s public speaking during the last five years and her stiff opposition to the ruling BJP combined with other factors could help her in select pockets of south Kashmir such as Bijbehara, Anantnag centre, Wachi, Divsar in Kulgam, and parts of Shopian where her party has traditionally wielded influence. Similarly, the PDP has its ideological and cadre support base in pockets of Poonch, Poonch Haveli and Surankote as well.

When the late Mufti Mohammad Saeed was in office as J&K Chief Minister from 2002 to 2005, apart from his developmental agenda, he’d often raise issues of cross-LoC ceasefire violations, cross-LoC trade via Poonch-Rawalakot and Srinagar-Muzaffarabad, and the opening of the historic and alternative route into the Kashmir Valley (Mughal Road) connecting south Kashmir’s Shopian town to Bafliaz, a town in the Poonch region, while crossing the Pir Panjal pass.

However, the PDP is no longer the same political force it once was. After its alliance with the BJP, the party has lost its efficacy to a large extent.

‘Unholy alliance’ costs dear

In early 2015, late Mufti Mohammad Saeed described his party’s alliance with the BJP as a “paradigm shift” in an interview with the writer. Three years later, Tassaduq Mufti, Saeed’s son, admitted in an interview with a Delhi-based newspaper that the two parties were “partners in crime (for which) an entire generation of Kashmiris might have to pay with their blood”. And, in August 2018, Mehbooba told this writer that joining hands with the BJP was an “unpopular decision”.

Indeed, the PDP stitched an “unholy political alliance” with the BJP and Mehbooba’s decision to forge another partnership with the saffron party after her father’s demise in January 2016 proved no less than a “political suicide” for her party.

The party has since faced a series of blows, and significant political players, such as Haseeb Drabu, Altaf Bukhari, Imran Reza Ansari, Basharat Bukhari, Ashraf Mir, Rafi Mir, and Pir Mansoor Hussain Sohrawardhy, Mehbooba’s once close confidante and former general secretary of the PDP, are no longer part of the party. Some of them have been sacked, while others joined the new political outfit led by Altaf Bukhari (Apni Party) and the Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference (PC).

Electoral arithmetic

Founded in 1999 by Mufti Mohammad Saeed, the PDP stunned its political and ideological rival, the National Conference, by winning 16 assembly segments in the 2002 J&K Assembly elections. At the time, the party’s vote share was close to 10 per cent. In the next Assembly elections held six years later (2008), the PDP won 21 assembly constituencies and increased its vote share from nearly 10 to 15.3 per cent. Enhancing its performance and reputation further as a political force, the PDP won 28 assembly segments in the 2014 elections, thus increasing its vote share to nearly 23 per cent.

In the 2014 Assembly elections, the electoral performance of the PDP and the BJP was at peak. By winning all 25 assembly seats from the Jammu region, the BJP increased its vote share to 23.1 per cent. The NC, however, faced its biggest electoral defeat in these assembly elections by winning only 15 Assembly constituencies with a vote share of 21 per cent while the Congress party won 12 seats with a vote share of a little over 18 per cent.

Finding the PDP on a slippery wicket in 2024, the NC wants to take full advantage to get ahead of its major political rival.

“It is essentially NC versus PDP in Kashmir. Obviously, the NC wanted to see the PDP out of electoral politics as it views Mehbooba Mufti as its main rival,” Naseer Ahmad, a veteran political analyst, told The Federal. According to the analyst, that is why the NC entered into an alliance with the Congress, while Mehbooba wants to fight it out “to keep her party intact”.

Road ahead not easy

Despite these factors, the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat cannot be termed a ‘cakewalk’ for either the NC or the Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) led by Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Indeed, the Congress-NC agreement is more than just a setback for the PDP. Voting for the high-profile Anantnag-Rajouri LS seat will be held on May 7. In more ways than one, this LS constituency is significant as PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti is contesting against NC’s stalwart Mian Altaf, an influential Gujjar leader; Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former chief minister and ex-Congress leader who is now heading the DPAP; and Zafar Manhas, another opponent bearing allegiance to Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party (AP).

Moreover, of the 18 assembly segments in the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency, the Congress party wields influence in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district (Dooru and Kokernag areas, for instance). NC candidate Justice (retired) Hasnain Masoodi clinched a surprising victory (40,180 votes) from then south Kashmir LS seat in 2019, beating Congress leader GA Mir (33,504 votes) and PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti (30,524 votes).

For context, Mehbooba Mufti won the same seat in previous elections by a huge margin.

The voter turnout in 2019 in south Kashmir and central Kashmir was very low. Overall, as many as 20 political parties participated in the 2019 LS elections with 72,02,163 (72 lakh) voters. Out of 35,52,622 (35 lakh) votes polled, only 35,30,883 were deemed valid. Though the overall voter turnout in J&K in 2019 stood at 49.3 per cent primarily due to huge voting (over 70 per cent) in Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh, the turnout was abysmally low in south Kashmir (8.98 per cent), Srinagar (14.43 per cent), and Baramulla (34.60 per cent).

In 2019 LS polls, the BJP got 46 per cent vote share while the NC stood second with nearly 29 per cent vote share. On the other hand, the PDP got only a little over two per cent vote share, its worst performance ever.

Key factors in 2024

Since the Congress and the NC are in a formal electoral alliance in J&K, traditional votes of these two parties will most probably consolidate in favour of NC’s Mian Altaf in the Anantnag-Rajouri LS segment. Mian Altaf wields clout among the Gujjar community as a political leader and a spiritual figure. At the same time, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Zafar Manhas will definitely cut some votes, a disadvantage for the PDP.

However, as another key analyst pointed out, “the Gujjar and Pahari communities are not a homogenous entity. There are aspirations of the youth to be their own representatives, issues of jobs and employment, and also of human rights.”

Lone factor in Baramulla

In north Kashmir’s Baramulla, Sajad Lone has consolidated his position as a political player in the last decade or so. He has some influence in the frontier regions of Handwara and Kupwara.

In the 2019 LS polls, Lone’s People’s Conference received about 4 per cent vote share. This time around, Lone is one of the favourites to register a victory from the Baramulla LS seat.

Last time in 2019, NC’s Akbar Lone won the LS elections facing stiff opposition from PC’s Sajad Lone and currently incarcerated politician and head of the Awami Ittehad Party (AIP), Engineer Rashsid.

The NC has leaders like Choudhary Mohammad Ramzan and ailing Akbar Lone in north Kashmir, but PC’s Lone defeated Ramzan in the 2014 assembly elections (Handwara, north Kashmir) by a margin of over 5,000 votes.

NC’s domination in Kashmir

In central Kashmir (Srinagar LS seat), the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference continues to remain a force. The party has pockets of influence in the capital Srinagar due to leaders like Omar Abdullah, Ali Sagar, Nasir Aslam Wani and Tanvir Sadiq, while the party has an influential Shia leader Agha Ruhullah Mehdi in central Kashmir’s Budgam region.

Be that as it may, the NC is expected to win at least two parliamentary seats from Kashmir (Anantnag-Rajouri and Srinagar).

Read More
Next Story