(A slew of unexpected factors could change the dynamics of Kashmiri politics before the assembly elections are finally held. The author explores the current developments in the first of a two-part series.)
The Kashmiri media is brimming with reports of one-time Hurriyat leader Bilal Lone joining mainstream politics. Some normally well-informed observers also speculate the possible release of the maverick former legislator and 'engineer' Abdul Rashid from jail before the assembly elections are held.
One hears that a formerly well-known and powerful minister too, may launch a new party. And who knows, there could be others in the shadows—in Budgam, for example. For, it would appear that having a large number of players in the electoral field could be part of the strategy of some ruling party policymakers.
Some observers speculate the possible release of Abdul Rashid from jail before assembly elections
The launch of a new party by Ghulam Nabi Azad, one-time Congress leader and former chief minister of the state has caused speculation about his impact on the elections.
Factors such as Rashid's release makes it tough to predict what might happen when elections are held in the union territory. Some say he would contest.
One striking trend that is quietly taking shape is that several Muslim politicians at the grassroots have joined the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)
Some of the optimistic votaries of the BJP seem to think they could already win a few assembly seats from the Valley whenever elections are held.
New Chapters Unfold in J&K Politics
Such new and renewed factors would certainly stir up the politics of the union territory, and add a degree of unpredictability to the outcome of the elections, whenever these are held.
Already, the launch of a new party by Ghulam Nabi Azad, one-time Congress leader and former chief minister of the state has caused speculation about his impact on the elections. Several Congress leaders in the union territory have joined Azad.
Some New Entrants May Prove Provocative
Rashid’s potential re-emergence could have a more powerful impact than most of these other factors. His apparently provocative remarks tend to polarise, not only in places like Jammu and within the union territory, but also in other parts of the country.
Rashid had caused a furore in 2015 when he hosted a beef party very publicly. He was then assaulted in the house by some Hindu members from Jammu, and ink was tossed at his face in Delhi.
The possibility of such unpredictable factors such as Rashid's release makes it tough to predict what might happen when elections are held in the union territory—or when these might be conducted. But such variables exist. Some of those who have been close to Rashid say he would contest.
Rashid and, of course, both Bilal and Sajad are inheritors of the late Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone’s political legacy, which is concentrated in the West and South of Kupwara district. Even without Rashid, Bilal’s emergence would energise voters in the North, for he has a far better rapport with grassroots workers than the relatively more urbane Sajad.
Political activists in Srinagar say Sajad did not agree to the number of seats Bilal wanted his nominees to contest. There are indications that he wants to contest all the seats in the Valley, even in the farthest South. Unless Sajad climbs down, Bilal may form his own party. Or, he may join forces with Rashid.
Which Parties Will Have an Upper Hand
If there is a major turnout, most observers hold that the National Conference would be best placed to win seats in the Muslim-dominated constituencies across the Union Territory (including the Jammu region).
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would be largely limited to South Kashmir where they could win a few seats. Barring a couple of them, senior PDP leaders from North and Central Kashmir have gravitated to other parties.
One of them, former minister Altaf Bukhari, formed Apni Party in 2020. It has been seen as a favourite of the ruling establishment, but has been given nothing much in the gerrymandering of seats. Indeed, it is not clear which seat Bukhari hopes to win. He is likely to contest two.
Gerrymandering certainly helped the People’s Conference, led by Sajad Lone and Imran Ansari. Until the emergent possibilities cropped up, some of those close to them counted on their winning seven seats, if not more.
But, if Bilal and Rashid enter the fray against them, only Ansari’s two strongholds might be secure—provided the once-troubled Palhalan in Ansari’s Pattan constituency remains in boycott mode. Since Palhalan is mainly Sunni, its votes could unsettle the impact of Ansari’s Shia base.
Many Kashmiris Inch Towards BJP for Representation
One striking trend that is quietly taking shape is that several Muslim politicians at the grassroots have joined the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), and others are considering whether to do so.
This does not mean that the ruling party would win seats in Muslim-dominated assembly constituencies, but it could possibly pave the way for normalising the party among Kashmiri Muslims in the long term. People tend to go where they see power, more than one insightful local political observer remarked during recent conversations.
The ruling party could certainly win a few more panchayat seats already. Local bodies' elections are due next October. There is much talk of assembly elections being held in the spring of 2023, but I wonder if the government might choose to wait until after those local bodies' polls.
Some of the more optimistic votaries of the BJP seem to think they could already win a few assembly seats from the Valley whenever elections are held. They mention Gurez in particular, and also Karnah.
Both these constituencies are dominated by citizens who often call themselves `Pahari’ and BJP leaders have recently promised to grant the longstanding demand of `Paharis’ for scheduled tribe status.
However, it is unclear whether this move will actually bring the party substantial chunks of votes—either in constituencies such as Karnah, Gurez, and Uri at the edges of the Valley or in Rajouri and Poonch districts, which are dominated by those who identify as either Gujjars or Paharis.
Can Ghulam Nabi Azad Retain the Muslim Sentiment?
There has been much speculation about how Azad’s new party might fare. Many in the Kashmir Valley say the new party is likely to divide votes, mainly in the Chenab basin (Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Poonch, Rajouri), but may not win many seats.
If that happens, the BJP could be a beneficiary, for Azad is more likely to take (mainly Muslim) votes that might otherwise have gone to the NC, PDP, or Congress more than Hindu votes, which might otherwise go to the BJP.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)