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To be with BJP or not to be: Mufti Sayeed's Kashmir dilemma

PDP has hence burdened itself with contradictions: It talks of bringing Kashmir closer to India while demanding 'self-rule' and porous borders with Pakistan.

ht view Updated: Feb 21, 2015 14:02 IST
Hilal Mir
Hilal Mir
Kashmir,Mufti Mohammad Sayeed,People's Democratic Party

People's Democratic Party patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed recently said the greatest achievement of his political career was providing the people of Jammu and Kashmir an alternative to the National Conference (NC), which has ruled the state the longest while straddling separatism, so-called sub-nationalism and pro-India politics.

At the same time, the media have credited him with providing the state's Muslim majority, the Kashmir Valley in particular, a soft alternative to separatists of various hues.

Thus, the politics of this former Congressman and his 15-year-old party has been and will be defined by the urge to stay ahead of the 75-year-old rival it claims to have supplanted and the 22-year-old conglomerate of separatists that Sayeed has admitted still represents a popular sentiment.

Sayeed gained political ground in a short span of time largely by convincing the people of NC's failings: accusing it of speaking in different voices in Srinagar and New Delhi, bartering people's mandate for power, compromising the state's autonomy, encouraging repression by armed forces, doing little to resolve the Kashmir issue and miserably failing to govern.

This litany of grievances against the NC has been part of the larger Azadi sentiment. Many therefore believe the PDP successfully channelled and transformed, even if momentarily, the anti-India sentiment into a wave against the NC. Also, aware of New Delhi's reputation of manipulating governments in Jammu and Kashmir, Sayeed never misses a chance to say that he has been a loyal Indian all his life.

Besides declaring himself an "Indian by conviction", Sayeed has repeatedly said he believes the "flowering of Indian democracy in Jammu and Kashmir" was possible like in the rest of India.

The PDP has hence burdened itself with what is seen as contradictory aspirations. It talks of bringing Kashmir closer to India while demanding an ambiguously framed "self-rule" and porous borders with Pakistan. These contradictions are inherent in all Kashmir-centric pro-India parties and have been the bane of the NC.

But the PDP will find it harder than anyone else to carry on with these contradictions while in coalition with the BJP. According to Noor Ahmad Baba, a former head of the political science department in Kashmir University, an alliance between the two parties is "unnatural" because of what they profess and what they claim to represent.

"They basically represent mutually contradictory aspirations of two regions and hence a clashing set of agendas. BJP might have mellowed a bit after the loss in New Delhi but it will find it hard to commit on anything PDP demands of it in concrete terms," Baba said.

While there is talk of independence--even Muftis and Abdullahs have demanded a change in status quo--Jammu has been rooting for integration with India. Though some Kashmiri parties have professed allegiance to the Constitution, Hindu-majority Jammu region has never given them more than a couple of seats and views them as part of the problem.

The BJP and PDP have given the impression that they were unable to form an alliance despite more than a dozen rounds of talks because they are yet to agree on certain terms. The PDP is learnt to have demanded an assurance on revoking the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), a dialogue with Pakistan and separatists, status quo on Article 370 that grants special status to the state and return of a few hydropower projects currently owned by the Central government.

Senior PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig recently hinted the party will not be rigid on the issue of granting permanent state subject to Hindu refugees from Pakistan who settled in Jammu. During the assembly poll campaign, the BJP promised the refugees their demands would be addressed.

In this apparent quid pro quo, the PDP has in mind its earlier stint in power. Despite being the third largest party after the NC and Congress in the 2002 elections, it succeeded in leading a coalition with the Congress for primarily two reasons. First, it deftly claimed credit for, as one PDP legislator put it, being the "conductor" if not the driver of diplomacy that led to cross-Line of Control bus services and barter trade.

Second, the NC rule during 1996-2002 became synonymous with iron-fisted tactics of police, armed forces and government-sponsored counter-insurgents. The repression eased when the PDP-Congress government took over.
Therefore, in its second shot at power, this time in alliance with a more difficult partner, the PDP will be constantly under pressure to deliver on its promises while seeking more concessions.

What led to the NC's worst defeat in assembly and parliamentary polls had less to do with its governance record. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah counted the killing of 128 unarmed protesters, mostly young boys, during the 2010 protests and his failure to push AFSPA out of the state as his biggest failures.

Another failure the NC doesn't talk about much but led to its decimation is its failure to extract any concession on its professed key political agenda - the restoration of the autonomy the state enjoyed before 1953. When it had 57 of the 87 seats in the assembly, it passed a resolution demanding restoration of the pre-1953 status. The resolution was trashed by the then NDA government even without discussion.

What the NC couldn't achieve with 57 seats is nearly impossible for PDP with half that tally. That is probably why it has skipped talk on its "self-rule formula", which at one point the party said held much more in promise than NC's autonomy demand.

The issues the PDP has been negotiating with the BJP for government formation have already been the subject of state-Centre deliberations. What PDP would like to have is to go before the people with a handful of offerings.

Sheikh Showkat, a political commentator and reader at Central University of Kashmir, said Sayeed, in an alliance with the BJP, will be answerable to the "provocative, communal utterances of BJP and its Sangh parivar cousins".

"It will be strain on the PDP to constantly answer to or justify its ally's dealings. An alliance with the Congress was easy," he said.

The situation since the beginning of an insurgency in 1990 always hangs like a sword on any regional party that sets out to negotiate with the ruling party in New Delhi, he said.

"Times have changed. Even though people see pro-India politicians as necessary evil who will manage their day-to-day affairs, they won't take lightly to even a small sell out. Last time, PDP gifted land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the Valley erupted," Showkat said.

Zahid Ghulam Mohammad, a columnist for Greater Kashmir newspaper, said the PDP-BJP alliance carries with it an element of far greater unpredictability than the coalitions the Congress has entered into.

"It is unprecedented. From Sheikh Abdullah to Mufti, at least all pro-India politicians were familiar with the Congress despite its wrong policies," he said.

Sayeed has appropriated symbols and terminology of separatists: the party's election symbol, pen and inkpot, was the poll symbol of the Muslim United Front which tried the electoral route in the famously rigged elections of 1987.

One of the Front's members was Hizbul Mujahiden chief Syed Salahuddin, who leads the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council, an alliance of militant groups. As a fledgling party in the late 1990s, Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti won support by visiting the funerals of militants and people killed by armed forces, by saying "the boys no more need to fight with guns" as they would represent them in the assembly.

The "seeds of failure", which Dr Showkat sees inherent in any relation between mainstream parties and New Delhi, take no time to sprout in Jammu and Kashmir. Sayeed might be already on the path. The history of coalitions has been a history of compulsions, or, as a sizable number of people believe, the history of opportunism and deceit.

"But there is no alternative. A government has to be formed. Much will depend on how the two parties deliver on governance because it is difficult to predict the outcome of factors like talks with Pakistan and Centre-state relations. The success of the coalition will depend on how lucky the partners get," said Baba.

(The writer is a Kashmir-based journalist. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Feb 21, 2015 11:48 IST