As Kashmir Simmers, the PDP Fights for a New Face and the NC to Save an Old One

The lowest voting percentage in almost three decades is an indication of how the space for mainstream politics in the Valley has dramatically shrunk.

National Conference president Farooq Abdullah interacts with reporters after winning the bypoll from Srinagar parliamentary seat, in Srinagar on Saturday. Credit: PTI/S Irfan

National Conference president Farooq Abdullah interacts with reporters after winning the bypoll from Srinagar parliamentary seat, in Srinagar on Saturday. Credit: PTI/S Irfan

Srinagar: In the first phase of Jammu and Kashmir’s Lok Sabha by-elections, National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah won the Srinagar seat with a margin of 10,000 votes over the People’s Democratic Party candidate, Nazir Ahmad Khan. Immediately after being declared the winner, Abdullah demanded imposition of governor’s rule in the state.

“I thank people who supported me,” Abdullah told reporters. “This was the bloodiest election ever. Results show that people are in favour of NC. I request the government of India and the president to dismiss the present government right away and [that] governor’s rule be imposed. The state government has completely failed to conduct the elections in a peaceful manner. They have killed youths and put people’s lives in danger,” he said.

The Srinagar by-election was caused by the resignation of a disgruntled PDP leader, Tariq Karra, who resigned from the party and the seat last year to join the Congress. A by-election is also set for the Anantnag constituency, left vacant after the PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti became chief minister of the state in 2015.  Interestingly, in the last elections, Karra was fighting against Abdullah and this time he was campaigning for him – as the Congress and NC decided to fight in coalition. Abdullah won against the low-profile former Congress leader who recently joined the PDP, Nazir Ahmed Khan.

If anything, however, the clash of personalities is actually a sideshow as these by-elections have turned out to be a grave reminder of the prevailing situation in the Valley.

On April 9, only 7.1% of the electorate voted in more than 1500 polling stations across Srinagar. Throughout the day, there were massive protests and clashes between local residents and the security forces in which eight civilians were killed and around 200 injured. The Election Commission ordered repolling on April 13 in the worst violence-hit areas but only a 2% voter turnout was recorded in the 38 polling stations of Budgam district. No votes were cast in as many as 27 polling stations.

The elections for Anantnag have been rescheduled to May 25 as the situation in the Valley remains tense. On Saturday, when counting was taking place in Srinagar, at least two dozen students were injured in south Kashmir’s Pulwama. According to eyewitnesses, the police and paramilitary forces entered the campus of the local degree college, sparking clashes. The forces responded with tear gas and pellet guns.

Even as there is turmoil all around, for both Abdullah and the PDP’s Tassaduq Mufti – who is the party’s high-profile candidate from the Anantnag parliamentary constituency – these elections are especially significant. While Abdullah is keen to play a larger role in opposition, the PDP wants the untested Mufti as a new face for their party. The junior Mufti is fighting against the seasoned Congress leader, Ghulam Ahmad Mir. It was Tassaduq Mufti who appealed to the Election Commission to delay the polls in Anantnag.

Mehbooba Mufti and Tassaduq Mufti. Credit: PTI

Mehbooba Mufti and Tassaduq Mufti. Credit: PTI

These by-elections are important for both the parties. For the NC, Abdullah’s win means he gets a platform to raise issues that will likely help the party in the next assembly polls. For the PDP, Mufti’s win will help to launch him as a new face of the family from their base of south Kashmir. But the election has also exposed how Kashmir has changed over the years – from low voting to open defiance, people are now violently opposing mainstream politics.

The fact that the two candidates are representatives of political dynasties also does not help the credibility of mainstream politics.

The lowest voting percentage in almost three decades has surprised many, even the political parties fighting the polls, and is an indication of how the space for mainstream politics in the Valley has dramatically shrunk.

What has also added weight to people’s protests are the videos that went viral when the Internet was restored after five days of being shut off. In one of them, soldiers had tied a Kashmiri man who had voted to the front of a jeep as a human shield against stone throwing. Another showed paramilitary personnel beating young boys and forcing them to say ‘Pakistan murdabad’.

Acknowledging the prevailing mood and using it as a prop in his election campaign, Farooq Abdullah noted that the space for mainstream politics is narrowing. Thus his campaign was more focused on wooing the pro-azadi sections to oppose the PDP and the BJP. Abdullah even appealed to the Jamaat I Islami – the backbone of Syed Ali Geelani’s Hurriyat – to help him win the elections and keep the Hindutva ideology of the RSS-BJP away from Kashmir.

Mohammad Sayeed Malik, veteran journalist and political analyst, says that Farooq Abdullah needs to re-establish his leadership-legitimacy as defeat in the 2014 elections had morally weakened him, though politically neither he nor his son is facing a challenge within their camp.

“Temperamentally, he has always been incompetent in opposition. After losing badly in the 2002 assembly polls, he never really regained his composure,” said Malik.

For Abdullah, therefore, winning the Srinagar by-election was significant for the larger politics of the NC, which was routed in the last assembly elections – winning only 15 seats in the 87-member house. The NC has also been a weak opposition against the PDP-BJP coalition government during the recent civilian uprising.

‘Abdullah’s well-crafted tirade’

Despite the death of at least 80 civilians, the NC was unable to create any pressure against the Mehbooba Mufti government. This was due in part to its own record in the six years it was in power in coalition with the Congress, from 2008 to 2014. The 2010 protests were crushed with intense force, with more than 120 civilians killed in firing by the security forces.

The NC-Congress government led by Omar Abdullah as chief minister was also burdened with the cross of Kashmiri prisoner Afzal Guru’s execution. But today, Farooq Abdullah defends the stone throwers, saying that if any youth is sacrificing his life, it is because he wants resolution of the Kashmir issue.

“Our fight is against those people who want to divide us on the basis of religion,” he told party workers during his campaign. “I want to tell Modi sahab that tourism is our life, no doubt about that, but a stone pelter has nothing to do with tourism. They will risk starvation, but will throw stones for the nation, that’s what we need to understand.”

But Hameeda Nayeem, chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Developmental Studies (KSCDS) and a prominent advocate of azadi, says Abdullah’s well-crafted tirade against the Centre has still not been able to attract “naïve voters.” “Even his so-called charisma did not deceive the gullible Kashmiris this time,” Nayeem said. “But his contradictory statements like people were terrorised not to come out to vote betray his real politics. On one hand he speaks of growing alienation and on another fights election to enter the Indian parliament. The poll percentage has decimated him completely.”

PDP’s stakes

Unlike Abdullah, the young Mufti, however, is slowly being pitched as a softer political face to counter the use of force in the 2016 uprising and all the U-turns made by the PDP after joining the BJP as alliance partner. With him at the front, the party is trying to attract mainly young voters, so the PDP youth president Waheed Para, continues to join him during his campaign or media interactions to help him intensify his youth-centric politics. Para seems to be the PDP’s influential ground campaigner in south Kashmir, helping several party candidates in elections.

Even though Mufti is being presented to people as a well-educated new politician who focuses more on tourism and culture, people see him as a man associated with mainstream politics. Also coming from a political family, it is inevitable that people link his political agenda to that of his sister, who decided to join hands with the BJP after campaigning against the party in the 2014 assembly election.

According to Malik, the PDP’s political prospects are closely tied to the junior Mufti’s performance. “Defeat will mean a serious loss of face,” he said. “Personally, he might escape with minor ‘injury’ and most probably walk back into his profession but it would extract some price from the PDP and Mehbooba Mufti. The PDP has put its full force behind him and defeat would virtually mean that the door for their return in 2019 is firmly shut.”

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