Dr. Javid Ahmad Ahanger, who specializes in Political Science with a focus on Kashmir, presents this article underlining the multiple possibilities for the political future of the multi-party system in Kashmir’s political landscape under Indian rule. The article discusses the emergence of key political parties that served under India’s dominion and the various stakeholders at a critical juncture when a new political framework is yet to be defined after the August 5th (2019) abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A.
The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (now two union territories) is in a unique political position today. The valley of Kashmir at the crossroad is steering in a political direction that is unknown and uncertain. The mainstream (Pro-Indian) parties are in a state of utter bewilderment as their narrative of separate identity and ‘Special Status’ lost its political relevance. The conflict-resolution models like self-rule, autonomy, achievable nationhood and talks with Hurriyat and Pakistan all got demolished. Political observers and pundits believe that there will be a complete rout of regional parties in J&K. The problem in Kashmir runs deep. More than the dismissal performance of previous ‘client-coalition’ governments, pro-Indian politics is facing the worst kind of existential threat and has possibly been delegitimized and discredited by an intensified resistance. Therefore, in post abrogation of article 370, the road ahead for these parties now seems to have become difficult to trek on and the desperation on the faces of their leadership, cutting across multiple party lines, seems quite palpable.
Over the decades, the changing political scenario of state politics had lessened the appeal of pro-Indian parties in J&K due to the politics of separatism (read resistance). Secondly, it was mostly because these parties had presumed that the BJP did not have the necessary appeal. But the reality was something different. The BJP succeeded in building a false counternarrative around regionalism, religion, development, dynasty, corruption, article 370 and 35A, ‘terrorism’, nationalism, anti-Pakistan sentiments and above all their motto of ‘a party with a difference’. These factors played a significant role in diminishing the appeal of regional parties and the National party—Congress. The BJP silently worked out its own agenda of politics, and, regional parties were dying in a snails’ race. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the BJP made all regional pro-Indian parties handicapped and turned them into broken political entities in Kashmir for coming years, if not for decades. In fact, in the current scenario pro-India parties have become targets of jokes due to their pro-Delhi stance and their peculiar kind of political compromise over the last seven decades.
Compared to the 2014 assembly elections, Jammu and Kashmir is an altogether different ball game today. The fact is that in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir there is no other force on the front to lead pro-Indian politics except Syed Altaf Bukhari, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and company, but as the political commentators believe “the mainstream politics has been reduced to ashes” in Kashmir. All the regional mainstream bigwigs are in jail. The parties that raised the Indian flag high all these decades on their shoulders have been left battered and bruised over the muscular policy of New Delhi. Politically, it would be worth watching how the political scene unfolds that could lead to the revival of pro-Indian politics in Kashmir. In such a political scenario, Bukhari and Beigh—who was conferred with Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India despite his lacking public figure credentials—are plausible ‘puppet leaders’ for New Delhi, who can give legitimacy to the pro-Indian narrative like NC (National Conference) patron Farooq Abdullah did in 1996 after six year of self-exile in Europe.
As of now, Bukhari and Beigh succeeded in establishing regional populism as a brand. The fact is that whatever the established regional pro-Indian parties (NC, PDP and PC) may have thought in the run up of post 5th August politics of Kashmir, Bukhari et al are capturing the political scene quite silently. After the abrogation of the special status and downgrading the state into Union Territories, there is, for the first time, a deliberate split on the basis of regional identity (special status). It is as if they have ‘read the tea leaves and decided’ to be part of the new political realities, plus the strategic support of political agitators from other parties. These political agitators have been asking themselves, ‘apna time kab aayega?’ (when will our time come?).
Over the decades, the politics of Jammu and Kashmir has seen frequent defections and re-alignments. During Mufti Sayeed’s time, many NC and Congress leaders joined him and formed the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party). But several of its leaders and many agitators of other parties are abandoning their parties and joining the Bukhari-led group. It seems Altaf Bukhari and Muzaffar Beigh can offer themselves as a rival to the regional parties (like Mufti Sayeed did in 1999 by forming the PDP as a rival to the NC). The estimation must be that there is no prospect for the NC and PDP of ever coming back. After all, turning the impossible into the possible is in the art of politics.
Whatever the fortunes of the emerging so-called ‘new mainstream’ (with third front referring to Bukhari-led group) might be in future, the front is dominating the political horizon as a viable brand for Delhi. Bukhari was the first Kashmiri pro-Indian leader who met with EU Parliamentarians in Delhi in October last year and later with Lt. Governor Murmu as well. The delegation led by Bukhari submitted a fifteen point memorandum to Murmu, where they sorted out the restoration of statehood, release of political detainees, restoration of internet, withdrawal of cases against the youth, a grand strategy against the rising unemployment, protection of jobs and ownership of land on the patterns of Nagaland, Himachal and other hill states of India. Whether Bukhari’s plan to gain control over the narrative on ‘domicile laws’ and ‘protection of jobs’ will succeed is another question altogether, but political observers believe that “the meeting is the first major political activity” after abrogation of Article 370. It is because of this perhaps that Bukhari is now seen as the potential Chief Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. As local journalist Saima Bhat in her long essay in Kashmir Life entitled “Bukhari Begins?” pointed out, “Political grapevine about the ambitions of Jammu and Kashmir State’s last finance minister who could not get an opportunity to present even a single budget is keeping the political class busy.” It seems Bukhari’s group has turned a nightmare for all regional pro-Indian parties except the BJP.
However there is a narrative floating around that the Bukhari-led group are not standing with the growing resentment of ‘the people’ against Delhi but instead ready to do “business without asking for the restoration of the special status.” It is in this context that the NC dubbed the delegation as ‘self-style leaders’ and Congress termed it a “creation of the Home Ministry” in the current political landscape of Kashmir. Similarly, the PDP dumped the group as “bunch of opportunists…puppets who are ready to bargain at the cheapest price”. While as for resistance leadership (read All Parties Hurriyat Conference) the ‘new mainstream’ (Bukhari & Co) will be like the previous pro-Indian parties installed to camouflage the ‘Indian occupation’ of Jammu and Kashmir. For them, only the faces of the ‘stooges’ will change in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the fascinating ideological shift of Bukhari-led group reflects that its adherents have given up the debate around ‘special status’ to ‘statehood’ and ‘domicile laws’ in a way that is bolder than what the PDP and the NC have dared so far. In fact the Bukhari-led group seems to have come to terms with the bitter truth that the clock cannot be turned back and Article 370 is now mere history, a stand opposed by all pro-Indian mainstream parties of the region. Parties like People’s Conference (PC) and its patron Sajjad Lone are unlikely to gain much traction in the Union Territory (unless they obey New Delhi’s diktats at every step). Similarly, Shah Faesal and Engineer Rashid are yet to come out of jail to decide about future (while facing PSA charges).
No doubt there will be ups and downs but if a third front emerges, it will at its advantage, eat into the PDP’s and the NC’s political constituency in the valley, but that too will depend on how the politics of resistance and boycott will unfold in Kashmir. However, these are early days for Bukhari’s third front. It will take him years to build up his credibility as a regional leader. It cannot happen abruptly as “Rome was not built in a day”—unless New Delhi does not play its old game of rigging and manipulating the electoral process in favor of the emerging third front, as Delhi did in favour of the NC and other parties from time to time. Yet, if Altaf Bukhari succeeds in launching the third front by overt or covert support from Delhi, its legitimacy will be as questionable as the PDP’s and the NC’s previous electoral successes of low turnout ‘client regimes’ in Kashmir. Hence, the “legitimation crisis”, to quote Jurgen Habermas, will continue to prevail in Kashmir.
Nevertheless, the headship of the BJP in Delhi, represented by Modi and Amit Shah, knows well that everything that they plan for Jammu and Kashmir must go according to their script. They will try the best to install a BJP-man in Jammu and Kashmir. All in all, creating an operative and effective political dispensation in Kashmir and coping with the people’s sentiments for ‘Aazadi’ will remain the main ‘political headache’ for Delhi and local administration in the coming times, for whosoever comes to power. As the eminent constitutional expert A.G. Noorani in his thought-provoking article entitled “Destroying Kashmir” pointed out: “The cry of ‘azadi’, heard since 1990, has a long history. Such a people’s yearnings can never be crushed”.