J&K Panchayat Polls: A ‘Good Dynasts’ vs ‘Bad Dynasts’ Race

Sajjad Lone’s political fate depends on his party’s performance in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

7 min read
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In the 2014 assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had set a target of winning more than 44 seats in the House of 87 members, thus, forming a government of its own in the country’s only Muslim-majority state. It bagged an unprecedented 25, but all in the Hindu-dominated Jammu division. In the 50 segments in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, it failed to win a single seat.

BJP’s only pre-poll ally, Sajjad Gani Lone’s People’s Conference (PC), had the distinction of winning two seats—both on its home turf in Kupwara district.

It was for the first time since Sajjad’s father Abdul Gani Lone’s plunge into electoral politics in 1967 that someone from his legacy won two seats. In four years of his victory, thanks to BJP’s unflinching support, Sajjad Lone, it is being speculated in some political circles, as the next chief minister in Jammu and Kashmir, even though he has never staked such a claim publicly.

Up in the Air

Lone served as a Cabinet Minister from BJP’s quota in the PDP-BJP coalition, first headed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and later by Mehbooba Mufti, till it ended prematurely on 19 June this year. Since the Assembly has not been dissolved and it has just been put under suspended animation, speculations of the BJP forming a new coalition with ‘dissidents’ from PDP and other parties have been fluctuating during the Governor’s rule.

In his statements and interviews in the last few weeks, Lone has maintained that the alliance of BJP and PC was preparing itself for the Lok Sabha elections, likely to be held in May 2019.

Nevertheless, several BJP leaders are on record, having asserted that their party could form government if the number of its MLAs and allies touched the magic figure of 44. Lone’s unparalleled advantage is being the alliance’s only ‘presentable’ Muslim face in the Muslim-majority state that has never seen a non-Muslim Chief Minister.

For two months after Mehbooba Mufti’s exit as chief minister, speculations were rife that “over 20 MLAs” from her party would support BJP to install Lone as the next head of the government. On a couple of occasions, people even began distributing the portfolios. But the crescendo plummeted the day Mehbooba carried along a brigade of her MLAs and MLCs to A B Vajpayee’s funeral.


Mehbooba Down, But Not Out

Of the five ‘dissidents’ in her party of 28 MLAs, Mehbooba managed to win back two—Javed Hassan Baig and Abdul Majeed Paddar. Three of her MLAs— Shia leaders Imran Reza Ansari and his uncle Maulvi Abid Ansari and Mohammad Abbas Wani— are still openly supporting the BJP-PC axis. Yet another PDP MLA, Haseeb Drabu, is known to be upset with Mufti. He has not attended any of PDP’s meetings after his unceremonious dismissal as Finance Minister in March 2018 and has publicly declined to accept a party position. But he has not been seen with PDP’s rivals either.

Political analysts seem to be nearly unanimous on the fact that perceived rebellion in PDP would not lead to a storm until there is a proactive initiative of the government formation from the BJP-RSS combine.

“It will never happen until the BJP high command takes a leaf out of the Congress’s history of political engineering,” said an analyst with reference to 1953, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru engineered a split in Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference to install Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad as Prime Minister of J&K, and 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi got Farooq Abdullah dismissed with defections in NC and the installation of Ghulam Mohammad Shah as chief minister.


Aversion to ‘Congress-Type Tricks’ in J&K

If well-placed political sources are to be believed, there is a huge difference of opinion in the BJP-RSS fold, as several top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are categorically against using a “Congress formula” to fulfill the ambition of ruling the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

They are said to be of the opinion that the formation of the new government should be considered only if 17 MLAs from PDP and other parties come out “voluntarily”.

At least two senior BJP leaders revealed to The Quint on condition of anonymity that there was “no question of offering money, Cabinet berths or any other privileges” to any MLA. “These have been the traits of the Congress party. BJP doesn’t believe in such dirty tricks,” said one BJP leader who claimed that his party would not expose itself to criticism, more so ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

“These rumours and speculations are limited to Srinagar. Here in Delhi, we are concerned about nothing but parliamentary elections,” he asserted.

NC’s and PDP’s boycott of the recent municipal elections over the issue of Article 35-A, has indeed provided some space to Lone’s PC which found convenient to occupy the urban local body in Handwara. Five of PC’s nominees were returned without polling, as nobody filed candidature in their wards. The party won eight seats by contest. However, the district headquarters of Kupwara and PC’s second Assembly segment was swept by the independent candidates, fielded by the PDP Rajya Sabha member Mir Mohammad Fayaz’s brother.


A ‘Fixed Match’

But the much-engineered contest in Srinagar Municipal Corporation, in which BJP’s national General Secretary Ram Madhav played a significant role, came as a big morale-booster for Lone. Former NC spokesman Junaid Azim Mattu was elected as the Mayor, as 40 councillors out of 74, mostly independent, voted for him days after he resigned from Omar Abdullah’s party and returned to Lone’s camp.

While hardly anybody knew about the sponsorship and political affiliation of around 50 independent winners, only four of the BJP’s 67 official candidates won the elections.

One of them got a total of 8 votes. Congress won 15 seats. Some well-connected politicians insist that even the son of a senior NC leader got six to eight of his ‘proxies’ elected from downtown Srinagar and finally sold them off to a BJP leader to benefit Mattu.

Some political and social media circles dismissed these elections as a “fixed match” while referring to one of Governor Satya Pal Malik’s interviews in which, days before the counting, he had said that a “foreign educated youth” was likely to become the mayor in Srinagar.

Ram Madhav, Lone, three members of the Ansari family, two of PDP’s ‘dissident’ MLCs and even a senior Congress leader’s businessman son, attended the celebration for Mattu at an eminent hotel.


Omar Denies ‘Walkover’ to BJP

A few days later, when Ram Madhav on Twitter asked NC and PDP to make clear if they would also boycott the next assembly elections, Omar Abdullah retorted that the two conventional mainstream parties would not give Team Madhav the luxury of a walkover. He claimed that the nominees of the BJP and its allies had won some seats in the urban local body elections, only due to the two parties’ boycott.

Even as some in the BJP, particularly Madhav, claimed that their party and Lone’s PC, (which is still not a recognised party), had made a dent in NC’s and PDP’s traditional bastions, analysts attached little significance to the results as the voter-turnout remained a paltry four percent in the Valley.

Polling was held in less than 200 out of nearly 600 wards, as most of the wards either went blank or had single candidates in the fray.


‘Underdogs vs Elites’? Not Really

Madhav, Lone and his former ministerial colleague Imran Ansari have made frontal attacks on NC and PDP while challenging their “dynastic monopoly” over mainstream politics in Kashmir. But their tirade has had a limited impact for more than one reason. None other than Madhav was the architect of BJP’s coalition with PDP, which had been publicly berated by Prime Minister Modi as “baap beti kii party” (the party of a father and his daughter). Lone and Ansari served as ministers in the same coalition.

Apparently to win more favour with BJP, this new political amalgam has also targeted Congress, holding it responsible for all “electoral rigging and manipulations” in Kashmir. Interestingly, the fathers of both the young leaders have been veteran politicians, who not only pioneered the challenge to Sheikh Abdullah and his NC, but also created their own legacy and dynasties.

Both were originally creations of the Congress party, contested and won several elections in the most challenging circumstances and both functioned as ministers. So calling their successors ‘underdogs’ would be inaccurate.


From Congress Worker to ‘Lion of Handwara’

Abdul Gani Lone served four terms as MLA before switching over to separatist politics in 1990. In the 1967 Assembly elections, he was declared elected on a Congress ticket from Handwara. In the 1972 Assembly elections, he again returned as the Congress candidate from Handwara, getting 24,291 votes. Both these elections are known to have been rigged by the Congress as nomination papers of most of the Opposition candidates were rejected.

In the 1977 Assembly elections, widely rated as the first free and fair election in J&K, senior Lone was among the two Janata Party candidates who won in the Valley. All but three seats were swept by Sheikh’s NC.

In the 1983 Assembly elections, senior Lone lost to NC’s Chowdhary Mohammad Ramzan from Handwara— both got over 17,500 votes— but he defeated NC’s Ghulam Qadir Mir in Karnah. Even as Ramzan retained Handwara in 1987, 1996 and 2008, Lone’s proxy, Mohiuddin Sofi, was returned in 2002 and inducted as Forest Minister in Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s PDP-Congress coalition. Finally, in the assembly elections of 2014, Sajad Lone defeated arch rival Ramzan from Handwara. This time around, PC’s fortress extended to Kupwara.

In the criss-cross of claims and counterclaims, Sajjad Lone asserts that he has struggled hard to revive the PC and has not got his successes on a platter. In the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, his party’s performance will determine his fate in electoral politics. In case he emerges as winner and BJP retains power at the national level, nobody will be able to stop him from becoming an alternative to the “bad dynasts” —Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. 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.)

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