Details have emerged of negotiations for formation of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir between the BJP, ally Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference and PDP rebels, with the hurdle being who gets the chief minister’s post.
Sources said the BJP is willing to concede any demand or ministry but is adamant on the CM’s post. “They see this a rare opportunity to get their own CM,” sources said.
However, top sources in the PDP rebel camp, who held meetings with BJP leaders in Delhi last week, said they were not willing to concede. “At some point in the future, J&K may have a chief minister from the BJP, but this is not the time for it,” they said.
While the name of Union minister Jitendra Singh, a senior BJP leader from the Jammu region, has emerged as a likely CM candidate from the BJP side, the other side is batting for Lone, also an ally of the BJP.
J&K is the only Muslim-majority state in India and holds special significance for the BJP going into the 2019 general elections. It was in power for the first time in the state as part of the coalition with the PDP, which collapsed recently.
Sources said that the Peoples Conference, which has two MLAs in the J&K Assembly, has rallied behind PDP legislators who are willing to ally with the BJP for a share in the spoils of power. Informally labelled ‘Northern Alliance’, as it was initiated by leaders from northern Kashmir, this group is banking on the fact that a large number of disgruntled PDP MLAs feel the party has lost its bastion of South Kashmir for now.
In an interview to India TV broadcast on Saturday, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said, “If Delhi intervenes and breaks our party and makes Sajad Ghani Lone or whosoever chief minister, it will erode the trust of Kashmiris in Indian democracy. Any intervention from Delhi will be taken seriously.”
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav has denied the BJP is in talks to form a government. In tweets Saturday, he said the party is in favour of Governor’s rule continuing for the moment.
But senior PDP leaders admitted that 21 of their 28 MLAs could walk away to ally with the BJP, if they can be assured of being in power for the remaining two-and-a-half years of the current Assembly. There is little they could do, the PDP leaders said. “If the Centre wants a new government, everything is irrelevant, especially when our legislators know that people are angry with them and militants are out to kill them,” a PDP leader said. “It is a matter of life and death, and they can’t afford to annoy New Delhi too.”
When contacted by The Indian Express, Lone refused to comment.
Five PDP legislators — Imran Reza Ansari, his uncle Abid Ansari, Abdul Majeed Padder, Abbas Wani and Javed Hassan Baig — have already revolted against party chief Mehbooba Mufti, accusing her of “turning the party into a family fiefdom”. They also blame the former CM for the break-up with the BJP, saying she blocked the Centre’s moves “to go in for an all-out crackdown against separatists and their sympathisers”. They are seen to be in favour of forming a new government, keeping Mufti out.
Imran Ansari told The Indian Express, “Realignment of political forces is happening… We are not looking for government formation. We are with people who are against the two-family domination of J&K. These two families (the Muftis and Abdullahs) betray Kashmiris emotionally and Delhi politically. We want a new leadership, an inclusive leadership to grow, which takes Kashmir forward.”
In the 87-member Assembly, the PDP has 28 members, followed by the BJP (25), National Conference (15), Congress (12), Peoples Conference (2) and Independents. With Peoples Conference MLAs and an Independent legislator with it, the BJP needs the support of 16 more legislators to form the government.
J&K’s strong anti-defection law does not allow any defection, and PDP rebels would need 19 MLAs, two-thirds of the party’s strength, to call a legislature party meeting, elect a new leader in place of Mufti and merge it with the Peoples Conference. With the Speaker from the BJP, this is likely to be adjudicated favourably in the Assembly.
The BJP, as per sources, has also asked the Peoples Conference to ensure that the efforts “don’t look like horse-trading and affect the public image of the BJP”. The BJP had to suffer a loss of face in Karnataka, when it formed a government without securing a majority in the elections, and its government had to resign before a confidence vote.
Sources in the government are also wary about weakening the PDP to the extent that it gets finished. This would mean the National Conference emerging a stronger party after the next elections, with a shot at getting a majority on its own in the Assembly.
But this fear is balanced by a strong desire to strengthen Lone, who has been the strongest supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kashmir. By augmenting the Peoples Conference with Shia leaders like Imran Ansari and other local strongmen, it hopes to create a durable political grouping capable of winning eight-nine seats in North Kashmir, which would not be averse to supporting the BJP, unlike the National Conference or the PDP.
Imran Ansari said, “What does she (Mufti) mean when she says Delhi is doing it (engineering a split)? We are elected entities with our own support bases. It is our democratic right to do what we want. Is she the leader in perpetuity and unaccountable? Is this her version of democracy?”