Separation in Srinagar

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Withdrawal from the alliance could give BJP control of the J&K story for 2019

THE LEADERSHIP OF the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had contemplated snapping its ties with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu & Kashmir four months ago, when it found fissures within the alliance widening severely. Back then, two considerations held the BJP back from breaking the partnership that had ruled the state for over three years: one, a view within the party that an elected government was needed in Srinagar to address feelings of alienation in the Valley; and two, the need to prevent a premature dissolution of the Assembly, lest state polls had to be called before the next General Election. Still, a separation was only a matter of time.

Yet, when the BJP finally withdrew its support to the state government on June 19th, it caught PDP’s Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as well as its own ministers there unawares, by the look of it. It happened soon after lunch time. Mufti had just left the Civil Secretariat for home when the then chief secretary, BB Vyas, got a call from Governor NN Vohra who wanted to speak with the Chief Minister. Within minutes, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav was addressing a press conference called at short notice at the BJP headquarters in Delhi to announce that the party was pulling out of the alliance as it had become ‘untenable’ for it. Since no other formation can take charge, the state has been placed under Governor’s Rule.

“The BJP’s decision to pull out of the alliance came as a surprise to us,” says PDP leader Ashraf Mir, “For three years things were smooth in the coalition.” Sources reveal that Mufti had planned a meeting of her party’s working committee on June 22nd, the agenda of which was to get its approval to urge the Centre to extend the Ramzaan ceasefire in the state, failing which the PDP would consider quitting the alliance. Instead, she found herself defending the decision to enter an alliance with the BJP, taken by her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as party chief before he died in January 2016. Some party insiders say that Mufti may have had a whiff of what was brewing; BJP President Amit Shah had called a meeting of all his party’s ministers from J&K, and Mufti had not only stayed late at her office clearing files the night before the BJP’s withdrawal, but also cancelled some functions she was scheduled to attend the next day.

It was an unlikely alliance to begin with, the incompatibility of whose partners made the parting of ways far from unexpected. In a strife-afflicted state of sharp divisions, the PDP represented the Muslim-dominated Valley with its 28 seats in J&K’s 97-member Assembly, while the BJP did the Hindu-majority Jammu region with its 25, and their ties had been strained in the past two years by differences over how to handle unrest in Kashmir. The PDP had toyed with ending the arrangement after the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu’s Kathua district earlier this year, when two BJP ministers—Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga—joined a local protest to demand that the case be handed over to the CBI. According to sources, Mufti had threatened to walk out of the alliance if no action was taken against the two. The BJP let Singh and Ganga be dropped as ministers, but it was clear that its relations with the PDP had soured.

Given that context, the BJP’s exit was meant to pre-empt a PDP pull-out and capture the political initiative, especially in Jammu which it has swept in the state polls of late 2014 and where it now ran the risk of its supporters’ displeasure with the Mufti government hurting its prospects in 2019.

Mufti may have had a whiff of what was brewing; Amit Shah had called a meeting of all his party's ministers from J&K, and Mufti had stayed late at her office clearing files the night before the BJP's withdrawal

According to a senior RSS leader who has been working in Kashmir, equations between the partners had always been uneasy, and once they went askew, the BJP was looking for a respectable exit. Now that it has happened, some BJP leaders have slammed the PDP’s stint in power, alleging that it had more or less become the ‘legislative face of terrorism’; the plans of Indian security forces, they claim, would often get leaked to terror operatives across the border. While the BJP regime at the Centre was doing all it could to resolve issues, they say, such as appointing the former Intelligence Bureau chief Dinesh Sharma as a peace interlocutor and effecting a ceasefire for a month on the PDP’s request, its partner’s efforts were disappointing.

For Mufti, BJP sources allege, the cessation of counter-insurgency operations was an opportunity to regain political influence in South Kashmir. Security agencies were not keen on such a gesture, since they doubted that militants would respond in kind by suspending militancy, and the Modi Government had given the idea its nod only reluctantly. Hopes of achieving a new phase of calm were belied, though. Terror activities showed no sign of reduction, and with the killing of Rising Kashmir Editor Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar and an Indian Army soldier, Aurangzeb, the Centre decided it had had enough. “Our decision comes after a rise in terrorism and violence, and increased radicalisation in the valley. There have been constant attacks on an individual’s right to life and even basic freedom of speech,” said Ram Madhav at the press conference.

The national interest took precedence for the BJP, said other party leaders, while its local partner was a regional party whose agenda was dictated by regional considerations.

THE VIEWS OF the two former allies have diverged even further after the split. While the BJP favours a more muscular approach in dealing with insurgency in the Valley, Mufti has declared that her party believes such an approach would not work. The PDP had been pressing for talks to be held with Pakistan to keep the situation in the Valley from deteriorating. The BJP, on its part, pins the blame for the precarious security scenario on its ex-partner, saying that as the head of the alliance it was its responsibility to ensure everyone’s safety. While the BJP says the Chief Minister had let security forces operate freely (to its credit), which resulted in the liquidation of hundreds of terrorists in the past three years, it also holds up the PDP’s ‘soft approach’ towards stone pelters as a sign of misguided policy. “We always had ideological differences, but we came together with a mandate in mind. But increasingly, the PDP was going soft on stone pelters and cases against them were withdrawn,” says BJP’s former Deputy Chief Minister Kavinder Gupta. In the party’s assessment, the PDP was trying to appease its restive constituency in South Kashmir, where separatist sentiment is reported to be rife.

It was an unlikely alliance to begin with, the incompatibility of whose partners made the parting of ways far from unexpected

Just days after the alliance was made in early 2015, Mufti’s predecessor as Chief Minister Sayeed had told Open in an interview that “this is an opportunity to build bridges between Kashmir and Jammu and the state and the rest of India”; “It will also provide an opportunity to improve relations between India and Pakistan,” he had said, “The alliance will provide political heft to the Prime Minister’s vision for entire South Asia.” Describing it as a historic chance for both parties, he had said they would be faulted by future generations if they did not act at that juncture to make the most of it. He had also said that he was not in favour of leading any government that would exclude Jammu legislators.

Mehbooba Mufti recounted her father’s words on several occasions after she took over, but also sought to renegotiate the terms of her party’s engagement with the BJP after his death. An initial meeting in Delhi with Shah and Madhav ended in failure. After her return to Srinagar, however, she received a message that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to meet her. She took a flight back to the national capital, and after an hour-long meeting, they reached an agreement. She was sworn in as Sayeed’s successor the next morning.

The Prime Minister, who had often cited Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s mantra of ‘Insaaniyat, Jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat’ (humanity, democracy, Kashmiri culture) as a guiding force, had described the alliance at the time as one of the most important developments in contemporary politics. But then, circumstances do change and objectives do diverge. “It is now up to Delhi what road map it chooses for the state. The approach should be positive. Muscle power does not win anything,” says PDP’s Ashraf Mir.

Opposition parties the National Conference and Congress, meanwhile, have taken a told-you-so posture, blaming the BJP-PDP alliance for a wide set of ills in J&K. “Local recruitment was at its peak during the BJP-PDP government,” Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad has said, apparently referring to militant ranks, “Maximum civilian and personnel deaths were also recorded in this time.”

The alliance was an effort at reconciliation all the same, as Kashmir watchers have noted. In an essay for Open on Sayeed after he died, London School of Economics and Political Science Professor Sumantra Bose had written: ‘He was able to negotiate, in a spirit of equality, an ‘agenda of alliance’ document with the BJP, which embodies a concrete vision of resolving the Kashmir conflict in its multi-dimensional totality. Because of his past, he retained credibility among Jammu Hindus and Ladakhi Buddhists even while seeking to give voice to the grievances and aspirations of the Valley’s Muslims…. The later political life of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed— 1999-2015—has left a genuinely valuable legacy. Jammu & Kashmir, and India, cannot afford to—and must not—lose this legacy.’

All attention is now focused on Governor Vohra.