The PDP patron built his reputation on the promise on self-rule. Now, as he seemingly reneges on that pledge, resentment is rising in Kashmir valley and within his party.
The deal may not have been sealed as yet, but it is now an almost forgone conclusion that Mufti Mohammad Sayeeds Peoples Democratic Party will form the next coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Numerically, with their combined strength of 53 (PDP: 28, BJP: 25) in the 87-member state Assembly, it is the simplest and perhaps the most stable outcome of the latest elections. The BJP also never allowed room for imagining a state government without it since the results were declared more than a month earlier on December 23. But why the delay?
For Sayeed, there are many pitfalls ahead. The people at least in the Kashmir valley, who voted in unprecedented numbers partly to keep an ascendant BJP out, are beginning to feel that their voice does not matter even within the electoral paradigm. Almost every party, including the National Conference and Congress, and independents offered unconditional support to the PDP for government formation, yet in the end Sayeed tilted towards the saffron party that is vehemently disliked in Kashmir.
In the graveyard of reputations that is the Kashmir valley, mainstream electoral politics has come a full circle with two ideologically opposite political parties seemingly set to come together. Sayeed has spent his political career opposing the states first pro-India leader, Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah, and his party, the National Conference. But now he finds himself in a similar situation as the Shiekh was in 1975, when he entered a compromise agreement with Indira Gandhi in order to regain power. The people of Kashmir never forgave the Sheikh for bartering away the states autonomy for retaining his lordship over them.
Sayeed, 78, whose ambition is to leave a different legacy than Sheikhs, is now in a similar place. But in joining hands with the BJP he may be attempting to have the cake and eat it too. He is acutely aware of the pitfalls. That is why when he broke his silence recently over government formation, Sayeed said, in an indirect reference to the Sheikh and the National Conference, that he would never betray his voters trust.
Front for the militant cause
A short history of Sayeeds PDP, founded in 1998, helps explain why an alliance with the BJP could mean political suicide for him. The partys flag and election symbol inkpot and pen will perpetually bear testimony to its origin as a purported front for the militant cause to end the Indian rule in Kashmir.
Sayeeds daughter and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti is widely remembered to have roamed around Kashmir telling the people that the party symbol was given to her by her brother Syed Sallahudin, the supreme commander of the rebel organisation Hizbul Mujahideen. For years the party crafted an image of a restorer of lost dignity for Kashmiri people. But after having carefully evolved its own version of self-rule within the ambit of Indias Constitution to assuage the Kashmiri sentiment for Azadi, the PDP patriarch now finds himself having to convince his own party colleagues and legislator-elects of virtues and compulsions of working with the BJP.
Sources close to the party say that at least 20 of the PDPs newly elected MLAs have received calls from underground activists from both sides of the Line of Control warning them against agreeing to an alliance with the saffron party. Some have tried to plant articles in newspapers to ostensibly distance themselves from Sayeeds decision to go with the BJP even if they agree with the partys contingencies.
Sayeed, according to party sources, has extracted from the BJP the only big concession of being chief minister for the full six-year term against letting the saffron party seep into Kashmir for a slow takeover.
Delhi has made Kashmir completely dependent on dole during the last 25 years, a disgruntled PDP supporter told this reporter, declining to be named. Now imagine a rural development minister from the BJP exchanging favours across the countryside for the political loyalty of a besieged people. Mufti Sayeed is slipping into Sheikh Abdullahs worn-out shoes. Our votes mean nothing in the end.
Collaborator with powers in Delhi
A common refrain in Srinagar and indeed across rural Kashmir is that the fate of the mainstream Kashmiri politician is to collaborate with whoever is in power in Delhi. Disquiet is palpable across the Kashmir valley with the realisation fast setting in that the PDP, which had wowed to fulfil Kashmiri aspirations, will not be able to match its promise.
The Modi governments declared intention to grant state subject status and voting rights to tens of thousands of refugees of 1947 from West Pakistan, who are mostly Hindus, is making issues like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Article 370 pale in urgency and importance in the Muslim-majority state. The talk of reserving three assembly constituencies for Kashmiri Pandits and the proposal of settling the displaced community in separate enclaves in the valley is also generating mass anxiety in the already restive state.
A top source in the PDP said that Sayeed is hoping to offset the fears among many Kashmiris of further loss of political weight by planning to work with the BJP to change Article 370 to bring in big corporate investment for economic progress, targeting tourism and private investment in hydropower.
The BJP, according to the source, is happy with the proposal which, if implemented, will enable it to portray Article 370 as an enabler of achieving better conditions in Kashmir as opposed to a hindrance. The PDP too has nurtured the idea of freedom through economic progress for many years.
All this and more may happen if Sayeed actually ends up heading a coalition government with the BJP, but at the end of six years as chief minister his PDP could lose its declared raison d'être: a political resolution of the Kashmir issue.
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