Elections are on hold and violence on the rise as from the border to the Capital, and from the streets to courts, there is little on which partners PDP and BJP are in agreement. As the alliance government turns three, The Indian Express takes stock of what keeps them together.
FOR A year and a half now, the Anantnag parliamentary constituency, in Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s pocketborough, has been lying vacant, with the government unable to hold elections after the Election Commission put them off citing a “scary situation”. On February 15, a tentative deadline set by the state government to conduct panchayat elections in the state, which are already on hold for six months, quietly lapsed, with no word yet on if they can be held. Since Kashmir erupted after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, leaving 146 dead and more than 9,000 injured, the anger on the ground hasn’t subsided. The number of militants killed in 2017 (212) was the highest in seven years, the year also saw a 44 per cent jump in locals taking up guns (126), while the ceasefire on the border has virtually collapsed. The Centre and state are pitted against each other over an incident involving Army firing, while Mehbooba has openly talked about being branded an “anti-national” should she speak up for talks with Pakistan.
As the PDP-BJP marked the third anniversary of its coalition on February 24, the cracks in the alliance have spilled out from the power corridors of Srinagar and Delhi onto the streets. Announcing the tie-up, the late Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the PDP patron-founder, had described it as the coming together of the North Pole and South Pole — hoping that the alliance would help bridge the vast chasm in the middle. However, even as the PDP and BJP appear to pull apart from each other, what is becoming clearer is that the two are determined to stick it out.
There seems to be a tacit agreement to let each other make statements supporting their ideological and political lines without threatening the coalition. While PDP leaders admit they have conceded the most ground in this relationship, its leaders see the BJP temporarily putting off its contentious political agenda in Kashmir as a consolation.
Says Public Works Minister Naeem Akhtar of the PDP, also the spokesman of the J&K government, “When we joined this alliance, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It has been a work in progress. And now we have reached a stage where our disagreements no longer threaten the alliance. Our alliance is far more stable than it was a year ago.”
Akhtar cites “administrative work”, unnoticed in the news reports on the violence and protests, as a sign of the allies working in tandem. “Hardly has any administrative decision taken by Mehbooba Mufti been blocked by the BJP. The (BJP’s) central leadership has given her a free hand,” the minister says.
Akhtar also claims that if they hadn’t aligned with the BJP, that had Jammu’s mandate, not just the Valley, the entire state would have been in strife. “Jammu has become the most stable and safe place, at least in the last two years. It used to be communally the most vulnerable. One person would die in a cow-related violence and seven people would be in jail facing murder charges. Now there have been several instances where BJP leaders and ministers have had to withdraw their statements and apologise because they were hurtful towards another community. Where does it happen in India today?”
The optimism, however, finds little reflection on the ground. Visiting the Sunjuwan military camp in Jammu after the militant attack earlier this month, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman hinted that “the demography of the cantonment and adjoining areas” had helped the terrorists, in what was seen as a reference to the local Muslim population. She made no mention of Mehbooba’s call just hours earlier urging the government to hold talks with Pakistan. State BJP leader Sunil Sethi, who did speak, snubbed Mehbooba. “Talks at this time with a rogue State will lower the morale of Indian security agencies,” he said.
Soon after, Mehbooba expressed anguish over the rape-cum-murder of an 8-year-old Bakerwal Muslim girl in Kathua in Jammu being lent a communal colour. On February 14, after a group of people led by a BJP leader took out a protest in favour of an accused Hindu police official in the case, the CM tweeted, “Appalled by the marches & protests in defense of the recently apprehended rapist in Kathua. Also horrified by their use of our national flag… this is nothing short of desecration.”
The incidents followed a pattern of the PDP fighting the BJP along not just rivalries delineated by the state-level divide between its Jammu and Kashmir halves, but also the might of the Centre wielded by the BJP. From the NIA raids on separatists, to incidents involving the Army where the BJP has taken a strident nationalist stand, to spreading street-level protests, every incident has got magnified onto the national stage.
On January 27, when three civilians were killed in Army firing in Shopian, the J&K Police filed an FIR as part of routine practice. Such cases involving armed forces never even reach court. However, this time the BJP made it an issue, causing public sparring between the partners. In an unprecedented move, the father of Major Aditya Kumar, named in the FIR, approached the Supreme Court, which restrained the J&K government from taking any “coercive steps”.
The PDP’s Shopian MLA, Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, is anguished by the BJP reaction. His party can’t support withdrawal of the FIR “because it would be wrong and such measures would add to alienation”, he says. “Why would anyone trust the police then? If the Army has fired in self-defence, it will come out in the police investigation.”
However, Deputy CM Nirmal Singh says there is no question of the BJP giving up its demand. “We are fighting a proxy war… What the Armymen did, woh unka right hai (It is their right). This is the government stand too.”
While administrative issues are cited as a success story, another cause of friction is the lack of any action on the ‘Agenda of Alliance’, the foundation on which the PDP-BJP tie-up had been constructed. It talked about creating “an environment of peace, certainty and stability”; facilitating “sustained and meaningful dialogue” with “political groups irrespective of their ideological views”, including the Hurriyat; supporting “normalised relationship with Pakistan”; initiating confidence-building measures such as enhancing people-to-people contact on both sides of the LoC, encouraging civil society exchanges, taking travel, commerce, trade and business across the LoC; and examining the need to denotify disturbed areas to decide on continuation of AFSPA.
While the above issues were ambitious, even the simplest of tasks on the Agenda — return of two NHPC projects and securing share of NHPC profits emanating from J&K waters for the state — have not been achieved.
On the administrative front too, despite the PDP’s claim of a “free hand”, there is an unwritten agreement — the PDP takes decisions related to the Valley while the BJP’s writ runs in Jammu.
The coordination committee of PDP and BJP leaders, which was tasked to meet at least once a month or on a need basis has barely held any meetings. Having met twice in 2015, in March and August, soon after the alliance was formed, it met again only in November 2017.
In September 2016, PDP Srinagar MP and the party’s founder member, Tariq Hameed Karra, left both his Lok Sabha seat and the PDP, terming its alliance with the BJP “unnatural and unethical” and saying, “it had gone back on its ideals and was treating people “much worse than Nazi forces”. Slamming the “complete surrender” of the state government before the BJP, he also warned the PDP of “dangerous consequences”.
PDP leaders admit that the situation on the ground is bad for them. Its Shopian MLA Bhat says he can’t travel to his constituency freely and “had to shift his family out”. “The situation won’t be controlled unless there are talks. We have been demanding Indo-Pak talks for the same reason,” he says.
Adds PDP Tral legislator Mushtaq Ahmad Shah, “People in my constituency are scared to meet me. We are trying to convince the BJP that unless the people’s confidence is restored, the situation won’t change. And it won’t happen unless there are talks both with the Hurriyat and Pakistan.”
A PDP leader who doesn’t want to be named points out that the unrest has not waned since Wani was killed, unlike the last big mass protest in 2010 under the National Conference (NC). “It is extremely difficult to change the discourse,” he admits.
While acknowledging growing tension, Naeem Akhtar argues that the situation in Kashmir has to be seen in the context of “the larger situation in India currently”. “It is all Hindutva now. The Congress is one shade less Hindutva, but it is Hindutva. Circumstances are such that Muslims are being alienated across India… Rahul Gandhi goes to Bahrain to take a picture with a Muslim but doesn’t want to be seen with Muslims during the Gujarat elections.”
Still, Akhtar insists, the Centre has made an effort to “treat Kashmir differently, positively, as a special case”. “Whenever there is an incident where Kashmiri students are beaten up outside J&K, there is instant action. From the home minister to the chief minister of the state, everybody reacts.”
To be fair, the BJP top brass had laid down the ground rules for the alliance virtually from the start.
At his first press conference after he was sworn in on March 1, 2015, Mufti Sayeed had credited Pakistan, Hurriyat and militants with “allowing a conducive atmosphere” for the conduct of the Assembly polls. It was a calculated move by the PDP founder, who wanted to send out a reconciliatory message that, despite aligning with the BJP, he hadn’t abandoned his agenda. The BJP swiftly cut that bid short, with Mufti forced to scuttle a decision to release hardline separatist leader Masrat Alam. “We haven’t been able to hold any election” Akhtar says, since Mufti “was ridiculed and questioned for reaching out”.
On November 8, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dealt another snub to Mufti. Addressing a joint public meeting with Mufti in Srinagar, he said, “On Kashmir, I don’t need anybody’s advice or analysis from anywhere.”
When Mufti fell ill and passed away two months later, Modi didn’t attend his funeral. Mehbooba noticed this, as well as the poor turnout at her father’s funeral — in what was seen as public anger at the alliance with the BJP. And so over the next two and a half months, she held out on taking over the reins of the government while trying to redraw the equations of the PDP-BJP relationship.
That was the last time Mehbooba held any real bargaining power, and the BJP outfoxed her. PDP insiders say she ran out of options as the BJP created a split within her legislative party, with top leaders ready to ditch her for power.
Since April 2016, when Mehbooba became CM, the crises have continued. First there were the NIIT, Srinagar, protests where the BJP and its affiliates were seen as adding fuel to claims that the J&K Police had mistreated non-Kashmiri students. Soon after, the state was swept by the killing of Burhan Wani, in an operation the CM tried to distance herself from.
There have been other Centre-led moves seen as threatening J&K’s special status, including the extension of the Goods & Services Tax to the state. The PDP got a breather only because the Hurriyat dismissed the GST as a minor irritant.
The special status of J&K was back in focus when in July last year, the Centre sought a “larger debate” over Article 35A even as the J&K government opposed any challenge to it. In a strong statement, Mehbooba, who even reached out to arch rival Farooq Abdullah of the NC on the matter, warned, “If the special constitutional status of J&K is tampered with, or the Permanent Resident Act (35A) removed, there will be no one to shoulder the Indian flag in the Valley.”
On much pleading by the PDP, the Centre delayed its response in the Supreme Court on the matter. In October last year, the Centre said the hearing in the case should be adjourned as it may affect the work of its representative for holding talks in J&K, who had just been appointed.
On Articles 370 and 35A, Nirmal Singh says the BJP continues with its old stand. “However, as long as we are in coalition, we have kept it aside”. The case, however, continues to hang like a sword for the PDP.
On other issues too, the Centre hasn’t heeded Mehbooba’s view. On July 24, 2017, the NIA arrested seven second-rung Hurriyat leaders. Sources say the CM wasn’t in favour of this crackdown and so, to avoid their arrest by the NIA, the J&K Police had put them in preventive custody. But once they were released, the NIA arrested them. The police, sources say, tried to prevent the NIA from shifting them to Delhi at Srinagar airport, but couldn’t because the Union Home Ministry intervened.
Later, Mehbooba called the NIA arrests “administrative measures”, saying “administrative measures only contain the issue — they do not resolve it”. She said: “You cannot kill an idea. You cannot jail an idea. Reconciliation and dialogue are the only way. Guns, violence and arrests are not a solution.”
The BJP justifies the raids, saying these had “exposed separatists”. “The raids followed only after they themselves admitted on camera that they received money from Pakistan,” Nirmal Singh says. Though the BJP’s position on the issue has prevailed, the PDP takes heart from the fact that the NIA’s investigation hasn’t gone beyond the initial arrests.
The appointment of the Centre’s representative was seen as a big outreach by the BJP to the Mehbooba government. Though the Centre has limited the scope of what Dineshwar Sharma, a former IB chief, can do — underlining that he is just a “representative of the government and not the interlocutor” — and the BJP maintains that military operations remain the mainstay of the Centre’s policy, the PDP has projected it as “a major shift and a beginning of the policy of reconciliation”.
Sharma is currently on his fifth trip to Kashmir. Over the last four months, he has been more of an envoy of the J&K government in Delhi, for example convincing the Centre to grant amnesty to stone-pelters. He hasn’t been able to talk to separatists either. However, his conversations on the ground have at least strengthened the view that a muscular policy isn’t working.
Dismissing this one step forward-two steps backward dance by the PDP and BJP, former CM Omar Abdullah says “the sole aim of this alliance is to stay in power”.
Calling the tie-up “disastrous” for the state, Omar adds, “Look at Jammu, the relations between the communities (Hindus and Muslims) there… There were two attacks in the heart of Srinagar in less than a week. There was an attack inside a hospital in broad daylight. There are daily attacks across the LoC. Show me one programme, one rally that Mehbooba Mufti has addressed, other than the choreographed Dak Bungalow meetings in the district headquarters.”
Imagine if the BJP was in opposition, Omar continues. “Attack on Amarnath yatris, attack in the heart of Jammu, inability to hold bypolls or panchayat elections… They seem to have agreed that no matter what, they will stay in power.”
The PDP and NC agree on one thing: that should the situation continue, they will both lose out. Omar says that while the NC is now more popular than in 2014 (when it lost the Assembly polls), “that is little consolation”. “The PDP decline doesn’t mean that the NC graph goes up. The gains are going to the separatists. It is dangerous for both the PDP and NC. See what happened during the Lok Sabha bypolls in Srinagar. The voter turnout dropped to 7 per cent.”
A senior PDP leader fears that time is running out. “It is clear to us that the BJP won’t take any steps, at least for another year. Their priority is the (2019) Lok Sabha elections. We hope they find an issue other than Kashmir for their campaign.” Otherwise, he fears, the situation will get worse on the ground.
With inputs from Arun Sharma in Jammu