Srinagar Mayor Defeated in a Dramatic Coup D’état

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Junaid Azim Mattu – File Pic

Junaid Azim Mattu is not the Srinagar Mayor anymore. What’s the backstory of his rise and fall?

Gowhar Geelani

SRINAGAR: The latest debacle in Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) where a ‘No Confidence Motion’ was ‘successfully’ passed against the incumbent Mayor Mattu of the J&K People’s Conference (JKPC). Mattu himself believes that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the J&K National Conference (JKNC) jointly engineered his downfall, a charge denied by both the parties.

But it is reliably learnt that the dramatic removal of Srinagar Mayor from the office on June 16 was made possible with active support of the BJP. And what has added to the drama is the fact that JKNC on Tuesday expelled four SMC Corporators from basic membership of the party, “following their refusal to comply with the party instructions and subsequently voting in the No Confidence Motion against SMC Mayor.”

According to JKNC’s spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar said in a statement that the party had “asked its Corporators to abstain from participating in No Confidence Motion and not be a part of any BJP-sponsored political move. Inspite of the clear directions, four out of our 11 Corporators decided to be a part of the BJP-initiated No Confidence Motion against SMC Mayor. Hence taking note of their incompliance, the party leadership expelled them from the basic membership of party.” Those expelled included G N Sofi, Danish Bhat, Neelofar and Majid Shulloo. Although the JKNC had boycotted the urban body polls these four Corporators along with seven others had joined the party in May 2019.

This action by the JKNC has cemented the existing perception in the Kashmir Valley that the BJP and NC jointly engineered the coup.

Mayor Concedes Defeat 

In a series of tweets, Junaid Azim Mattu described his ouster as Srinagar Mayor after a second floor test in less than six months time as “the BJP-engineered, orchestrated and backed” in which he alleged that the J&K National Conference (JKNC) played a “facilitatory role.” Junaid Mattu announced his defeat on Twitter, saying that “The vote of ‘No Confidence Motion’ against me, and the @JKPC_ has been passed in the SMC with 42 votes out of 70. The @BJP4India@JKNC_ and some independents have polled against the @JKPC_ and @INCIndia abstaining whip where 28 Corporators abstained.”

Minutes after he was shown the exit door, Mattu edited his profile on Twitter from “Mayor of Srinagar and Minister of State” to “Former Mayor Of Srinagar”.

While respecting the verdict of the Corporation Mattu alleged that the JKNC and the BJP have come together to ensure his downfall. “I respect the verdict of the Corporation. The seemingly unthinkable seems to have happened as @JKNC_ and @BJP4India have come together in Srinagar. But more on that later. Time to spend some time with my family after nearly four months of our war against #COVID19.”

‘BJP’s Blue-eyed Boy’

On its part, the JKNC refused to buy Mattu’s argument. The party, in turn, is of the view that Mattu was himself a “proxy Mayor of the BJP” and now he stands “backstabbed” by the same party he had pinned his hopes on.

Former cabinet minister, three-time legislator and chief spokesperson, JKNC, Ruhullah Mehdi alleged that Junaid Mattu had backstabbed his former party (JKNC) to side with the BJP at a critical juncture. “Mr. Mattu is the same person who resigned from the National Conference to join the People’s Conference with the BJP’s ‘ashirvad’ (blessings). He is the BJP’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ and, even before the SMC elections in 2018, J&K’s then Governor Satya Pal Malik had made it public that there will be a US-educated Mayor in Srinagar,” Mehdi told this writer.

Mattu’s mayoral victory had come against the backdrop of a contentious statement made by then Governor Satya Pal Malik, who had remarked during the SMC elections that the Srinagar city’s next mayor would be “a foreign-educated young person”. At the time it was public knowledge that the governor was referring to Mattu as the new Mayor of Srinagar.

The 35-year-old Junaid Azim Mattu who studied at Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, graduated from Michigan State University in 2009. The US-educated Mattu contested as an independent after formally resigning from the JKNC and got elected as Mayor of Srinagar city in 2018. He enjoyed the backing of the BJP and Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference, a party which he joined almost immediately after leaving the JKNC. He had won 40 votes to beat Ghulam Rasool Hajam, the Congress candidate for Mayor’s post who won 26 votes.

Ruhullah Mehdi further said that his party had nothing to do with the SMC elections or the no-confidence motion moved against Mattu. “In fact, it is Mr. Mattu who backstabbed us (JKNC) when we took a stand against revocation of Articles 370 and 35(A). His proximity with Mr. Ram Madhav, BJP’s General Secretary, is no secret. Instead of crying foul, Mr. Mattu is well advised to curse the BJP which had earlier rewarded him and now shown him his place by kicking him out,” he said, adding, “Mr. Mattu’s rants are demonstrating his frustration. He is notorious for shifting loyalties. He joined the PC against the wishes of the people and is now talking about morality in politics.”

Mattu started his political innings by joining the JKPC led by Sajad Lone and later joined Omar Abdullah-led JKNC only to return to the JKPC-fold.

‘Baseless Allegations’

Mattu also said that the ‘No Confidence Motion’ against him was “elaborately engineered by the BJP’s State General Secretary and other office bearers”, a charge denied by the BJP leader.

Rejecting Mr. Mattu’s allegations, the BJP’s general secretary Ashok Kaul said that a party with mere four seats in SMC cannot be in a position to bring about the Mayor’s downfall. Kaul argued that Mattu “has failed to keep the flock of independent candidates at SMC together. We reject his baseless allegations. We have no role whatsoever in his downfall.”

However, the strong perception in the Kashmir Valley is that the BJP has engineered the coup de e’tat, won over the many independent candidates and is planning to soon elevate the former Deputy Mayor SMC, Sheikh Imran, to the status of new Mayor for Srinagar.

‘Mujahid’ Imran versus ‘Anarkali’ Mayor

The story of businessman-turned-politician Sheikh Imran is an interesting one. In April 2019, Imran had urged all Kashmiris to include prefix ‘Mujahid’ (holy warrior) to their social media profiles and would routinely record some anger-filled videos with a sense of heroism.

In June last year, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) registered a case against Srinagar’s then Deputy Mayor Imran and officials of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank for allegedly misappropriating crores of rupees from the public exchequer. There are serious allegations against Imran, one of these that he allegedly owes J&K Bank over 100 crore rupee and is listed as an NPA (Non Performing Asset). He is also purported director of the Kehwa Group of Companies. His Kehwa Group had submitted a proposal to the J&K Bank to set up a storage facility under the name of Kehwa Square Pvt Ltd in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The ACB spokesperson at the time had alleged that its team, which visited the site in Pulwama, said “the cost of the project pegged at Rs 33 crore was inflated”.

Furthermore, the ACB investigation had revealed that the Kehwa Group owned six more firms and that Sheikh Imran had allegedly raised loans and overdrafts for these units. “The liabilities on account of loan accumulated to Rs 138 crore,” a spokesperson for the bureau had said. “Since, one of the companies Kehwa Square had turned non-performing asset, Imran sought one-time settlement with J&K Bank authorities.”

Imran, who describes himself as “former political captive” on Twitter, was briefly put under detention last year soon after J&K lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood. After engaging in verbal gymnastics with the JKPC he had joined hands with its leader Sajad Lone and Junaid Mattu. But in one of his recent statements he alleged that he was being followed by a white Santro vehicle which he said belonged to a close aide of ‘Anarkali Mayor’, a reference to Mattu. “A grey Santro car was following me, JK01S 6483, in which drugged brother of #tumulchor (rice thief) Corporator and close air (aide) of Anarkali mayor was driving along with 3 gonads (gundas) with an intention to hurt me. I have lodged the complaint with the Burzulla police station.”

Inside sources in SMC revealed that Sheikh Imran enjoys the full backing of the BJP and the saffron party has taken over 40 independent candidates on board not only to topple Mattu but also with the aim to move a resolution on Article 370 in the Corporation and get it approved by the independent candidates under Imran’s leadership.

Mattu was ‘elected’ Srinagar Mayor in the 2018 urban local body elections which were boycotted by two important regional parties, JKNC and JKPD. He faced a floor test on June 16 in a special session of the General Council on a no-confidence motion largely perceived to be engineered by the BJP and signed by over 40 members of a 70-member House.

Sources in the know also informed that several top leaders of the National Conference had “genuinely tried to prevent Mattu’s debacle, but the BJP had already bought loyalty of several independent candidates.” Others are seeing the quashing of senior NC leader Ali Sagar’s Public Safety Act (PSA) by the J&K High Court on June 16 as quid pro quo moment in exchange of NC’s alleged help to the BJP in toppling Mattu.

Responding to the JKNC leader Ruhullah’s strongly-worded remarks, the JKPC chief spokesperson Adnan Ashraf Mir said: “At least we had the courage to own up an alliance. It is the NC’s turn to show some moral courage and own up their alliance. They had 14 members. Four had joined the BJP six months back. Of the remaining 10, seven voted with the BJP. And then they expelled those 4 Corporators who had left NC six months back. Is deputy mayor (Sheikh Imran) not their member? Who did he vote for? The NC should give us a break. They vote with BJP openly and now have the audacity to deny it. He (Ruhulla) would do well to check his own tweets about his own party just a few weeks back before he surrendered.”

Background

The story of SMC elections is a little complicated one.

Amid unprecedented boycott and unrest in Jammu and Kashmir the then 74-member body of SMC went to polls in October 2018, nearly four months after the BJP had bid adieu to its political coalition alliance with the J&K People’s Democratic Party (JKPDP). The Congress party won 16 seats and the BJP bagged only four seats in SMC elections. Independents bagged the 53 seats in the 74-member body.

The SMC election was marred by an unprecedented boycott call by pro-independence amalgams and groups, coupled with non-participation of the JKNC and the PDP. All of this helped both the BJP and the Congress in a big way as most candidates from these parties were elected unopposed.

The four-phased urban local body elections in all districts of the restive region saw thin participation as, in the absence of the JKPDP and JKNC, the Congress was ahead of the BJP in the Kashmir Valley by bagging 157 wards while the saffron party won in 100 wards. As many as 78 candidates of the Congress and 76 of the BJP were elected unopposed, courtesy the boycott call and non-participation of the two main regional unionist parties.

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Gowhar Geelani

Gowhar Geelani is a journalist-author who served Deutsche Welle as editor. He is author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason

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