J&K DDC Polls: Apni Party Emerges as Essential Lynchpin in 'Admin-Aided Horse Trading'

Omar Abdullah has accused the administration of interfering with the electoral process after the declaration of the DDC results.

Srinagar: With a winning Congress candidate hitching her wagon to the Altaf Bukhari-led Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), Shopian is likely to become the second district, after Srinagar, where the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a grouping of seven regional parties committed to the restoration of Article 370, will not be in control of the newly elected development council.

Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, JKAP’s district vice-president for Shopian told The Wire that Nigeena Akhtar, who won on a Congress ticket from Chitragam-1 in Shopian, has joined Apni Party.

The DDC elections, which concluded last week, delivered stellar victories (110 seats out of 280) for the PAGD in Kashmir but it was the BJP that bagged the single larges number of seats across J&K. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the Gupkar Alliance might chair 13 of the 20 DDCs across the Union Territory.

Switching sides

In Kashmir, the PAGD was previously poised to chair all districts barring Srinagar – where candidates contesting independently won seven and JKAP won three with one each going to the National Conference (NC), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), BJP and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM). Eight seats form a quorum which is required to chair a DDC. Each DDC typically has 14 seats.

National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti look on as People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration spokesperson Sajjad Lone. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

Shopian also threw up a fragmented mandate, with independents winning four seats, PDP four, NC three, JKAP two and Congress one. With support from the Congress, the PAGD would ordinarily have counted on eight seats,  until Apni Party claimed it had secured defections from rival parties.

The PDP’s Raja Abdul Waheed, one of the winning candidates from Shopian, told The Wire that Apni Party has used “pressure tactics” to poach his fellow winning candidates. “We fought on seven seats from Shopian and won from four,” he said. “Our candidate Abdul Rashid Lone who won on a PDP ticket from Hermain II seat defected to JKAP. The party had also fielded an independent candidate from Keller-I seat Fazal-Din Deedad. He too joined Apni Party. Now we are left with three seats.”

Apni Party also secured defections from NC on Friday last week when it announced the entry of Yasmeena Jan, who had won on the NC ticket from Imam Sahib-I seat in Shopian. This takes the current tally of JKAP to six – short by just two seats to take the chair of the Shopian DDC.

Also read: J&K: How and Why the DDC Polls Results ‘Marginalised’ the BJP

Now the remaining three independent candidates hold the key to the Shopian DDC chair. But given the aggressive horse-trading that Apni Party has indulged in – and the success it displayed in securing defections from established parties like NC – it’s only a matter of time before the other candidates give in to this form of “persuasion.”

Sources from the NC told The Wire that one of the three independent candidates were affiliated with them. “Abdul Hamid Sheikh Gojar who won from Shopian-I seat is affiliated to us,” they said. “But currently he has been put under restrictions by the J&K administration at Shirmal Forest Complex in Shopian.”

Both PDP and NC alleged that the J&K government was playing a completely partisan role and facilitating horse trading. The allegations have come on the heels of the detention of NC’s Shopian district president Showkat Ahmad Ganaie. “The grounds of detention have not been made known by the administration as yet,” the party said in a statement recently, demanding his immediate release.

The party’s segment in-charge for Shopian, Shabir Ahmad Kulle, was also detained by the administration last week. “Kulle is such a humble man. He never even organised any protest. He was recently elected as bar president of lawyers’ association in Shopian,” they said. “How can he be a threat to law and order as government claims?”

Hampering electoral process?

On Saturday, Omar Abdullah had accused the administration of interfering with the electoral process after the declaration of the DDC results. “On whose command we don’t know. There are arrests, detentions and threats; the districts in Kashmir, where they can change the results using detentions and make DDC chairman from parties other than the Gupkar Alliance, they are doing it with vim and vigour,” he said.

During the presser, Abdullah played an audio clip purportedly substantiating his allegation that an NC candidate joined Apni Party under duress to secure the release of her brother who is allegedly facing detention. The clip could not be independently verified.

Divisional commissioner Kashmir region P.K. Pole did not return calls from The Wire. On Saturday, media reports also claimed that around “100 politicians, political workers, anti-India leaders and over ground workers (OGWs) of militants will face preventive detention or will be booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) in a new drive by administration in Kashmir to prevent breach of peace.”

Inspector general of police, Kashmir region, Vijay Kumar confirmed the reports to The Wire but refused to elaborate on the nature of threat to “peace” in Kashmir. “Whatever has been reported is factual,” he said, before hanging up.

Police have arrested three PDP leaders and three leaders of NC over the last few days. Three PDP leaders – Nayeem Akhtar, Sartaj Madni and Peer Mansoor – were arrested on December 21, a day before the counting of votes in the DDC polls. NC leader Hilal Lone, son of member of parliament Akbar Lone, was also held under preventive detention.

Also read: DDC Poll Results Prove BJP’s Claim of Ending NC-PDP Rule in Kashmir Wrong

Anti-defection laws

As matters stand now, the Apni Party needs support from only two of the three independent candidates to take control of Shopian district. Speaking to The Wire, JKAP’s Zaffar Iqbal Manhas said, “There is a difference between pressure and persuasion. It’s quite normal for a political party to carry out negotiations when it doesn’t have the required majority. It’s all politics. To term it ‘pressure’ is uncalled for. It’s happening with mutual agreement. Unless something else happens, we are more than sure that Apni Party will win the Shopian district.”

Sources from NC said that they were taken aback at the decision of one of their victorious candidates to cross over into JKAP’s fold. “She was loyal. That’s why we gave her a ticket,” a senior member of NC told The Wire. They also said that due to new structural changes in the administrative system of J&K, they weren’t fully sure if anti-defection laws apply.

A woman casts her vote in the first phase of the District Development Council in Jammu and Kashmir on November 28. Photo: PTI

Before the reading down of Article 370, J&K had an anti-defection law much stronger than the one in operation in the rest of India. Adding to the confusion was divisional commissioner Pole’s comment to press on Monday saying that administration will verify from the rural development department whether the anti-defection law can be enacted in J&K.

Also read: DDC Poll Results Are an Emphatic Rejection of the Scrapping of J&K’s Special Status

NC sources said they have also asked their legal team to clear the fog over the matter. Altaf Bukhari, meanwhile, has claimed that more defections are likely to come from PAGD in coming days.

In an interview to the media, he said that Apni Party was likely to win in six districts across J&K. He also speculated about the PDP and JKPC abandoning the PAGD in the coming days. “These will be interesting days. How PAGD unfolds or what will happen in Kupwara [remains to be seen]. Will the People’s Conference, which has a stronghold in the region, abandon PAGD? Will PDP abandon them in Pulwama? Will they support each other to elect DDC chairpersons or not? All this will be interesting to see,” he said.

When The Wire reached Bukhari for comment, he refused to speak. “I am with family after a long time. Cannot talk at the moment,” he said.

JKPC, however, rubbished the speculations. “We are in advanced stages of talks with PAGD. We will establish a chair in Baramulla as well as in Kupwara where PAGD has won nine seats on its own,” said Adnan Ashraf Mir, spokesperson of JKPC.

PDP leaders believe that the vulnerability to defections was the fallout of a hasty election process. “All our decisions ranging from agreeing to fight polls to deciding the candidates and filing the nominations happened in a matter of days,” said Bari Andrabi, a PDP leader. “As a result, the tickets were handed out in haste and now we face issues of victorious candidates who are succumbing easily to attempts of poaching.”

PDP’s state secretary youth wing Aarif Laigroo said that the party has faced tremendous difficulties due to the arrest of its youth leader Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra. “Had he not been arrested, our electoral victories from south Kashmir would have been huge. There was no question about it,” he said. Parra was the only winning DDC candidate who could not take the oath on Monday because he was detained by the NIA at a jail in Jammu just before the polls.

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.