How Mainstream Parties in Kashmir Have Survived After Special Status Was Removed

Surviving in Kashmir politics has never been easy for parties. Although the difficulty has gone up several notches after the dilution of Article 370, mainstream parties have adopted flexible positions and taken timely decisions to stay afloat.

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Keeping themselves afloat and relevant while simultaneously maintaining their distinction from the separatist politics has been the most crucial challenge for the mainstream parties in Kashmir during the last two years. The ‘Pro-Indian parties’, as these have been known, had been seeking their relevance in the conflict-ridden politics of Kashmir by providing ‘autonomy’ as an alternative vision to the separatist politics based on the demand of ‘azadi’.

With the abrogation of the special constitutional status on August 5, 2019, these parties have been faced with an existential crisis. With the concept of ‘autonomy’ completely scrapped from the political landscape, these parties had not only lost the content of their politics but also the basis of their relevance in the conflict-ridden politics of Kashmir.

Surviving in Kashmir’s politics has never been easy for the mainstream parties, especially during the last three decades of militancy and separatism, as they were confronted with militant violence on the one hand, and the issues of legitimacy, on the other. So much pressurised were these parties in the early 1990s that these had completely buckled in and had gone into hibernation for a long period.

When efforts were made to revive mainstream politics in 1996, it was quite an uphill journey. The challenge came not only from militancy which was still at its peak, but also from the deep-rooted separatism. It was only in 2002 that the mainstream politics was able to create a legitimate space for itself – a space that expanded significantly in the next one and a half decades.

However, the journey in democratic politics was halted with the dismissal of the BJP-PDP government in 2018 and a new challenge was felt in August 2019 when with the reading down of the Article 370, the special constitutional status of the state, and the state was bifurcated and downgraded as a Union territory.

Initial response

The initial response of the mainstream parties to the new situation was reflected almost a year after, as the prominent leaders of all the parties were placed under detention immediately with the August 2019 changes. It was in the situation of uncertainty and despondency, that after their release, these leaders sought to pick up the threads of politics by continuing with the political stance taken by them immediately before their detention – by reaffirming their faith in Gupkar Declaration.

The Gupkar Declaration adopted by the Kashmir-based mainstream parties on a day before the crucial changes of August 2019 had committed all these parties to “protect and defend the identity, autonomy and special status of J&K”.

Also read: If Indeed the Gupkar Alliance Is Irrelevant, Why Has the BJP Launched Into a Tirade?

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) formed in October 2020 was the combined response of the Kashmir-based mainstream parties to seek relevance for the mainstream politics in the changed situation. It was the resolve to fight for the restoration of the special constitutional status of the state.

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

However, with no possibility of the Union government reviewing its stance and restoring Article 370 in its original shape, it was a desperate situation for these parties – almost a dead end. The questions that confronted the leaders of these parties therefore was – how to go about in the new circumstances, what to offer to the people and how to indulge in meaningful politics?

This challenge was coupled with another challenge – that of avoiding any extreme or non-negotiable position. Any such position on the part of leaders of mainstream parties would have pushed them to the margins of politics and the resultant vacuum could have been filled by new actors – most probably by the Apni Party (seen close to BJP) or the BJP.

Further, it would also have made it difficult for the mainstream parties to maintain their distinction from the separatist politics. Since the very existence of the mainstream parties in Kashmir is based on their essential distinction from the separatist politics, they could not stretch their protest beyond a point.

Participation in electoral politics

Since boycotting the political processes was never a realistic option for the leaders of the mainstream parties, they started adopting a pragmatic approach to these processes when the situation arose. When the Government of India decided to hold the election for District Development Councils in late 2020, they decided to contest the elections as a collective under the banner of PAGD. This was a strategic move as it allowed these parties to participate in the electoral process while sticking to the PAGD and its stance around restoration of Article 370.

For maintaining their credibility in Kashmir’s politics, it was important that these parties should not be seen as compromising their stand on Article 370. Hence rather than treating this as a usual election where each Kashmir based party would be competing with each other, these parties used the PAGD banner to symbolise their ‘protest mode’ while participating in electoral politics.

In effect, this was a move forward from the earlier position that most of the mainstream parties had taken while forming the PAGD – that unless the special constitutional status was restored, these parties will not participate in any political process. It proved to be a good move since the PAGD parties in general and the National Conference, in particular, were able to win a large number of seats in the DDC elections – large enough to prove the relevance of these parties in Kashmir’s politics.

National Conference President Farooq Abdullah, Vice President Omar Abdullah and other senior leaders during a meeting with party workers to celebrate the results of DDC and municipal elections, in Srinagar, Wednesday, December 23, 2020. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan

Since the leaders of mainstream political parties were quite demoralised after the August 2019 changes, as well as their prolonged detention and the continued campaign by the Union government that they had lost their relevance in Kashmir’s politics, the DDC election proved to be a good morale booster for these parties.

This also resulted in a reassessment of the role of the DDCs in re-establishing democratic politics in J&K. Earlier, the DDCs were not only seen as real poll bearers of democratic processes but were also seen as substitutes of the higher legislative bodies. Had these parties not performed well in these elections, the process would have resulted in the larger-than-life role of the DDCs and the perpetual postponement of the assembly elections.

Also read: Turnout, Dominance, Region, Religion: The Big Takeaways of the J&K DDC Polls

Timely strategies and flexible stances  

The success of the mainstream parties in the DDC election also set the basis for their movement ahead,  beyond the protest mode and beyond the banner of PAGD. Even when it was strategic for the mainstream parties to contest the DDC elections under the banner of the PAGD, its role in mainstream politics could not be stretched beyond a point.

The Alliance which mainly signalled the resentment of mainstream parties vis-a-vis the Union government’s move to abrogate the special constitutional status of the state, could not define the political role of the mainstream parties for all the time to come.

As it is, there were operational issues for these parties at the ground level. By their very nature, these were competitive parties with clear differences in their political positions and approach. Though they stood together on the issue of Article 370, they needed to operate in their own respective spaces for their routine politics. Hence, as the space started opening for the political processes, the need to redefine the role of PAGD and the day-to-day relationship of the mainstream parties with it was felt.

Since the parties are in the business of electoral politics and need to negotiate with the situation according to their own perspectives, it was considered important to delink their electoral role from the PAGD.

The rethinking regarding the relationship of the parties with PAGD was important from another perspective.  With protest forming the essence of the PAGD, there was a danger of it (PAGD) being seen as a parallel Hurriyat Conference – that is, if the parties dissolved all their differences and continued to operate only in the protest mode.

It was, therefore, important for the parties to move on and reclaim their political space as ‘mainstream’ parties as distinct from ‘separatist organisations’. That is the reason that these parties have been avowing their faith in Indian constitution and Indian institutions like the judiciary and while limiting the role of PAGD to its symbolic protest, moving ahead in the business of politics.

Different political parties have been using different strategies for moving forward. While the People’s Conference decided to come out of the PAGD, the other parties started adopting a more pragmatic approach towards it.

It is in the light of this approach that the leaders of the mainstream parties attended the all-party meeting called by the Prime Minister in June 2021. While registering their grievances vis-a-vis the developments in Kashmir, they kept away from raising the issue of Article 370.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with J&K leaders and other senior leaders at an all-party meeting, in New Delhi, on June 24, 2021. Photo: Twitter@PMOIndia.

Understanding that it is futile to expect the government which took away the special constitutional status to give it back (an argument put forth by Omar Abdullah soon after his release from the prolonged detention), they focused their attention on negotiable issues – congenial political environment in Jammu and Kashmir, and the release of political prisoners, for instance.

Also read: ‘Unconstitutional’ Revocation of Special Status, Loss of Statehood Raised in Meeting With Modi

By arguing that the issue of special constitutional status is before the Supreme Court, they delinked their participation in electoral politics from their fight for the restoration of the special constitutional status. This has enabled them to move forward in the limited political space available to them without being seen to have abandoned their political stance on Article 370.

The participation in the all party meeting helped affirm the role and relevance of the mainstream parties in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir. It was ironic that the same parties that were demonised earlier as manipulative, corrupt, and irrelevant were now given a respectable place on the dialogue table with the Prime Minister. It clearly indicated a shift of stance of the Government of India towards the mainstream parties.

However, it also made it clear as to how sparse is the political space available to these parties. The request by the Prime Minister to the parties to participate in the political process (and to begin with, cooperate with the completion of delimitation process) was concurrent with the home minister’s assertion that the process of restoration of statehood would not take place any soon, at least not before the assembly election.

Meaning thereby that the stakes that the political parties have in the electoral politics would be toned down significantly, and unlike earlier elections, the winning party/parties would have a quite a limited role in the governance. It will be a government that will have to function under the direct control of the Union government.

However, the political parties have sought to make use of the limited opening given to them and rather than rejecting the delimitation process, have participated in it and in the process have sought to negotiate for restoration of the statehood.

Also read: Here’s Why Kashmir Is Anxious Over the Delimitation Exercise

Understanding that not participating in the delimitation process, these parties would be giving a negative message, their leaders participated in the consultation process. More specifically, the National Conference, which has its statuary presence in the delimitation commission via its MPs and had earlier refused to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Commission, changed its position and sent its representatives to meet the commission during its consultations held in July 2019 both in Kashmir and Jammu regions.

Meanwhile, these parties have linked the demand for restoration of statehood with their participation in elections. Knowing very well that there is a value to their participation in the electoral process and that without their participation electoral exercise would not be seen to be authentic, these parties have forcefully made their participation conditional with the restoration of statehood.

That restoration of statehood is seen to be a legitimate demand of the political parties and its dismissal can arouse national and international criticism (and also that it is a demand that is shared among all the political actors of the erstwhile state – across the ideological and regional divide) has made their case very strong. It will be interesting to see how the issue takes shape in the times to come.

Survival of the mainstream parties and leaders, thus one can see, has been full of challenges since the abrogation of the constitutional status of J&K. From being totally rejected as irrelevant and even treated at par with the separatist politics and leaders to the acceptance of their credible role in the restoration of the democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir has been a long journey with a variety of challenges.

The parties have sought to meet these challenges by adopting flexible positions and changing their strategies from time to time: from using the PAGD platform to redefine them, delinking the demand for restoration of special constitutional status from the electoral process, shifting emphasis of their politics to the demand for restoration of statehood.

Thus these parties have sought to make use of whatever limited political space to their advantage. However, the  road ahead is not very smooth. It will be a long and bumpy journey for them before these parties are able to reclaim the political space that was available to them during the 2002-2018 period.

Rekha Chowdhary was formerly a professor of Political Science at the University of Jammu. She can be reached at rekchowdhary@gmail.com.