Sensing a threat from the BJP, rivals come closer in Kashmir

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Peoples Democratic Party President Mehbooba Mufty (L), Bharatiya Janata Party senior leader Lal Krishna Advani and BJP President Amit Shah in the state assembly in Jammu on March 1, 2015. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

A new political front of rebels is emerging in the wake of the premature end of the People’s Democratic Party and Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in the restive Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir last month.

This third front, coming largely from within the ousted People’s Democratic Party (PDP), may form a new government with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Pary (BJP) in the conflict-ridden north Indian state.

The BJP pulled out of the coalition government in June – leading to the politically crucial state fall under Governor’s rule – without a back-up plan to seize power again. With Governor NN Vohra keeping the assembly in suspended animation since the day Mehbooba Mufti resigned as Chief Minister, the possibility of a new alliance is open.

While the BJP maintains silence on its moves, preparations for the possible alliance seem to be underway.

Former deputy chief minister and senior BJP leader Dr Nirmal Singh called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his office in New Delhi on Wednesday. The visit added to speculation that the next BJP-led government could assume power in the state after the completion of the ongoing Amarnath Yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage in Jammu and Kashmir, in August.

The “potential threat” from rebels to form a new government has seemingly unnerved the two arch-rivals in regional politics – the Muftis and Abdullahs, whose families have largely been in power in the state since 1947 when the then princely state had acceded to India.

Alliance between Muftis and Abdullahs?

On one hand, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the PDP with the highest number of 28 seats from 87 in the state assembly, is worried in the wake of rebellion within her party. Some of her senior leaders, under the leadership of former minister and lawmaker Imran Reza Ansari, have openly revolted against her “family rule.”

Claiming to be enjoying the support of the majority of lawmakers from the PDP, Ansari is likely to throw weight behind separatist turned mainstream politician Sajad Gani Lone to push him as the chief ministerial candidate. Gani’s party the People’s Conference has two seats in the state sssembly.

On the other hand, Mufti’s predecessor as the state’s Chief Minister and National Conference party’s working President Omar Abdullah has started speaking publicly in Mufti’s defense. Recently, while talking to reporters in Kashmir, he raised questions over why PDP leaders had rebelled against her.

“Though it’s supposed to be their internal matter, there are questions,” Abdullah, flanked by his political advisor, Tanvir Sadiq, told reporters. “Why are they [the rebels] suddenly annoyed only after their government ended? During previous assembly sessions, there were no such voices barring one of them as all the PDP members were appreciating Mehbooba Sahiba’s government.

“So what has suddenly gone wrong? We need to understand this.”

Given the fear of an end to their dynastic rule, the two families seem to be coming closer. In the wake of the political threats, Abdullah’s aide Sadiq is understood to be secretly lobbying with some of the PDP leaders, saying “it is time to be united to keep the potential third front uprising at bay.”

Now Sadiq, during public meetings, refers to Mufti as “Baji” or elder sister, whose “sinking ship needs to be anchored.” He declined to speak to Asia Times.

But the National Conference denied the allegations of coming closer to the PDP. “There is no truth that we are supporting each other … As far as our party is concerned, Omar Sahib is the elected vice-president, so why does the question of dynasty rule arise in democracy?” National Conference spokesman Imran Nabi Dar asked.

A growing third front

Apart from the PDP’s rebel faction, Mufti’s estranged husband Javaid Iqbal Shah, too, has joined the voices against dynastic rule. Javaid, a lawyer and rights activist, enjoys a bond with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, which is apparent from the interaction between the two on Twitter.

He recently took to Twitter to say: “1st pre-requisite for getting Kashmir out from the vicious alternate cycle of the fire and the frying pan – being tossed between the family rule and vested interest of the Abdullahs & Muftis.”

Silent over his growing affinity with the BJP and Modi, prospective chief ministerial candidate Gani draws his support largely from the Ansari-led rebels. Ansari enjoys the considerable support of the strategically-important Shia vote bank in the state. He said both the Muftis and Abdullahs are aware of the “demise of their family rule and thus have started to support each other overtly and covertly.”

“Just look at his [Omar Abdullah’s] tweets and other utterances. He had never appreciated Mufti as a great leader before. But now that these entitled dynasts apprehend logical end to [their] family rule, they tend to sound similar,” Ansari told Asia Times.

“But from our side, it’s a move to end the family raj [rule], which over the years only deceived the common people and alienated them further,” he added.

The right-wing BJP, which is holding the cards close to its heart, said the nationalist party always wanted an end to family rules across India—be it of the Gandhis, the Muftis or the Abdullahs.

Politics of alliance 

Signaling a shift in power dynamics in Kashmir, Ram Madhav – the BJP’s point man in Kashmir – held crucial meetings at the private residence of his party spokesman Khalid Jahangir during his recent visit to the valley. Madhav also held closed-door meetings with Sajjad Gani Lone.

“Instead of holding meetings at houses of traditionally powerful leaders, he [Madhav] held meetings at unusual venues to send a message that the BJP looks ahead for change from customary politics,” said a senior BJP leader on the condition of anonymity.

Unlike the BJP, regional leaders have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of a third front in the state.

Former Deputy Chief Minister Kavinder Gupta said the BJP was looking to form a government with “like-minded MLAs” as soon as the situation in the state improves.

Despite appeals from parties like the PDP and the National Conference, the governor has been silent on the dissolution of the assembly, where the BJP has 25 seats, Congress 12, National Conference 15 and the independents and others have seven.

The alliances that can make it to the magic number of 44 seats, however, are impossible.

The only possibility of an alliance is if the rebels join hands with the BJP – that option is open and haunting the two regional parties.

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