When top People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig, Lok Sabha MP, called a press conference to express his willingness to join a third front led by People’s Conference’s Sajad Lone, it was more than yet another sign of the rebellion that the PDP has continuously faced since the Mehbooba Mufti-led government collapsed last June. Baig, one of the PDP’s founding members, was not just targeting the party; his move was also driven by its secret negotiations with arch rival National Conference and the Congress to checkmate the BJP’s months-long manoeuvres in supporting Lone’s effort to rally together PDP rebel legislators and form a non-NC, non-PDP combination in Jammu & Kashmir.
Striking a deal
Sources said PDP leader and former Finance Minister Altaf Bukhari had begun these parleys a month-and-a-half ago. The discussions were triggered by the BJP’s push to go for polls in urban local bodies and panchayats despite a boycott by both PDP and NC. The two major regional parties were worried about the BJP’s support to Sajad Lone, especially after he took over Srinagar Municipality and emerged a strong ally of the BJP in J&K and the Centre’s new man in the state.
Sources close to leaders involved in the parleys told The Indian Express that the PDP and the NC had no choice but to negotiate a new coalition to keep out the BJP and especially Sajad Lone. They added the Congress too felt that the new alliance would send the right message nationwide ahead of elections, and help it consolidate in Jammu where BJP routed it in the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
The sources said senior Congress leader Ambika Soni and top NC leader Omar Abdullah coordinated the negotiations. Two days ago, Mufti reportedly spoke to Soni and Abdullah to seal the alliance. This, sources claim, created ripples in Srinagar as well as New Delhi.
Baig, Lone and BJP
This is when Baig, already upset about his curtailed role in the PDP since the party allied with the BJP, came into the picture. His statement Tuesday showing an inclination to join Lone’s front, if formed, drowned the politically more important statement — he opposed any alliance between PDP and NC saying it would lead to trifurcation of J&K because it would be a Muslim alliance. Sources said Baig’s endorsement of a Lone-led front was in fact the BJP’s last-ditch effort to thwart the coming together of NC, PDP and Congress.
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who oversees party affairs in J&K, is said to have been working closely with Lone on the ambitious plan. The party, however, delayed in taking a decision on government formation. For months, there were conflicting narratives on the BJP’s next move. While Lone and five PDP rebel MLAs were pushing for the go-ahead from BJP’s top brass to break the PDP and assemble the numbers required, Governor Satya Pal Malik was publicly denying any such possibility. Malik regularly said a new government would be formed only after an election, not through defections in parties.
The possibility of a new alliance, however, was kept alive because, despite NC, PDP and Congress seeking dissolution of the Assembly, the Governor’s administration kept it in suspended animation. After the recent success in garnering the Srinagar mayor’s seat in elections marked by a low turnout, the group led by Lone once again come into the limelight, bolstering its hopes that the BJP top brass would give the go-ahead for assembling an alliance. The manoeuvring by the BJP and the threat of a rebellion, instead, pushed the NC and the PDP to bury the hatchet and join hands for survival, together with the Congress.
After the dissolution
Having made their intention public, the three parties had hoped that it would be very difficult for the BJP to push the Governor’s administration to dissolve the Assembly. Together these three parties have 55 legislators, including the five PDP rebels. The number needed to form a government is 44.
Now that the Governor’s administration has dissolved the Assembly, it has long-term ramifications. The Centre’s move can be read as a victory for the NC, PDP and Congress because this had been their demand since June. As long as the Assembly was in suspended animation, the option was still open for the BJP to assemble a new coalition, while the other three parties, especially PDP, was constantly under the threat of rebellion. In fact, such rebellion was being fed largely by hopes of being accommodated in a new BJP-supported formation.
The dissolution of the Assembly when the three parties had made their intention public, therefore, will give them fresh ammunition against the BJP and the Centre. Leaders are describing it as “stealing the mandate” — the first time since the 1987 polls that J&K parties have made such an allegation against New Delhi.
Though the parties have the option of challenging the dissolution in court, it is clear that they are secretly delighted with this decision. They managed to box the BJP into a corner, leaving it with a choice between two equally difficult options — dissolve the Assembly or allow an anti-BJP government. The Centre, it seems, chose what an NC leader described as a “one-time hit” rather than allow a government that would thrive on constant confrontation with the Centre.
Confrontation would have helped NC and PDP rejuvenate their diminished regional base. The coalition would also have made an impact in Jammu (where the BJP won 25 Assembly seats in 2014) by sharpening the religious divide in the state.
This combination was very new to J&K, the first such experiment since the Congress and the NC came together for the first time in the 1980s. The difference, however, is that this time the arch rivals were claiming that the purpose of the alliance was to safeguard the special status of J&K and keep the BJP out of power.
If these parties challenge the Governor’s decision in court, it will give them a chance to question the Centre’s “partisan” intervention. Even if they don’t, politics in J&K will never be the same again.