The by-elections to two Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir next month will not only be an appraisal of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP)-BJP alliance in the state but also a test of popularity of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
The by-polls are also important for the National Conference (NC) and the Congress which have come together yet again after a bitter split in the run-up to the last assembly elections in December 2014. NC president and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah is the alliance’s candidate from Srinagar and faces a challenge from PDP’s Nazir Ahmad Khan.
From Anantnag, the PDP has fielded Mehbooba’s brother Tassaduq Mufti who is pitted against state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir. Cinematographer Tassaduq, 45, had joined active politics and the PDP in January 7 on the first death anniversary of his father and late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
Coming after months of widespread unrest in Kashmir in the second half of last year that left close a hundred people dead in clashes between protestors and security forces and scores with serious eye injuries due to the use of pellet guns following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8, the by-elections will determine the success of the PDP-BJP alliance.
Much is at stake for Mehbooba, 56, who took over as the first woman chief minister of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir on April 4 last year after three months of renewed negotiations with the BJP following her father’s death.
She has been at the receiving end of both the mainstream politicians and separatists for her “inept handling” of the situation after Burhan’s killing.
Mehbooba is also facing the heat over the non-implementation of the agenda of alliance, a framework agreement reached between the PDP and the BJP at the time of government formation in February-March 2015 after the assembly elections threw a hung verdict. The agenda of alliance talks about among other issues the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and dialogue with Pakistan and all stakeholders, including the Hurriyat Conference, to resolve the Kashmir issue.
Mehbooba was reluctant to take oath as the new CM after her father’s death and had sought assurances from the BJP on J and K-specific confidence building measures apart from time-bound implementation of the agenda of alliance. During the period from January 8 to April 4, the state was placed under Governor’s rule.
But more than that, the political discourse in these by-polls has remained centered around the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) even though its ideological prodigy BJP is not in the fray. In every election meeting, NC and Congress leaders talk about how the PDP is an RSS “proxy” in Kashmir and also how it has “imported” the Sangh to the valley.
On the other hand, the PDP is fighting the by-elections on the issues of development and has also projected itself as a strong votary of friendly relations with Pakistan. Kick-starting her party’s campaign, the CM reiterated that forming a coalition government with the BJP was not an easy task in 2015, but her father chose a difficult path only to get the state’s issues addressed by the country’s top leadership.
Srinagar will go to polls on April 9 while Anantnag will vote on April 12. While Mehbooba had vacated Anantnag after assuming the CM’s post, her former party colleague Tariq Hameed Karra resigned from Srinagar accusing the PDP of selling out to the RSS.
Political analysts say the by-elections could establish how much ground the PDP has lost after its “controversial” alliance with the BJP and also due to its “mishandling” of the long unrest in Kashmir.
“But at the same time, it will offer an opportunity of revival to the NC-Congress combine,” said Prof Noor Ahmad Baba of Kashmir University. “People are skeptical of this alliance as well as these parties (NC and Congress) too have nothing new to offer,” he said.
That apart, the by-polls will not only be a report card on the performance of the ruling PDP-BJP coalition but also decide the future of the NC-Congress alliance ahead of the 2020 assembly elections.