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Ploughing a lone furrow

How will Sajjad Lone redefine the electoral dynamic in Kashmir?

Written by RIYAZ WANI |
May 13, 2009 2:57:38 pm

Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency is going to the polls today as part of the final phase of Lok Sabha elections. The significance of the Baramulla poll is that lone separatist Sajjad Lone is fighting a battle for his own individual political survival; he is also introducing a new powerful dynamic into the political landscape of the Valley. The outcome will carry meaning not only for the separatists and the mainstream parties, but also for the larger political discourse of the Valley. What does Lone’s plunge into electoral politics mean for the two-decade-long separatist struggle in the state? For despite his controversial image,Lone has,over the past year,emerged as the most prominent advocate of the Valley’s separatist thought,becoming the most identifiable television face of the separatist movement in Kashmir. Will his switch to mainstream politics,which he insists is only a change in strategy,introduce another twist in the narrative,or will it just turn out to be a sudden meteor which will fizzle out after a brief electoral run across the valley’s political firmament?

So far,there is little to indicate which way things are headed. Sajjad Lone’s decision to participate in elections has not made any big waves. Separatists,for their part,have let Lone be. Except for dark mutterings about Lone’s separatist bonafides,Hurriyat factions have stopped short of openly slamming him. However,while Lone may not have made a big splash,he has certainly stilled the waters. The silence of Hurriyat factions reflects,in effect,self-introspection rather than an ignoring of Lone’s decision. They find themselves questioning their continuing political relevance in a scenario where support in the valley is depleting and Pakistan is abdicating its patronage.

Perhaps the biggest dilemma for Hurriyat is that from being a monolithic whole,the separatist space in Kashmir has become diffuse,with moderates facing stiff competition for Kashmiri mindspace not only from the hardliners led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the major separatists outside the Hurriyat fold like Yaseen Malik,but also from the mainstream parties. The last assembly elections have also been an eye-opener for the separatists. For once,there was an uninhibited,all-out participation in the polls,which,while it didn’t negate Hurriyat’s political space,nevertheless underscored its lack of presence on the ground. For the people,Hurriyat has been more like a hovering abstract political presence,disconnected from daily concerns. The National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have found ingenious ways of harvesting and reworking separatist slogans for their larger political ends,leaving little popular appeal for moderate Hurriyat’s variations on the theme.

Sajjad Lone meanwhile wants out from this seemingly bleak separatist reality. But his challenge is no less daunting. For now,Lone’s worry is not only winning in Baramulla in the teeth of opposition from the NC and PDP,but also to carve out a new political image for himself. Deprived of the separatist halo,which in Kashmir uplifts its advocates from the compulsions of electoral politics,Lone seems to be facing a serious identity crisis. His challenge will not to straddle Kashmir’s established political bipolarity,but to appear as though this mainstream political foray is subservient to his allegedly separatist objective. This is the only way he can differentiate himself from the politics of the PDP which has sought to make the best of both worlds.

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Views on Sajjad’s chances are mixed. An ambitious but still a minority opinion about his People’s Conference holds that it will replicate the PDP’s meteoric rise to Jammu and Kashmir’s political centre stage. The second is the majority view,about him being irrevocably marred by his overnight,under-explained volte-face. The third speculation revolves around his ability to reconquer and expand the old support base of his party in North Kashmir. If he does so,this alone has the potential to redraw the political map of Kashmir: PDP retaining its native south Kashmir,Lone’s People’s Conference taking the north,thereby limiting NC to central Kashmir (Srinagar). As for the separatists — will Lone’s foray,in the long run,lure some prominent second-rung separatists out? Who knows?

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