It’s election season in major parts of the Kashmir Valley in India, as by-elections for two seats in the Lok Sabha – India’s lower house of Parliament – are scheduled in the second week of April. Elections for the Srinagar constituency, the capital, are scheduled for April 9 while Anantnag in south Kashmir – the constituency of Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister and leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – will go to the polls on April 12. Both seats fell vacant last year. The Anantnag seat was given up by Mufti when she took charge as the chief minister after her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death. The Srinagar seat fell vacant when one of PDP’s founding members, Tariq Hamid Karra, resigned and joined the Indian National Congress during last summer’s unrest. Triggered by the killing of a charismatic young militant leader, Burhan Wani, in July, the ensuring unrest claimed the lives of more than 100 people.
The PDP however, letting bygones be bygones, is preparing earnestly for these elections. It has unveiled a new face to contest the Anantnag seat in the form of Tasaduq Mufti, the brother of Mehbooba Mufti. A relative unknown, Nazir Ahmad Khan, has filed nomination papers for the Srinagar constituency, where he faces strong competition from Dr. Farooq Abdullah, a National Conference (NC) leader and former chief minister. Both Mufti and Khan of the PDP are expecting to capitalize on the legacy of the late chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, to win the elections.
Yet it will be an uphill task for the PDP for several reasons.
The party was always considered a soft separatist party in the mainstream, pro-India politics of the state. It was hailed by the people of Kashmir for its sympathetic attitude toward anti-India separatists and militants. During the state assembly elections in 2014, the PDP campaigned vigorously against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was seeking to make its debut in the Muslim majority state. The PDP campaigned on the plank of blocking Kashmir’s doors for the “Hindutva ideology.”
Fearful of the BJP’s dramatic entry in Kashmir and fed up with the previous government’s misrule, the locals gave a majority to the PDP in the Valley, while the BJP got a majority of the seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region. But no party got the absolute majority needed to form the government on its own. This forced the PDP and BJP to forge an awkward alliance, which was described by Mufti as a coming together of the “north and south poles.” The people of Kashmir, however, stunned by this development, felt betrayed by the PDP.
Since then, it’s been difficult going for the alliance as both parties have clashed repeatedly on numerous issues. The PDP favored the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants security forces immunity from prosecution and other legal proceedings while conducting counter-insurgency operations, while the BJP demanded abrogation of the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gives a special administrative status and autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, both parties disagree on the issue of the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits and West Pakistan refugees, even though it is part of the alliance agenda. West Pakistan refugees are those Hindus and Sikhs who had fled from Pakistan during the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, fearing religious persecution, where as the Kashmiri Pandits fled the Kashmir Valley in the late 1980s, after militants threatened violence against them. The BJP has been demanding rehabilitation of both these communities for a long time. But many in Kashmir argue that this demand for rehabilitation is aimed at changing the demographic character of Jammu and Kashmir.
After the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in January last year, there were rumors that the state was headed for fresh elections as both the coalition partners were unable to amend their ways. His daughter, Mehbooba, too fueled the rumors when she took more than two months to decide whether to continue the alliance. Finally she decided to continue and become the chief minister. But the bickering between the two allies has not stopped.
Tariq Karra, who is campaigning in Srinagar for former Chief Minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah as a result of the NC-Congress alliance against the PDP, is seeking to take advantage of the issue by saying that for a year he begged the late Mufti not to align with the BJP. “My pleas of the BJP perpetrating mayhem with Muslims in Gujarat were ignored for sharing the loaves of power,” he said.
People seem to have been skeptical of the Muftis since then, a sentiment that increased further after last summer’s unrest. The killing of nearly 100 people at the hands of the security forces angered many. The PDP-BJP government was accused of mishandling the situation and using excessive force against the protesting mob during the five-month-long agitation. The unrest seems to have died down now, but resentment persisting among the locals has taken a new form. A recent trend observed in the Valley is that locals have been flocking to encounter sites, where security forces are engaged in counterinsurgency operations, and clashing with them. Incidents like these have led to both militants getting safe passage to freedom and civilian casualties. In a recent incident on March 28, three people lost their lives after they clashed with the security forces during an encounter at Chadoora, in central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
This is causing consternation among the people. The “majority of Kashmiris lost their trust in the PDP, when it allied with the Hindutva aspiring party BJP. This trust deficit widened when Burhan Wani was martyred. It [the government] used excessive force against the youth in the aftermath of his killing due to which the party got further alienated from people,” Mohammad Ishaq, a local from south Kashmir, told The Diplomat.
Further complicating the prospects of the PDP-BJP government is the BJP’s appointment of Yogi Adityanath, the “mascot” of Hindutva extremism, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh on March 19. With Yogi perceived by many Kashmiris as a right-wing extremist, this development is certain to raise people’s skepticism of the PDP and its BJP alliance. Yogi’s hate speeches against Indian Muslims have raised fears among many, and Kashmiris have been no exception. One of his speeches has a clear mention of Kashmir, where he is reported to have said that “UP won’t be another Kashmir” in an indirect reference to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.
“Appointing Yogi as CM in Uttar Pradesh would not affect the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir. This alliance is only for governing purposes. But it may affect the upcoming by-elections in Anantnag and Srinagar,” Abdul Majeed from north Kashmir told The Diplomat.
Abdul believes that the PDP will have to face the consequences of the BJP’s actions in UP. “Surely people of Kashmir will vote against this alliance as it’s considered unholy and deceptive. There is a huge danger of losing both the Lok Sabha seats for the PDP,” he said.
The PDP has always maintained that the alliance with the BJP is for the development and betterment of the state. Mehbooba Mufti, when contesting the Anantnag assembly by-poll last year, emphasized this time and again. In one of the public rallies, she said that the “PDP has established clear political priorities and we would continue our struggle to seek resolution of the multiple problems faced by Jammu and Kashmir on political, economic, developmental, administrative, and financial fronts.” And it appeared that people of her constituency believed in what she said, which was apparent from the doubled margin of victory as compared to the previous poll her father had contested.
This time, however, many believe that the election results may turn upside down for her brother, Tasaduq Mufti.
“Yogi’s being the CM of UP puts forth the latest religious nationalism outlook of the BJP and will definitely affect the BJP-PDP alliance. The first cracks in the alliance are expected to be quite obvious in the upcoming polls, by which people will register their negative reaction to the latest developments in the political scenario,” Shyla Imran, a teacher from north Kashmir, told The Diplomat.
Political analysts seem to agree.
Noor Ahmad Baba, a veteran political expert speaking to The Diplomat, said, “People voted after the agitations of 2008 and 2010, but this time the intensity is more ferocious. People may vote but last year’s unrest will definitely have an impact on the upcoming elections.” He believes that public memory is shorter and people may not remember the previous agitations but the recent unrest is still afresh among people’s minds. When asked about Yogi, Baba said that the “BJP has proved that the party is not same as it was at the time of [former BJP Prime Minister] Vajpayee. It has become clear that they carry a communal agenda now and have no empathy toward Muslims. Yogi as CM will surely have effect in upcoming by-polls in Anantnag and Srinagar.”
With less than one week to go, one thing is clear: the PDP and Mehbooba Mufti have staked their prestige on the by-polls, which will have great repercussions for the state government and consequently the PDP-BJP alliance. This in turn will have greater implications for the Kashmir issue.
Um-Roommana is a freelance journalist from Srinagar.