J&K People’s Conference chairman and People’s Alliance For Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) spokesperson Sajad Lone speaks to Naveed Iqbal on the coming together of mainstream parties and the alliance’s preparations for the upcoming local polls.
What were your (PAGD) motivations to contest the DDC elections?
We are part of a collective mechanism. Any decision made collectively is binding on all the members. I was part of the consensus to go ahead and contest these elections. Essentially the concept is about grassroots democracy and decentralisation and personally I am an ardent votary of these concepts. But like everything else in Kashmir, this concept seems to have been a victim of backroom, political intrigue. The elections are being rushed through, certainly with motives other than empowering people at the grassroot level. Given the upheavals in the last one year, sanity would have demanded a more gradual approach, giving some breathing space to people. It is a people’s election and the rushing seems to indicate that the current administration would be much happy conducting a people-less election. It is as if they want to secretly conduct an election in the dead of the night, taking the electors by surprise. While the administrations in the past, including NDA-1, took a proactive approach to encourage greater participation, the present administration seems to be as proactive to discourage greater participation.
I personally support participation in all elections, irrespective of any hostile conditions or political compulsions. My debut in politics was as a part of the boycott ideology and have been a part of the poll boycott campaign. And I can say that it is an infertile concept and you end up irreversibly damaging two things. The first victim is the cause that you espouse and the second victim is the party that you represent. In the 21st century, democratic institutions, however flawed or under-evolved, should be the sole source of political struggle. These are my humble views out of my practical experience. Boycott disempowers people and creates space for the very people who you want to keep out.
What does it take for all parties in PAGD to come together?
I honestly feel that no one needed to be persuaded. The persuasion was already there. Everyone felt we should come together. There was an onslaught and there was no other option. The feeling and intensity of political togetherness was mutual across all parties and that was the dominant narrative on the ground as well.
Was the Congress on board in the early stages of the alliance?
I never had any meetings with the Congress so I wouldn’t know. I can say I never was in a PAGD meeting where a Congress representative was also present, barring once.
How did the alliance select its candidates given the short notice?
The PAGD first did the seat-sharing among the constituent parties. And the respective parties then used their own internal mechanisms to select candidates. For example, we in our party asked the local block committees to take a final call in selecting candidates. I personally have not nominated even a single candidate.
What are the concerns of the party workers you speak to? Do they speak of issues like Article 370 and the downgrading of the state to a UT? And are they apprehensive?
It is a recurring theme of every political or social conversation that I have had after being released. They do talk about day to day struggles of survival. But invariably the conversation veers towards August 5. And this holds true across all income groups. There is not a single political conversation that I’ve had where August 5 did not come up. They do seem to have this belief that there is some political significance in the upcoming elections beyond the purported objectives. They support the alliance and have their apprehensions too in terms of the longevity and may I say they greatly appreciate the alliance and its ideology.
Is there a sense of fatigue with the mainstream?
In the history of mainstream politics in J&K, this should have been one of the glorious moments, wherein people actually look up to the mainstream, to deliver. For all the grouses that people may have with mainstream politicians, as they have in any other state, people do understand that mainstream brand of politics is the sole hope to reclaim what has been taken away from them. In the context of the traditional ideological divide in J&K , the social sanctity accorded to the mainstream brand has visibly increased. And collectiveness is one of the major factors. Normally Delhi should have been jubilant. Apparently it is not. So I am here, tearing my hair out trying to understand whose side is today’s New Delhi on, in Kashmir.
How would you respond to the Home Minister terming the alliance the “Gupkar Gang”?
I honestly think that they should have desisted from the word “gang” under all circumstances. There are three former chief ministers in this alliance, elected, taken oath under the Constitution. There are members of Parliament, central ministers. There are so many former cabinet ministers who have taken oath under the Indian Constitution and most importantly there are thousands of political workers of these parties who have laid their lives for the cause of democracy. I leave it to their judgement whether politically or moralistically this all adds up to a gang.
Did you, during your detention, reflect on your association with the BJP?
Yes I did. Both at the time I entered an alliance with them and then during and after detention. Let me explain my point of view. When the 2014 elections were held, there was no ideological mandate. All parties have an ideological agenda and a development agenda. No single party secured seats beyond the 50 per cent mark, to pursue an ideological agenda. In the absence of that, I thought that the developmental agenda is something that we can work on, because that remains common in all parties.
The constitutional safeguards as we saw it were vested in an elected Assembly. And in that elected Assembly there was no space for implementation of any ideological agenda. The government broke midway and that was the end of our alliance with them. We fought Parliamentary elections on our own, with a tag that we had allied with them. That was a mere tag and did not reflect reality. A new Union government was elected which moved very fast to implement its ideological agenda taking everyone by surprise, including the Constitution. My ideological preferences were made clear on August 4 when I joined the alliance meeting. Nobody forced me to ally with BJP and neither was I scared and nobody could have forced me to not be a part of the alliance. It is where I wanted to be. But retrospectively, I regret my foolhardiness and naivety.
You were detained alongside several other political leaders, together at SKICC. Did the conversations of coming together politically begin then?
It used to be a frequent topic of discussion that we should all work together and this is something that only a collective leadership can address with credibility. That individually there is no scope to be heard anywhere.
One of the allegations the BJP makes is that these are District Development Council Elections and the PAGD does not discuss development, you speak of special status and the larger questions concerning Kashmir. What is your take on that?
We are aware that DDC elections are for basic grassroots democracy and development. But no election anywhere in the country is devoid of politics. You can’t de-link politics from elections. Political issues that are close to the heart of the people will always come into play and be talked about.
What about the criticism aimed at development done by the popular governments in J&K until 2018?
We are a poor country with a very low per capita (income?). Lack of development in J&K is the current favourite hobby all across the country. So how developed is the rest of the country and how underdeveloped is J&K? Who are we being compared with? If you are going to compare us with London or New York, we pale in comparison. But you compare us with an Uttar Pradesh or a Chhattisgarh or a Bihar, I would say we are doing very well. Why don’t they refer to the statistics of the government of India? The indices of development released by the government for all states are available online. We don’t need to bicker. The data says it all. There is a lot of space for economic development in J&K . We have not been a role model state. But there is hardly any role model state in India. Economic development is as much of an imperative for J&K as it is for any other state in India. But there is so much song and dance about J&K, and we are a role model state in many other issues. Not a single farmer suicide, no dowry deaths, no custom of dowry, liberal people, more gender neutral in terms of equal opportunities for women than any other state in India, incidences of crime against women is very low. We have travelled across India. Our country is plagued with kidnappings, naxalism, murders, crime against women, corruption and every possible ill that can afflict a country.
And yet we are being sermonised non-stop. My point is that if lack of development warrants relegating a state to UT, then they will have to relegate all states.
Now they are saying they have taken great developmental initiatives ever since central rule was imposed in J&K . If the country is growing at -28 %, I wonder how J&K is registering robust economic growth. Do they have any statistics to back their claims?
Do you view these elections as an appraisal of the current dispensation in J&K as well as the Centre over the last 14 months?
We can’t have one election to define this. The BJP has now been ruling this place indirectly for about two years (since June 2018). They should seek a vote on what they have done. They should seek a positive vote. It’s the opposition that normally talks about what has not been done or what has been done badly. That right is ours today. So time for them to tell us what all they have done in the last two years.
Have PAGD candidates been able to campaign and is their safety a concern?
There have been elections held in the past in more testing times. The challenge has always been there from 1996 onwards. Internment defeats the purpose of elections. The onus of evaluating the security needs falls on the current dispensation. They have to be answerable somewhere. The problem is a cabal who are deludedly convinced and have convinced people in Delhi that they hold the keys to wisdom in Kashmir. And facilitated by an era of opaqueness and unaccountability, they have converted this place into a personal fief. It is strange. If you are to throw a stone the probability that it hits a Kashmiri specialist is the highest. Because there are so many of them. And all of them are non-residents who one fine day will fill up their APRs and go. And it is us, our children, our future generations who will have to fight the consequences of the policies of these deluded specialists.
The PAGD chairperson has written to the State Election Commission, stating that candidates of the alliance are not being allowed to canvass in their areas. With elections due in less than a week, are they being singled out and not being allowed to campaign?
That is the feedback we have got from the ground. There certainly is an explicit and blatant bias in terms of providing security to those aligned with the ruling party directly or indirectly.
Where is this more prevalent?
Mostly in South Kashmir but also in North Kashmir. South seems to be more chronic. You have to see that yes, security challenges in South Kashmir are higher than in the North but then in the North, a lot of people traditionally come out to vote. So, we at the PAGD do believe that this is not about security alone. This is about an attempt to customise democracy. Democracy has been whittled down to the level of being taken to a tailor’s shop and customised. Areas where voting turnout is low, is where space for customisation is greater. That probably explains why it is so chronic in the South. Although it’s also prevalent in the North.
Would you settle for statehood?
Our very clear and unambiguous stance is that we want everything restored back. What rightfully belongs to the people of J&K. This is our demand which we sincerely believe reflects the aspirations of the people of J&K. A vast majority of it. And we believe that the whole federal stricture of India is based on regions or states taking their own decisions. It’s not based on a pan-majoritarian India deciding the fate of other states. So you can’t use brute majoritarianism across the country on small states. That defeats the whole purpose of federalism. And for those who are yet to wake up. This is an assault on federalism and the first major assault after 1947. And mark my words. It won’t be the last.
When do you see yourself contesting an election?
You have to ask the Government of India when they are going to conduct elections. They have created stakeholders. They have muddied this place even more than it was. Now bureaucracy is a new stakeholder. You really think they will allow popular rule to come back? I personally feel it is a long distance away.
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