In politics, they say, rats marry snakes; there are no permanent friends or permanent foes and that politics is the art of the impossible.
These phrases appear to have come true in relation to the latest debacle in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), where a ‘no-confidence motion’ was ‘successfully’ passed against the incumbent Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu of the J&K People’s Conference (JKPC).
It is reliably learnt that the dramatic removal of the Srinagar Mayor from the office on June 16 was made possible with the active support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mayor concedes defeat
In a series of tweets, Junaid Azim Mattu described his ouster as Srinagar Mayor after a second-floor test in less than six months time as “the BJP-engineered, orchestrated and backed” and alleged that the J&K National Conference (JKNC) played a “facilitatory role.”
He announced his defeat on Twitter, saying that “The vote of ‘No Confidence Motion’ against me, and the @JKPC_ has been passed in the SMC with 42 votes out of 70. The @BJP4India, @JKNC_ and some independents have polled against the @JKPC_ and @INCIndia abstaining whip where 28 Corporators abstained.”
Minutes after he was shown the exit door, Mattu edited his profile on Twitter from “Mayor of Srinagar and Minister of State” to “Former Mayor Of Srinagar”.
While respecting the verdict of the Corporation, Mattu alleged that the JKNC and the BJP had come together to ensure his downfall. “I respect the verdict of the Corporation. The seemingly unthinkable seems to have happened as @JKNC_ and @BJP4India have come together in Srinagar. But more on that later. Time to spend some time with my family after nearly four months of our war against #COVID19.”
‘BJP’s blue-eyed boy’
On its part, the JKNC refused to buy Mattu’s argument. The party, in turn, is of the view that Mattu was himself a “proxy Mayor of the BJP” and stood “backstabbed” by the same party he had pinned his hopes on.
Former cabinet minister, three-time legislator and chief spokesperson of the JKNC Ruhullah Mehdi alleged that Mattu had backstabbed his former party (JKNC) to side with the BJP at a critical juncture.
“Mattu is the same person who resigned from the JKNC to join the JKPC with the BJP’s ‘ashirvad’ (blessings). He is the BJP’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ and, even before the SMC elections in 2018, J&K’s then Governor Satya Pal Malik had made it public that there would be a US-educated Mayor in Srinagar,” Mehdi told The Federal.
Mattu’s mayoral victory had come against the backdrop of a contentious statement made by the then Governor Satya Pal Malik, who had remarked during the election that the Srinagar city’s next mayor would be “a foreign-educated young person”. At the time it was public knowledge that the governor was referring to Mattu as the new Mayor of Srinagar.
The 35-year-old Mattu who studied at Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, graduated from Michigan State University in 2009. He contested as an independent after formally resigning from the JKNC and got elected as the Mayor of Srinagar city in 2018.
He enjoyed the backing of the BJP and Sajad Lone-led JKPC, a party which he joined immediately after leaving the JKNC. Mattu had won 40 votes to beat Ghulam Rasool Hajam, the Congress candidate for Mayor’s post who won 26 votes.
Further, Mehdi said his party had nothing to do with the SMC elections or the no-confidence motion moved against Mattu. “In fact, it is Mattu who backstabbed us (JKNC) when we took a stand against the revocation of Articles 370 and 35(A). His proximity with Ram Madhav, BJP’s General Secretary, is no secret,” he said.
“Instead of crying foul, Mattu is well advised to curse the BJP, which had earlier rewarded him and now shown him his place by kicking him out,” he said, adding, “Mattu’s rants are demonstrating his frustration. He is notorious for shifting loyalties. He joined the JKPC against the wishes of the people and is now talking about morality in politics.”
Mattu started his political innings by joining the JKPC and later joined Omar Abdullah-led JKNC only to return to the JKPC-fold.
Mattu also said the ‘No Confidence Motion’ against him was “elaborately engineered by the BJP’s State General Secretary and other office-bearers.”
Rejecting Mattu’s allegations, BJP’s general secretary Ashok Kaul said a party with mere four seats in the SMC could not be in a position to bring about the Mayor’s downfall. Speaking to The Federal, Kaul argued that Mattu “has failed to keep the flock of independent candidates at SMC together. We reject his baseless allegations. We have no role whatsoever in his downfall.”
However, the strong perception in the Kashmir Valley is that the BJP has engineered the coup d’etat, won over the many independent candidates and is planning to elevate former Deputy Mayor of the SMC Sheikh Imran to the status of new Mayor for Srinagar.
‘Mujahid’ Imran versus ‘Anarkali’ Mayor
The story of businessman-turned-politician Sheikh Imran is interesting. In April 2019, Imran had urged all Kashmiris to include prefix ‘Mujahid’ (holy warrior) to their social media profiles and would record some anger-filled videos with a sense of heroism.
In June last year, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) registered a case against the then Deputy Mayor Imran and officials of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank for allegedly misappropriating crores of rupees from the public exchequer. There are serious allegations against Imran, one of these that he allegedly owes J&K Bank over ₹100 crore and is listed as an NPA (Non-Performing Asset).
Also, he is purported director of the Kehwa Group of Companies that had submitted a proposal to the J&K Bank to set up a storage facility under the name of Kehwa Square Pvt Ltd in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The ACB spokesperson at the time had alleged that its team, which visited the site in Pulwama, had said “the cost of the project pegged at ₹33 crore was inflated”.
Furthermore, the ACB investigation revealed that the Kahwa Group had owned six more firms and that Sheikh Imran had allegedly raised loans and overdrafts for these units. “The liabilities on account of loan accumulated to ₹138 crore,” a spokesperson for the bureau had said. “Since, one of the companies Kehwa Square had turned non-performing asset, Imran sought a one-time settlement with J&K Bank authorities.”
Imran, who describes himself as “former political captive” on Twitter, was briefly put under detention last year soon after J&K lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood. After engaging in verbal gymnastics with the JKPC, he had joined hands with its leader Sajad Lone and Junaid Mattu. But in one of his recent statements, he alleged that he was being followed by a white Santro vehicle which he said belonged to a close aide of ‘Anarkali Mayor’, a reference to Mattu.
“A grey Santro car was following me, JK01S 6483, in which drugged brother of #tumulchor (rice thief) Corporator and close air (aide) of Anarkali mayor was driving along with 3 gonads (gundas) with an intention to hurt me. I have lodged the complaint with the Burzulla police station.”
Inside sources in the SMC told The Federal that Sheikh Imran enjoyed the full backing of the BJP and the saffron party had taken over 40 independent candidates on board not only to topple Mattu but also with the aim to move a resolution on Article 370 in the Corporation and get it approved by the independent candidates under Imran’s leadership.
Mattu was ‘elected’ Srinagar Mayor in the 2018 urban local body elections which were boycotted by two important regional parties, JKNC and Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (JKPDP). He faced a floor test on June 16 in a special session of the General Council on a no-confidence motion largely perceived to be engineered by the BJP and signed by over 40 members of a 70-member House.
Sources in the know also informed The Federal that the JKNC had “genuinely tried to prevent Mattu’s debacle, but the BJP had already bought the loyalty of several independent candidates.” There are many floating independent candidates whose loyalties lie with different parties behind the scenes.
Responding to JKNC leader Ruhullah’s strongly-worded remarks, JKPC chief spokesperson Adnan Ashraf Mir told The Federal: “At least we had the courage to own up an alliance. It is the JKNC’s turn to show some moral courage and own up their alliance. They had 14 members. Four had joined the BJP six months ago. Of the remaining 10, seven voted with the BJP. And then they expelled those 4 Corporators who had left NC six months ago,” he said.
“Is the deputy mayor not their member? Who did he vote for? The JKNC should give us a break. They vote with BJP openly and now have the audacity to deny it. He (Ruhulla) would do well to check his own tweets about his own party just a few weeks back before he surrendered.”
The story of SMC elections is a little complicated. Amid unprecedented boycott and unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, the then 74-member body of the SMC went to polls in October 2018, nearly four months after the BJP had bid adieu to its political coalition with the JKPDP. The Congress had won 16 seats and the BJP bagged only four seats in the SMC elections. Independents won 53 seats in the 74-member body.
The SMC election was marred by an unprecedented boycott call by ‘pro-independence’ amalgams and groups, coupled with non-participation of the JKNC and the PDP. All of this helped both the BJP and the Congress in a big way as most candidates from these parties were elected unopposed.
The four-phased urban local body elections in all districts of the restive region saw thin participation as, in the absence of the JKPDP and JKNC, the Congress was ahead of the BJP in the Kashmir Valley by bagging 157 wards, while the saffron party won in 100 wards. As many as 78 candidates of the Congress and 76 of the BJP were elected unopposed.