People’s Alliance: First victory, first frictions

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The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) faces a herculean challenge in their endeavour to turn the clock back to 4 August 2019 against not only the might of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but also internal divisions.

The six unionist political parties that came together last October to fight for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy, have vowed to achieve what successive governments in New Delhi have refused over the years: the reversal of its unilateral impositions on J-K — be it a return to the pre-1953 status or now the pre-2019 status.

The leaders of the alliance, however, are unable to free themselves — or the alliance — from the habits and compulsions of electoral politics, pushed upon them by New Delhi with the sudden announcement of the District Development Council (DDC) elections.

The alliance seemed to have been caught off-guard initially but rose above the challenge and contested the elections as an alliance on a seat-sharing basis. The PAGD achieved its victory but not without a cost. 

Resentment over bad-faith between the alliance members during the DDC elections have led to public criticism of the alliance from within and, for now, the exit of the Sajad Lone led People’s Conference (PC) from the alliance.

To their credit

The alliance has powerful leaders in its ranks than its dissenters and rivals. Its bench of leaders includes three former chief ministers, dozens of former legislators, and former and three current parliamentarians. 

At the outset, the alliance’s success was in the coming together of bitter rivals. The idea of a grand alliance was first floated after the 2014 elections when BJP managed its first significant electoral success in J-K. At the time the single largest party in Kashmir, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) found the BJP acceptable than their local rivals.

Four years later, the grand alliance became a reality — from which only the Congress and the newly formed Apni Party, led by former PDP legislator Altaf Bukhari, stayed away. In the first elections after 5 August and an increasingly authoritarian central government, the alliance won 110 of J-K’s 280 DDC seats.

In the post-abrogation J-K, the unionists have statedly taken a stand against the BJP and its unilateral impositions from 5 August onwards. The results were the alliance’s first victory even as the wins meant nothing in their stated mission goals.

Victory turned sour?

The fielding of proxies in defiance of the alliance’s stated plan for the DDC election has led to public expressions of resentment against the alliance’s main figures: the National Conference’s (NC) Farooq Abdullah; the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti; the PC’s Sajad Lone; and Yusuf Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Weeks after the results of the DDC elections gave the PAGD a definitive edge over the BJP, at least two leaders of the PC had publicly accused the NC of dominating the alliance. The PC’s general secretary Imran Ansari had expressed his resentment in a letter written to his party’s president, Lone, asking him to “introspect”.

The PAGD’s rivals are limited in scope and experience as Bukhari’s Apni Party is a year old with a fledgling presence on the ground. Its former member, the PC, is largely restricted to one district in northern Kashmir. 

In what is apparently a bid to save his own party from disintegrating, Lone announced the PC’s exit from the alliance in a letter addressed to the PAGD head, the NC’s Farooq Abdullah. “This alliance needed sacrifice,” Lone wrote. “No party is willing to cede space, no party is willing to sacrifice. We fought against each other in Kashmir province not against the perpetrators of August 5. And those who perpetrated August 5 and their minions are now vocally gleeful.”

“We might have inflicted irreversible damage onto ourselves and onto the very people that we are supposed to represent,” he wrote.

Kashmir politics, PAGD, People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, Kashmir
Gupkar Declaration Signatories addressing a joint press conference after meeting at National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence in October 2020. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

The resentment wasn’t limited to the PC alone.

The PDP’s senior leader and parliamentarian Fayaz Ahmad Mir also accused the NC of fielding proxies and the alliance’s leadership of failing to act against them. Despite the pre-poll alliance, “those below — including myself — have misled the public by fielding proxy candidates,” he told a local news agency. “The PAGD should have taken action against them.”

Similarly, the NC’s Basharat Bukhari has demanded the PAGD leadership to put forward its roadmap for the future. Bukhari had stayed away from a party meeting presided over by Farooq Abdullah and was later quoted by a local news agency as saying that the public had a “right to know how PAGD was intending to take the fight forward.”

Having managed the elections, the alliance faces another round of friction as chairpersons of various district councils are to be chosen. The PC’s exit could possibly complicate matters even further.

To further murky the waters, the dissenters pointed out the meetings of alliance members with the New Delhi appointed Lieutenant Governor of J-K, Manoj Sinha. The CPI(M) chief Tarigami and the NC parliamentarian and PAGD’s coordinator Hasnain Masoodi had separately met with Sinha — statedly to apprise him of concerns over the alleged gunfight in Srinagar.

A close aide of a senior PAGD leader admitted that the leadership was stuck in electoral politics and failed at taking everyone together. The BJP in Kashmir wasn’t an electoral challenge and the PAGD, he said, should have kept the alliance ideological rather than electoral.

“With that model, no party would have had grievances,” he said. “If we mix electoral politics, it will end the PAGD. The differences on ground are north and south poles. You can’t join them on the ground, which happened eventually as everybody fought the elections through proxies. It happened in a bad taste.”

It was these frictions, the aide said, that led to the PAGD refraining from issuing the seat-sharing plans for the last three phases of the DDC elections. But it wasn’t just the NC that was attempting to dominate the alliance. “Madam was very, very, unrealistic,” he said of the PDP’s Mufti, citing her demands of seats even in constituencies where the PDP was the weakest party. 

The PAGD’s rivals, however, New Delhi had “allowed them to stick their necks out now so that frictions could emerge and solidify before the assembly elections.” The erstwhile state assembly now stands disempowered but for the BJP capturing it meant to emblematise their takeover of J-K, said a member of a party opposed to the PAGD.

A missing roadmap

At the meeting skipped by Basharat Bukhari, Farooq Abdullah had declared that the PAGD was stronger than ever. “A strong National Conference is an answer to all the problems confronted by our people,” he had reportedly said. “The party has braved all challenges and will continue to do so with the active support of the people.”

“It seems that there never was a roadmap,” the PC dissenter Ansari told The Kashmir Walla adding that he, however, had never attended a meeting of the party presidents. “A lot of members must have asked how to go ahead but I believe the main two people who consider themselves to be the masters of Jammu and Kashmir were quiet on that thing.”

Even as the dissenters of today have also been dissenters in the past, the questions surrounding the lack of the PAGD’s roadmap for the future are valid — perhaps, explanatory of its silence as well. The high-pitched rhetoric, despite the public’s skepticism in it, against New Delhi is now all but absent from the PAGD’s discourse.

The authors of the State Autonomy Report, the Self Rule and the Achievable Nationhood are today falling short of words — reminiscent of the Hurriyat which for the three decades of its existence, kept insisting that azadi was “just around the corner” whenever the question of an effective roadmap was brought up.

The PAGD leadership was lost on the roadmap because, the leader’s close aide said, “themselves don’t know it because there has been little to no discussion on the roadmap and further plan of action despite repeated attempts by some leaders in the PAGD to have an honest and frank discussion on such issues.” Meetings of the PAGD have largely remained restricted to electoral issues.

Initially, the other members of the alliance were buoyed with Farooq Abdullah’s leadership and proactive interactions with them but, he said, gradually phone calls were diverted to the NC’s Member of Parliament and coordinator for the PAGD, Hasnain Masoodi. All this while, the PAGDs spokesperson, Lone, had also stayed away from addressing the public or taking questions from the local press. 

“There is so much uncertainty right now that no leader can afford to talk — because they don’t know what to say,” the aide said of Lone’s silence then.

Amarjit Singh Dulat, former head of India’s external intelligence and an old Kashmir hand, doesn’t see the People’s Alliance as much of a force against New Delhi or the BJP but certainly “a good thing from the Kashmiri perspective.”

On the PAGD’s ability to deliver on its promises, negotiating a compromise with the BJP-led Centre, Dulat said that they must realise that dialogue is a two-way street. “If the Centre wants to talk, then these people [PAGD leadership] will talk to them. And if these people are willing to talk, then the Centre will talk. It can’t be one-sided, any dialogue or interaction has to be both ways,” he said. “I think the Kashmiri needs to understand the importance of talking and so will Delhi.”

“Such a formation has never happened before,” he remarked but not without a word of caution. “The past experience is such that all of them have their own temperaments. … It is in their interest to stick together. Whether they will or not, time will tell.”

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