The district and local bodies elections in Jammu and Kashmir have clearly shown that the PDP’s alliance with the BJP in 2015 was a strategic blunder. It continues to take a toll.
The PDP suffered the most from that alliance, which should have given both parties greater heft in the other’s area of influence—if it had worked.
Instead, it has been almost a kiss of death for the PDP, which was able to win only a single seat among all the 140 district development council seats spread across the ten districts in the Jammu division.
This is in stark contrast to the past, when the PDP had a strong base in Rajouri and Poonch, and even among Sikhs and Hindus in pockets such as Ranbir Singh Pora. Indeed, party founder Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had won an election from there some decades ago.
BJP’s Successes In Kashmir Valley
Ironically, the BJP has emerged far better from that alliance, perhaps because it has been able to project itself to its voters as the one that ended the alliance.
Not just that, it has been able to win a couple of electoral victories in the Valley during these DDC polls, after having gone out of its way to project itself as a party for all sections in the state.
It spent a great deal of money during the recent elections, even in the Kashmir valley, where it put up a very large number of candidates.
Of course, one of the seats the BJP won is Tuleil, a pocket right at the Line of Control (LoC). The Paharis and other communities who live in those areas have generally had positive interactions with the army, and have a much more positive attitude towards the country than is common in the heart of the Kashmir valley.
However, the other seat the BJP won is on the outskirts of Srinagar, which it took by a large margin. Aijaz Hussain Rather won it with 832 votes, far ahead of the 381 polled by Ghulam Hassan Hajam of Apni Party, who came second.
Especially after the constitutional changes of 5 August 2019, this is notable, to say the least.
Why The Shunning Of The PDP Is ‘Dangerous’
The decline of the PDP is not a good thing, for it represents an array of political forces in the Valley that did not feel included in the National Conference, which was the single dominant party when the PDP was formed in 1999.
Mufti Sayeed brought into the PDP some of those who had once been a part of Abdul Ghani Lone’s People’s Conference in north Kashmir, doing so at a time when Lone was a leading light of the separatist movement.
Sayeed also included the remnants of a party that had been founded by Mohiuddin Kara, centred around the Batmaloo area of Srinagar, and some other forces that had been in the political shade. Mohiudin Kara had briefly, in the 1940s, been the tallest leader of the Kashmir valley after Sheikh Abdullah.
It was important to give these various forces a place within the political mainstream, and Sayeed was able to do so very effectively, managing with consummate ease the political strains that might have emerged from combining so many small and large streams.
The shunning of the PDP—and, in consequence, the various small and bigger forces to which it gives voice—is dangerous, particularly in such a turbulent place.
Anti-Incumbency Dogs PDP
It was already evident during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls that, across the Valley and most of all in its core south Kashmir base, the PDP remained severely hit by anti-incumbency even ten months after it had lost power in the state. It evidently has not recovered much ground.
The PDP lost considerable ground owing to corruption and nepotism while it was in power.
Notably, the BJP did not, even though its ministers too were seen as corrupt. It manages to stay less affected, thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s popularity.
In light of its sagging image, the PDP was probably a bigger beneficiary of being part of the PAGD alliance than some of the other constituents, since its candidates gained other parties’ votes in at least some places.
Mehbooba’s Grassroots Touch
Mehbooba Mufti had gained a reputation for her grassroots connect as the party president from 1999, until she became chief minister in 2016.
She has demonstrated again in the past few months that she is adept at political positioning on the ground.
However, her caustic remarks about stone-pelters at a press conference during the visit of former Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh (‘toffee lene gaye the?’) damaged her reputation among those who are on the margins between ‘mainstream’ and ‘separatist’ politics.
Yet, ironically, the PDP lost much of its former base in the Jammu division precisely because it retains the image of being ‘soft’ on separatism. It won only one seat (in Rajouri) in the entire Jammu division, while taking 26 of the 140 seats in the Valley.
A Crucial Lapse On PDP’s Part
The PDP was at the zenith of its popularity in early 2014, when five years of a government led by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) had caused much resentment and anger.
That was demonstrated in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, when the PDP not only won all the seats, it won in every assembly segment right across the Valley.
The credit for that belongs largely to Mehbooba, for she was the grassroots leader while her father managed policy and governance.
However, the party became complacent after those Lok Sabha elections, and did relatively little to assuage the suffering of the people during the floods which ravaged south Kashmir—the PDP’s core base—in September that year.
When elections were held in November-December, the PDP got the largest number of seats in the Valley (28 of 44), but nowhere near the clean sweep it had glimpsed during the Lok Sabha elections.
If it had won all the seats in the Valley, it would not have needed an alliance to form the government.
Being in power was bound to cause an anti-incumbency effect, but allying with the BJP risked a massive backlash. These elections indicate that the party is still suffering the consequences.
(David Devadas is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage’ in Kashmir (OUP). He tweets @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)