On the chilly morning of November 21, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Syed Altaf Bukhari’s cavalcade entered the heavily fortified bungalow of National Conference Omar Abdullah in Gupkar area of Srinagar.
Arch political rivals till a few days, both Bukhari and Abdullah emerged smiling after a 45-minute meeting which would not only catch the waiting journalists by surprise but also completely stump the BJP: what was unthinkable even a few months ago turned into reality as Bukhari and Abdullah declared that the two parties were now allies and that together they would stake claim to form the government.
The PDP-NC alliance was in the making for weeks but after the Bukhari-Abdullah announcement, its shock value equaled the BJP’s decision to pull out of the Mehbooba Mufti-led government on June 20 following which Jammu and Kashmir was placed under Governor’s Rule. The previous day, the BJP had asked all its legislators to congregate in Delhi to discuss the party’s strategy—and the subsequent explanation it would offer—to severe ties with the PDP. Two hours after a closed-door meeting, the BJP announced its break-up with the PDP, accusing Mehbooba’s party of being soft towards militants and separatists.
Five months later, the PDP-NC alliance and their decision to stake claim for government formation shocked the BJP and caught Governor Stay Pal Malik, a political appointee of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, off guard. The PDP is the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 87-member assembly, followed by the NC which has 15 legislators. The Congress, with 12 MLAs, also readily extended support. The result, on November 21, was a comfortable majority of 55 MLAs.
While Malik thwarted the move by dissolving the assembly, the PDP, NC and the Congress demonstrated that disparate forces in Kashmir’s slippery political landscape could yet band together. The attempts to stitch together the NC-PDP alliance began on September 12 when Bukhari dropped the first hint that the PDP was considering aligning with the NC to form a joint forum.
“In the interest of state and its people in particular, PDP will not shy away from fighting any nefarious designs jointly with NC and other regional political forces for safeguarding the special constitutional position of J&K,” Bukhari had said in his September 12 statement.
The revelation was downplayed by the BJP and its leaders too didn’t take it seriously. “We deemed it as a casual statement and an attempt by the PDP leader to grab headlines. There wasn’t even a remote possibility that the two parties, who have been at loggerheads for decades, would ever tie up,” a state BJP leader told theSouth Asian Monitor.
However, two days after the PDP floated the idea, the NC reciprocated, stating that it wouldn’t be averse to any such call. On September 14, senior NC leader Mian Altaf said the suggestion that the NC and PDP could join hands over the issue of Article 35-A and fight communal forces in the state was welcome move.
“Forming a government and stitching an alliance with the PDP is not an easy job but very difficult, keeping in view the present political scenario. However, the party leadership should talk about forming government in alliance with the PDP whether for Article 35-A or for fighting communal forces in the state,” Altaf said.
A day later, on September 15, Congress’s state chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir said his party was ready to join hands with any political partyfor “preservation of secularism”. “Let them sit and discuss things. Once we feel they are serious and reach some conclusion we will definitely support them. Mere preaching won’t help, what is required is practice and action,” he said.
Still, the BJP remained oblivious to the developments on the other side of the political divide. “Not only us, but even the people of the state considered these statements nonsensical. We thought that the parties were trying to hoodwink the public,” a senior BJP leader from Jammu, while reacting to the developments over the past two days, which he termed “unnatural bonhomie”, said.
No antagonistic statements
Sources in the PDP and NC revealed that on October 1 middle rung leaders of the two parties as well as the Congress held a meeting in Srinagar to discuss the contours of a tie-up. “It was decided that the presidents of both the parties would be apprised of the positive feelers that were sent out by representatives from the three sides in the October 1 meeting,” a PDP leader who attended the meet, said.
According to him, it was unanimously decided by all the three parties that in the press statements, the leaders of the opposite camps shall not target each other and instead will train their guns against the BJP.
“After October 1, neither of the three parties issued any antagonistic statements against each other. They instead began targeting the BJP, accusing it for the mess in J&K,” saidOwais Ahmad, a journalist working in a Srinagar-based news agency.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, a National Conference spokesperson said that there were clear directions from the leadership of three parties to single out the BJP as the target. “This prepared the stage for action that culminated in the alliance,” the spokesperson said.
On October 9, Bukhari met National Conference veteran leader Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar, urging him to give his nod to the alliance. “It was after hectic discussions that Dr Abdullah agreed to give his go ahead. All he said in the end was that he should be contacted directly by PDP president Mehbooba Mufti,” an NC leader said.
Two days later, according to sources familiar with the political developments, senior leaders from NC, PDP and the Congress spoke to each other over phone and sent out emissaries to each other. “Following the triangular mode of talks, it was agreed that the PDP, with the backing of the Congress,would stake claim, while the NC would provide outside support,” a Congress leader said.
On November 17, NC vice-president Omar Abdullah hinted at a PDP-NC tie-up. While replying to a tweet BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, said that the two parties will give tough fight to the saffron party in the coming elections.
On November 21, PDP’s Bukhari briefly spoke over phone with Mehbooba before driving to Omar’s residence. The same evening, Mehbooba drafted the letter to Malik, claiming support of 60 MLAs and sought an appointment with the governor to stake claim on government formation. However, the letter couldn’t be faxed, prompting Mehbooba to upload it on Twitter while tagging the governor to it.
Hours later, Malik signed the order dissolving the assembly and dashing the hopes of the regional parties. Since fresh elections will likely be held in April 2019, what remains to be seen is how the BJP responds to the alliance in the days to come.
Professor Noor Mohammad Baba of the Department of Politics and Governance, Central University of Kashmir, saidBJP will find it tough to return to power in J&K. “The Modi magic across the country is diminishing due to the looming economic crises and joblessness. A potential alliance of secular parties for the 2019 general elections will inspire political parties in J&K too to bandwagon,” Prof Baba told the South Asian Monitor.
According to Syed Aijaz, a political columnist in Kashmir, the state’s politics will now depend largely on what happens at the national level. “Whether the BJP plays the communal card will have an impact in J&K,” Syed said. J&K, according to Syed, has been witnessing an unprecedented spike in violence ever since BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. “Kashmiri youth are closely watching the communal politics at the national level. This will compel political parties in Kashmir to ally against the BJP,” Syed said.
Till May this year, 114 people were killed in Kashmir in various militancy-related incidents. As per government data, since January 1, 53 militants, 33 civilians and 13 army men were killed during encounters and clashes.