Narendra Modi has visited Jammu and Kashmir four times since becoming Prime Minister and the most public political effect became visible this week when People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone met him.
Sajjad’s Peoples Conference’s has become first influential Hurriyat constituent to line up participation in assembly polls since the separatist amalgam’s birth in 1993.
If the former separatist-turned-mainstream leader sees the “Modi wave” as a means to possibly become chief minister, in the event of a pact, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will get a Muslim face on board and a toehold in the Valley.
The BJP would be hopeful of a strong performance in Jammu and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, but the Valley (46 seats) holds the key to the majority mark of 44 in the 87-member assembly.
The People’s Conference banks on traditional votes garnered by the party’s founder Abdul Ghani Lone in and around his birthplace of Kupwara district in north Kashmir.
The present leadership is divided between 47-year-old Sajjad, his elder brother Bilal Ghani Lone, a member of the moderate Hurriyat, and their lawyer sister Shabnum Lone, who praised Modi for relief efforts during the recent floods in the state.
Influential senior Lone, assassinated by unknown gunmen in 2002, started his political career in 1967 as a Congress leader and served as a state minister. He launched the People’s Conference in 1978 and has left a significant political legacy north of Srinagar.
Sajjad, who has studied at Cardiff University in the UK, aims at reviving the party and its cadre to join the electoral process. The People’s Conference continues to have support base in Kupwara, Langate, Rafiabad and Handwara assembly segments.
The party has proved in two successive parliamentary polls that it is no pushover.
In 2009, Sajjad contested from the Baramulla parliamentary seat and bagged 65,403 votes, while his candidate Salamuddin Bajad bagged 71,154 votes from the seat in 2014 and came third. Importantly, this was a 15% vote share.
It is this vote share that is seen to be the basis for Sajjad’s latest mainstream move, with Modi in the picture. The People’s Conference would be fancying its prospects in at least four assembly seats in north Kashmir.
Sajjad held at least two meetings in the past with BJP leaders such as JP Nadda and Ram Madhav. There have been no formal announcements of a tie-up — before or after the polls — by either the BJP or the People’s Conference, but Sajjad’s interviews indicate that possibility.
He has already fielded 18 candidates from the Valley. There is a likelihood that the BJP may not pit candidates in his party’s strongholds such as the Handwara assembly constituency.
Sajjad himself is contesting against National Conference’s (NC) Chowdhary Ramzan and People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) Sofi Ghulam Mohidin in Handwara.
The pivot of his politics has remained bashing the NC and the PDP, and resurrecting his father’s constituency by mixing separatism and mainstream politics.
“The NC and the PDP are nothing short of glorified Ikhwanis (counter-insurgents). The only difference is that they wear a tie and act behind the curtains like cowards,” Sajjad has been saying in signature press statements in the last one year.
“For every injustice meted out to Kashmiris, for every humiliation, their leaders have their signatures on every atrocity. They have the same ideology as the BJP and the Congress.”
The biggest challenge for Lone is to make himself acceptable to his father’s separatist constituency. Second, to make soft separatism and backing PM Modi palatable at the same time.
The protagonist of “Achievable Nationhood”, which seeks erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir as a single economic entity with separate sovereign links with India and Pakistan, Sajjad faces an uphill poll battle.
He will remain one of the most talked about candidate of the polls whether he wins or loses.
If the People’s Conference fails to win any seat, Sajjad may have to walk in political wilderness.