Three Years of Rundown: The Lost Middle Ground of Kashmir Politics

Exactly three years after the BJP withdrew its support from the “unholy alliance”, the PDP was offered talks by New Delhi and one of its senior party leaders was released. But between 19 June 2018 and 19 June 2021, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s caravan has only scattered like a pack of cards. 

THE political buzz created by New Delhi’s changed guards is barely blatant at Srinagar’s Bund, where the two-decade old tin-roof structure is yet to come out of the brunt of defections. The “madam” might be the only vocal voice around, but the “healing touch” tribe has lost its political say in Kashmir.

Even as the camp Mufti is witnessing a new vigour after receiving a call from New Delhi for talks, the party moralists are reiterating their madam’s resounding words, “If tomorrow Delhi looks for someone with lamp after doing a political misadventure, they won’t find anyone for the political engagement in the valley.”

But after facing a series of crushing political moves, many say, the PDP as the “lost middle ground of Kashmir politics” can’t afford to maintain a moral high ground now. It all began on June 19, 2018.

“Three years ago, on this day, Mehbooba Mufti, was humiliatingly sacked as the last Chief Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir,” Khursheed Wani, senior Kashmir journalist, said. “Fourteen months later, the state was stripped off its special status and downgraded to two union territories. Mehbooba was informed through her principal secretary about BJP’s decision to withdraw support to her government. Shellshocked, she drove to her residence and later to Rajbhawan to put in her papers.”

The BJP, Wani said, flawlessly executed its larger plan and politicians in Kashmir could not understand it.

“Mehbooba could have recommended dissolution of the assembly or sought a vote of confidence though there was no possibility of getting support from NC and Congress at that point in time. Ironically, when these two parties came forward for the support, it was too late. The support was dismissed on the pretext of a dysfunctional fax machine at the Rajbhawan.”

Today, Wani said, Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP has scattered like a pack of cards.

What the scribe said is quite apparent in the PDP headquarters in one searing summer day in Srinagar. The three years of political plague has hushed the camp beyond its reputation.

From its conference room, where as chief minister Mehbooba Mufti once wrote “the dawning sunlight is glistening over the Jhelum” is now lamenting its own desolation. The ecstatic sentry on the entrance is workless as once buzzing concrete erection is unruffled. The two party workers, the bifurcated lawn and one SUV vehicle catalyzes to the deserted-view that the place displays.

Amid this sleepy polity at “abode of defectors”—where in 2014 hundreds of “Qalam-Dawaat” supporters frantically celebrated their late leader’s band blowing its winning whistle over the archrival Abdullahs — the Peoples Democratic Party camp is sullen in the season of speculations.

The leftovers have restricted their afternoon walks on the Fairview that caresses a tin-sheet wall and a fortified bunker of the party headquarters, to avoid the growing impact of marginal treatment.

“Since the start of the parade of resignations,” a deputy district president of PDP says, “we feel like people hurl insults and abuse at us.”

Even now, he says, there’re people castigating the PDP and its cadres for their “unholy alliance” catalyzing BJP’s Kashmir agenda in 2014. Once their power-house, the PDP headquarters now serves as a refuge for its party-workers.

Across “this Mufti Sahab’s dream” as Mehbooba Mufti refers to Srinagar office, the party workers were always known for their loyalty and volatile self for crusading against the invincible National Conference, be it the elections or a new recruit drive. They were the “campaigning furies”, a party worker calls his comrades. Many cadre-based workers had used their personal blogs to run posts that laced deep investigations and withering taunts against the past CM-ship holders.

“The social media campaign gained popularity among the audiences,” says a party-worker who contributed to the campaign. “Within months we had a huge audience that catered to win against the NC.”

Amid this victory show of 2014, the party giants had no idea that the most important address in Kashmir would not be consumed fighting against the vintage Abdullahs but rather to gather the rumbles of their own “Qalam-Dawat” flag.

But beyond the impact of these growing disparages across the valley, PDP’s foot-soldiers had to sense the distress wrapping their party headquarters when the pendulum of defectors, amidst the smokescreen politics, shifted towards the new campaigners for “Naya Kashmir”.

I meet a district president, presiding over a serious discussion, on the afternoon of June 2021, inside the PDP nerve centre. The small room inside the conference hall is filled with leftover loyalists. The low-lying foot-soldiers appear a bit emboldened amid the growing ruckus over talks.

“These three years gave us lifetime lessons,” says a party leader on the command chair. “We faced defections, losing some senior party leaders like Muzaffar Beg and Khursheed Alam to Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference. Their resignation was the last nail in the coffin. The PDP had survived the political emergency because of them.”

Beg’s homecoming to PC, his political launchpad, has not only powerised Lone’s foot in the “side-switching” politics, but has also started to rumble PDP’s “restoring the pre-Aug 5 position of J&K” agenda that has left serious pressure on the daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

The side-switching politics in Kashmir didn’t just normalise the growing tribe of defectors but also traumatised the already paralysed politics of PDP by exposing the cracks and differences within the party.

“If a co-founder himself resigns from the party, how can a cadre-based worker remain satisfied with the growing desolation of the party,” says a political analyst from Kashmir.

But before PDP’s political ground would present a sense of failed leadership for its party workers, many oldies of the party had already predicted the same for Mufti’s future.

“Why would someone wish to be a part of an organization that remains the first priority on the Centre’s target list,” says a DDC elect from PDP.

“The same was predicted by Beg and Alam. They knew the centre would come hunting for them, if they remained a part of Mehbooba’s camp.”

In her first speech inside PDP headquarters, after a 14-month long incarceration, Mehbooba’s statements were filled with verses from the Holy Quran but it wasn’t enough to retrieve her “Qalam-Dawaat” supporters, who by that time had already gravitated towards other camps.

Before the Centre’s desperate normalcy bid in face of Kashmir’s DDC elections would change the silenced polity of Kashmir, the old party’s “fury campaigners” had already shifted sides towards Sheikh Bagh.

For Mehbooba Mufti, the growing subject of distress was the arrival of a new political neighbour. Just down the street, is the Centre’s “reserved trump card” in Kashmir politics, The Apni Party, patronised by Altaf Bukhari, who now crusades against his ex-boss. The merchant floated his political ship with help of a few dozen defectors from the Mehbooba Mufti camp.

“The advent of Altaf Bukhari as the centre’s man had discarded these dynastical fronts,” says a PDP defector. “Unlike the PDP, Altaf Sahab neither has shifted his priorities nor his power.”

Unlike Mehbooba’s failed attempt, Bukhari created a symbolic moment when he began his ceremonial speech to his PDP connivers by reciting verses from the Holy Quran. “After Sheikh Abdullah, Altaf Sahib was the first leader to lure his supporters using the power of the holy scripture,” says Musavir Khan, an ex-PDP worker.

Alleging that there was a marked difference between ‘what the leaders of PDP were discussing’ and ‘what they were practicing’, many senior torchbearers walked away from the league and began a new career in the Apni Party that fortified the trader-turned-politician’s methods to gather support with these few connivers.

Bukhari’s Apni Party also served as a refuge to many PDP defectors who feared for their existence when the PDP’s Waheed Para was sentenced for a crime that his tribe-members dismissed as a “political vendetta”.

“Waheed Para’s case is a perfect example of why staunch party workers tend to resign,” says Para’s close-aide.

The action against the PDP’s young “mover and shaker” has not only scared seniors but has also enforced many office-bearers to go into a period of obscurity or look for a new ferry.

While many assumptions are being made for Mehbooba’s fate in the ongoing sand-shifting politics, her party workers are already seeing a faint hope in New Delhi’s capital conference.

Even before the actual talks, there’re speculations about the stated position of Fairview, which many say the BJP government won’t even bring up for discussion. This makes many believe that it won’t be a pushover for Mehbooba to create a din over the restoration of the ‘pre-August 2019’ position during the round-table conference.

This speculation of sorts has itself created speculations about the madam’s political fate in Kashmir politics now.

“In these tumultuous three years following her exit from the seat of power Mehbooba tasted a jail term and her movements are always under scrutiny,” journalist Khursheed Wani said.

“She is seldom allowed to go out of her barricaded mansion. Worse, a government agency is probing alleged misuse of funds on construction at the burial place of her father Mufti Mufti Sayeed. Mehbooba has been left alone even by her family members. Her brother Tasadduq, was never seen or heard of. Most of the Bukharis, Soharwardis and Andrabis are no longer associated with the PDP. The people, especially in South Kashmir, don’t seem to be too interested in her. Kya woh toffee lene gaye thay, her justification for brutal killing of youngsters during her reign, in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016, seems unforgettable.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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