J&K: ‘Laundry Politics’ Sees Politicians Rush to Join ‘Safer’ Platforms

Since March 17, at least 10 members of different political parties have deserted them in favour of Sajid Lone’s JKPC.

Srinagar: On March 25, when Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), waved to media people and shuffled into the Srinagar office of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in connection with an alleged money laundering case, Khursheed Alam, a former member of the legislative council and a leader of the PDP in Srinagar city, was contemplating a different political journey for himself.

Alam had exited the party just four days earlier, on March 20, and on Monday, March 29, Alam announced he was joining the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (JKPC), a party led by Sajad Lone.

Lone had recently pulled out of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a conglomerate of regional parties seeking the restoration of Article 370, over allegations that the constituent parties had fielded proxy candidates for the District Development Council (DDC) elections and undermined the conglomerate’s political agenda. “We fought against each other in Kashmir province and not against the perpetrators of August 5,” Lone had said in the letter that announced his departure from the alliance.

Mehbooba, who challenged the ED summons in court, has accused the Central government of orchestrating a political inquisition in Kashmir and of trying to bring down politicians who push back against the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and refuse to toe a line espoused by the BJP.

Alam was not the only politician to join Lone’s bandwagon. Since March 17, at least 10 members of different political parties have joined the JKPC. Among them are big political names like Basharat Bukhari, a former legislator who served as a minister during the BJP-PDP coalition, and Muzaffar Hussain Baig, former deputy chief minister and one of the founding members of the PDP.

Muzaffar Hussain Baig and Sajad Lone. Photo: Twitter/@JKPC_

But political observers were taken aback when Aarif Amin joined the JKPC. Amin is a former associate of the PDP’s Waheed Para, who is now caught in a National Investigation Agency (NIA) case pertaining to trafficking ammunition into Kashmir and funding militancy.

According to PDP sources, Amin was introduced to Para in 2013 and since then had been working informally within the PDP under Para’s aegis, looking after its political management. However, after Para was arrested by the NIA, Amin was frequently directed to appear before the police at the Joint Interrogation Centre, Humhama, on the outskirts of Srinagar. PDP sources say Amin’s decision to join the JKPC came after his run-ins with the investigative agencies.

Political churn

In the last few months, Kashmir has seen a whirlwind of political activity, including the DDC elections, the fissures within the PAGD, high-profile desertions from political parties and a rising number of cases against mainstream politicians who are opposed to BJP’s political agenda. All this has sparked an intense political churning in the former state.

Whether a political reconfiguration engineered by New Delhi is underway in Kashmir, is not clear. But a principal beneficiary of this change is clearly the JKPC, to which some influential political names have flocked. The PDP, on the other hand, appears to be at the losing end.

“I am not a separatist. I am a mainstream politician and that, by definition, implies a sense of belonging to India,” Khursheed Alam told The Wire. “By joining the JKPC, I have not abandoned my ideals. I am going to make good on my pledge to work to restore the dignity of the people of J&K while also serving the interests of the country.”

Also read: Centre Denies Passport to Mehbooba Mufti and Mother, Says Departure ‘Detrimental to Security of India’

Alam ascribed his desertion from the PDP to Mehbooba’s recent decision to revamp the party’s organisational structure, during which she was also re-elected as party president.

“I had been persuading her to rejuvenate the party by naming new office-bearers. But they inducted the people who were already at the helm. This left me with the option of either confronting her publicly or leaving the party in protest. I chose the latter,” Alam said.

Youth leaders Arif Amin, Riyaz Wani, Aman Zargar and Faizan Ellahi with Sajad Lone. Photo: Twitter/@JKPC_

There are speculations that the Centre might be investing in Sajad Lone in the wake of the ‘poor performance’ of Altaf Bukhari, whose Apni Party members were recently put under house arrest by J&K’s gubernatorial administration ahead of Bukhari’s proposed strike programme against what he calls “illegal sand extraction and selling of other construction material” in Kashmir.

Last year, the J&K administration opened the former state’s mineral resource exploitation to outstation bidders. This led to the marginalisation of local players, feeding into their resentment and creating more alienation.

“Five lakh people associated with [this] business across the union territory are on the verge of starvation,” Bukhari had said recently while announcing the strike.

Section 144 remains in force in Srinagar, rendering all demonstrations illegal. Since its inception in January last year, Apni Party’s role has been mostly about reducing mainstream politics in Kashmir to bickering over issues that are manageable for Delhi, where invocations of Kashmir’s disputed status, its impending resolution and the reinstatement of Article 370 are not required.

Divide and rule

The idea of political reconfiguration in Kashmir is perhaps to keep the political mandate in the erstwhile state fractured so that parties like the BJP can consolidate votes in other regions. These votes could translate into a kind of electoral dividend that would uphold the Narendra Modi-led Central government’s sway in the region’s politics, should statehood be restored and assembly elections announced.

Nowhere was this dynamic better demonstrated than during the DDC elections that concluded last December. Even though the PAGD scored the maximum number of seats, Bukhari, an industrialist, managed to leverage his influence with traders in Srinagar to amass enough votes to get three of the 14 seats in the city.

The requisite number of seats to claim the Srinagar DDC was cobbled together by roping in independents. The restive Shopian district also threw up a fragmented mandate, with Apni Party emerging victorious only in two seats. Yet Bukhari managed to get the Shopian DDC in his name by banking on defections from rival parties.

“Shopian DDC election, even Srinagar for that matter, aren’t really a surprise,” former chief minister of J&K and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted. “These people have been buying & selling elected representatives since 1984. Practice makes perfect!”

Still, the J&K administration was eventually forced to tap into its control over state institutions to cushion the losses arising out of the PAGD’s spectacular victory. It limited the mobility of candidates associated with the PAGD, embroiled opponents in legal cases and changed the formula of the reservation roster for women DDC chairpersons in spite of protests from the Congress that such an alteration paved the way for favouring like-minded candidates, especially when the results had already been declared.

Also read: ‘Humiliated’: J&K’s Newly Elected DDC Representatives Lock Horns with UT Admin

A case in point is the Budgam DDC, where the National Conference (NC), despite marshalling all the eight seats required for chairing the council and one more seat besides, lost the election. Instead, an independent candidate was declared the chairperson through a draw of lots.

Such a victory could not have been possible without at least three PAGD councillors switching sides during the secret ballot. The NC has challenged the decision in court.

In contrast, Sajid Lone’s JKPC delivered a stellar performance. The party’s strike rate during the DDC polls was the highest, reaffirming its formidable political influence in North Kashmir, where it fielded most of its candidates.

The Wire was first to apprehend and deconstruct the implications of Lone’s swelling political profile in the run up to the 2019 parliamentary elections. With the PDP’s political fortunes plummeting, Lone appeared poised to take Omar Abdullah head on.

But Lone’s confrontational stand on Article 370 and his association with the PAGD led him to fall out of favour with the Centre. The JKPC is very circumspect about its politics in the movement and seems to understand the consequences of ‘wrong’ political messaging in Kashmir.

National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti and other leaders look on as then People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration spokesperson Sajad Lone speaks to the media after a meeting in Srinagar, October 24, 2020. Photo: PTI/S. Irfan/Files

Between the date of its withdrawal from the PAGD in February and March 17, the JKPC did not issue a single press release until it announced Muzaffar Hussain Baig’s entry into the party fold. The flurry of press briefings thereafter has all been about the new entrants.

“As of now we are in the mode of strengthening the party,” said a JKPC insider, wishing not to be named. “Ramzan is around the corner. Political activities are likely to halt. We plan to re-engage with the public after Eid. Of course, no party will support the abrogation of Article 370. We will put our agenda before the public with clarity.”

Crucially, Kashmir’s fresh political restructuring is coming amid an unprecedented crackdown against members of political parties, particularly the NC and the PDP, two prominent members of the Gupkar Alliance. Both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti chose not to tweet Republic Day greetings this January in a clear expression that they were not yet ready for rapprochement with the Centre.

At the same time, both parties have faced the wrath of investigative agencies. Last week, the NIA filed a charge-sheet against the PDP’s Waheed Para in connection with “procurement of terrorist hardware” and his role in “sustaining the political-separatist-militant nexus in J-K.”

Para’s arrest was a consequence of the arrest of the Hizbul Mujahideen-affiliated militant Syed Naveed Mushtaq. According to the police, the cascade of investigations spinning off from the original probe into Mushtaq threw light on the involvement of Para.

In January however, Para was granted bail by the NIA court on the grounds that “offences particularly falling under Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) are not prima facie made out against the accused”. He wasn’t released, but rearrested under different provisions of the Act.

Just a month later in February, the court rejected Para’s bail application, arguing that the security of the state shall prevail over the personal liberty of the petitioner because the allegations against him are very “grave” in nature.

Recently, the NIA also claimed that Mufti’s name figures in the charge-sheet and that she has been in touch with the militant Syed Naveed Mushtaq and even spoke to him once, said an IANS report. Mehbooba on Saturday laughed off the claims that Para could have been involved in destabilising the government in 2016 “when his own party was in power”.

On Monday, March 29, the government refused to renew her passport based on a Criminal Investigation Department report that it was “detrimental to the security of India”.

Last week, senior PDP leaders Naeem Akhtar and Sartaj Madni completed 100 days in pre-trial detention. Both were detained by the Jammu and Kashmir police on December 21 last year, a day before the counting of votes for the DDC polls. “My father has served at top posts in the earlier government, including [as its] spokesperson and suddenly declaring such a person as a threat to peace is unusual,” Akhtar’s daughter Shehryar Khanum told the press. “The authorities need to come up with solid reasons of his detention as till date they haven’t received any formal detention order in this regard.”

Farooq Abdullah too has been grappling with legal issues of his own with the ED, during which properties worth Rs 12 crore that he owns were attached. The ED has also mounted raids on the business of Shami Singh Oberoi, son of Dharamveer Singh, a senior NC leader.

In February, the J&K police charged Hilal Lone, an NC leader, under provisions of the UAPA for a speech he made while campaigning for elections. Even as Vijay Kumar, Kashmir’s police chief, justified the charges, the UAPA case against Lone fell apart in court.

Their core members enmeshed in constant legal troubles, the PAGD constituent parties have not been able to convene meetings and thrash out a roadmap for the reinstatement of Article 370 – something which is being cited as reason by deserters like Alam for abandoning their parent parties.

Also read: My Gandhian Grandfather, Who Died Unknown, by Waheed Para

A climate of fear persists among political parties in Kashmir. Leaders are watchful of their words and deeds. Speaking to The Wire, an NC party member who oversees membership drives in Srinagar said that new members often request that their pictures not be used in media releases.

PDP members said they had scaled down their presence on social media and avoided writing anything that could attract adverse attention. “That explains why many members are leaving our party and flocking to safer lands,” said a PDP member. “This is the new ‘laundry politics’ of J&K, where some politicians feel switching parties will wash the stains from their linen.”

Political observers situate these developments in “opportunism”, which has historically characterised mainstream politics in J&K.

“Most politicians in Kashmir join politics for personal benefits,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a legal scholar and political commentator. “By conveying that they are upholding the Indian flag, politicians in Kashmir have only attempted to extract perks. By doing this, they’ve also shielded their corrupt track records from investigations. Now they are looking for safer platforms; those which they perceive as being in Delhi’s good books.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.