Days after the results of the District Development Council (DDC) elections were announced, former chief minister and the National Conference’s vice-president, Omar Abdullah, called an urgent press conference after a winning candidate was allegedly coerced into defecting.
“Winning candidates of PAGD (People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration) are being threatened, humiliated, and coerced to join the Apni Party, which is a B-team of BJP,” he said at the press conference on 26 December. Unlike other elections, anti-defection laws do not apply to the DDC, members of which were also voted directly by the public for the first time.
Days before the polling, corruption charges were levelled against the unionists, and just two days before the results were to be announced, the central government attached properties of the party’s, as well as the Alliance’s, head Farooq Abdullah. The People’s Democratic Party’s Waheed Parra was also arrested on charges of association with the militants. The PAGD has led a campaign amid pressures but the turbulence is far from over.
At the press conference, Abdullah accused the Jammu and Kashmir administration of colluding with the Apni Party. “The process has been started from Shopian where NC’s former MLC Sowkat Ganai and senior NC leader Shabir Ahmed Kullay have been kept under detention for no reason,” he said, further alleging that “the price of setting these leaders free is to join the Apni Party.”
Abdullah had earlier tweeted that “The administration has now taken on the responsibility of trying to collect independent candidates for the BJP & it’s recently formed subsidiary. It seems the government doesn’t have enough to do & has branched out into this line of work as well.”
A stunned BJP
The accusations of intimidation and coercion have emerged in the aftermath of the results of the elections. The regional unionists, contesting under the banner of the Alliance, have won 110 of the 280 DDC seats against the BJP’s seventy-five — mainly concentrated in five districts of the Jammu region.
The Apni Party, led by former legislator Altaf Bukhari, has consistently denied any association with the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, since his resignation from the People’s Democratic Party, Bukhari has been a vocal critic of the unionists — criticising them for similar reasons as espoused by the BJP.
Bukhari’s Apni Party, as such, is often derided as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to give an alternate political party, one that espouses merely developmental issues, in Kashmir — where pro-freedom sentiment and demands for greater autonomy resonate with the public. It could, however, manage only twelve seats.
With the party failing to lift off and the BJP managing just three seats in th Kashmir Valley, the BJP was “stunned”, said Najmu Saqib, a spokesperson for the People’s Democratic Party and the People’s Alliance.
Since then, he alleged, the J-K administration led by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha “is leaping towards subverting the process” — the mandate given to the Alliance. “The people’s court has resoundingly rejected the unilateral decision of 5 August,” he said. “Arrests of and abducting winning candidates have put a big question mark on their intentions. Politically we are traversing an uncharted territory.”
Even as Saqib admitted that the “pattern of voting on regional and religious fault lines is a major challenge”, he added that “except for few district’s of Jammu rest of the province is politically alive to the major issues and has rejected the evil designs of communal forces befittingly.”
The political deadlock in J-K had ended this year with the sudden announcement of the DDC elections, the first after the abrogation, after the BJP led a two years long forceful campaign against the J-K’s unionists — accusing them of widespread corruption.
In recent months, corruption cases have been opened and reopened against prominent unionists including the Alliance’s head, Abdullah. At a press conference convened at her residence, the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti also accused the BJP of “weaponising” the investigative agencies and arresting Parra, the party’s youth wing president, “with the sole purpose that he accepts something so that it ultimately is connected to her.” She called upon the BJP to fight her politically.
Walking a thin line
The elections have come as a double-edged sword for the unionists. Where the unionists had risked being marginalised if they boycotted the elections; having participated and won a major chunk of the seats, they have given their tacit approval to the post-abrogation dynamics even as the reversal of the abrogation is its rallying cry.
The Alliance’s stand on the restoration of Article 370, said Noor Baba, a political analyst in Srinagar, now “has greater authenticity today because now they can claim that they represent people. Previously, BJP was trying to undermine [the unionists], trying to say that what it did on 5 August 2019 has popular support and therefore, these [unionists] don’t represent anybody, that they are only corrupt leaders.”
The DDC elections were a test of where the People’s Alliance approval in the public and the results had discredited the BJP, said Baba. “The BJP had assumed that [unionists] were undermined – as they had tried to discredit, marginalize, and weaken them – but these elections have vindicated that PAGD represents the majority of people in J-K,” he said. “For the sake of democratic representation, the voice and demands they [the People’s Alliance] have or the position they are taking on J-K needs to be taken seriously.”
However, the BJP loss in the elections was immaterial if its larger goal was to restart the electoral process, said Aijaz Ashraf Wani, an associate professor in the political science department at the Kashmir University. “They can still claim that they brought back the democratic process and that the post-370 situation has been accepted and we are moving on,” he said. “The BJP didn’t win the elections but didn’t do bad either.”
Wani saw a resemblance between the DDC elections and the elections held in 1977, after the Indira Gandhi led government in New Delhi coerced the NC into an accord, but the situation was different this time. “This election has shown that there is a limit to expectations from propping up political parties,” he said, “especially when the narrative is not with you and politics is not people-oriented.”
But there are ominous portents associated with the DDCs. “This new system, given its positioning and powers will over time change the political discourse; from autonomy, shared sovereignty and identity issues towards local developmental and quotidian issues,” former finance minister Haseeb Drabu wrote, in the Indian Express, of the DDC. “As such, politics will not be driven by Kashmir versus Delhi fighting for political power. Instead, it will be Jammu versus Kashmir for primacy in decision making or Poonch versus Pulwama for allocations; in other words, manageable demands.”
He noted that “from a federal perspective, a framework of disempowerment is being created in the garb of decentralisation.”
Jammu and Kashmir
With the Alliance coming through in its first test, its challenges to stay united and withstand New Delhi’s pressures hinges on not only addressing the differences and dynamics in Kashmir alone but in the broader region — addressing bad faith between Kashmir and Jammu and ensuring the latter’s participation is crucial but difficult.
“Their problem is that they insist on seeing the region divided on communal, ethnic and linguistic divisions,” said Arun Joshi, Jammu based veteran journalist, of the Alliance. “These leaders have played the hills versus plains to carve out pockets of their vote banks. The BJP played the same game, but the saffron party promoted the plains at the expense of the hills.”
The past of the Alliance’s Kashmir based leadership haunted them in Jammu, said Joshi. “If the Kashmir leadership of the PAGD is unable to give equal treatment to their party members in Jammu, there is a danger that there will be an inevitable split,” he warned.
“The biggest challenge before the PAGD is to stay united,” Joshi told The Kashmir Walla. “Several fissures and frictions were already visible during the DDC polls in which the alliance partners, particularly the PDP and NC, fielded candidates against each other in some of the critically important constituencies.”
In Jammu, where centrist sentiments dominate the political discourse, the Alliance is treading on a thin line. “Pakistan is making things difficult for them by hailing their victory on a majority of seats as rejection of the changes effected on 5 August 2019,” noted Joshi. “The nation thinks that there is a connection between the two even as these leaders — be it Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti — were always the prime targets of Islamabad-Rawalpindi combine.”
The Alliance leadership, said Joshi, has “not been able to convince the nation about their goal being different from that of Pakistan’s propaganda…That offers yet another challenge to them.” However, he also noted that the Jammu region had to do its share of introspection as well. “It has not produced credible leadership in the past four decades,” he said. “It is high time that Jammuities of the whole geographical area shun their inhibitions and join hands with the Kashmiris to take J-K forward.”
For the Alliance to succeed, “their Kashmir-centric approach needs to be balanced with an overall Jammu and Kashmir approach,” said Joshi. “They must prove that they are political parties of the whole of J-K in real terms. Rhetoric will not work anymore.”
Additional reporting by Gafira Qadir and Sarwat Javaid