Home Minister Amit Shah’s new interesting term for Mehbooba Mufti, Farooq Abdullah and other politicians’ alliance — the “Gupkar gang” — shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kashmir chessboard might be looking different than planned.
In a series of tweets this week, Shah called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — or the Gupkar Alliance — of the National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), People’s Conference (PC), Communist Party (CPI-M), Awami National Conference (ANC) and the reluctant Congress a “gang”, accusing it of hobnobbing with foreign players. It raised many eyebrows in the erstwhile state. Omar Abdullah’s response to the home minister was as blunt as the charge. He said he “understands Shah’s frustration because the PAGD decision to contest the forthcoming District Development Council (DDC) election hadn’t gone down well with the BJP”. Mehbooba Mufti reacted by saying that the “gang” remark was “an attempt to divert people’s attention from rising unemployment and inflation in the country”.
So, what is behind this curious turn of events in Jammu and Kashmir? And why is the BJP suddenly so furious about the Gupkar Alliance’s decision to contest elections?
A turn of events
Jammu and Kashmir has, again this year, got into an early snowy and chilly winter. There still hangs an atmosphere of unacceptance, disbelief and reluctance to engage with new realities, and the people of Jammu and Kashmir have remained largely detached from the political turn of events. From a psychological prism, the detachment seems to be rooted in a belief that sees any re-engagement as inconsequential. Despite this backdrop, the Gupkar Alliance’s decision to contest elections has galvanised the political grassroots in J&K, and Srinagar’s Gupkar Road is increasingly becoming the centre of politics in the post-5 August 2019 era.
Amit Shah’s statement seemed to go too far, looked innately bitter and, most likely, was motivated by the Gupkar Alliance’s decision to contest the elections it had earlier considered boycotting.
Interestingly, close on the heels of this Twitter war of words, Gupkar Alliance patron Farooq Abdullah and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced their self-isolation due to Covid concerns. Still more interestingly, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, in an unexpected move, directed the J&K administration to release former Hurriyat leader Masarat Alam from a long detention, “if he was not required in any case.”
In the middle of all this, the Gupkar Alliance’s decision to foray into the DDC election fray seems to have disrupted the political chessboard in J&K.
The Centre’s decision to hold the first DDC elections, informed sources in these parties tell me, was guided by a strong belief among BJP decision-makers that the PAGD would not participate in the elections.
Through their various interactions with the key players of the Gupkar Alliance, both the J&K administration and senior central government figures probably thought that the parties involved would not participate in any election until their core demands and concerns regarding the newly-introduced laws on J&K were met.
So, did the BJP commit a gaffe in reading the mind of the alliance?
A change of plan
Given the grassroots political mobilisation among the constituents of the Alliance, especially the enthusiasm among the second, third line and grassroots workers today, it is very likely that the Alliance will sweep the DDC elections in J&K. However, the BJP, probably isn’t foreseeing such a good prospect for itself.
Faced with the mammoth electoral strength of the Gupkar Alliance in Kashmir, the BJP isn’t as comfortably placed as it was in Jammu. A united Gupkar Alliance is likely to win DDC elections in most of the Chenab and Pirpanjal sub-regions. In the Jammu plains, even if the BJP retains a significant advantage, given the people’s deep unease with the big changes in land, job, business and internet access laws and rules, things may not be as easy as it was in 2016.
So, did the Gupkar Alliance checkmate the BJP?
Most probably, yes. If one were to go by the sequence and substance of the drastic changes in J&K’s erstwhile laws and the electoral architecture, from village panchayat to assembly level, it appears that the ruling party had expected to reap big electoral dividends from the new system. It also seems to have anticipated a political landscape devoid of any competitors.
Gupkar Alliance members privately mince no words. They say that one of the objectives of the sweeping changes made in the architecture of the local governance in J&K after 5 August last year, was to make the Member Legislative Assembly (MLA) position almost redundant in J&K. Political experts also say that even if J&K’s statehood was restored in the future, the decentralisation of powers to panchayats and the District Development Councils would make the institutions of the MLA and the legislative assembly almost inconsequential to the democratic political system of J&K.
If the Gupkar Alliance establishes a good presence at the DDC level now, it would easily be able to re-establish its presence at the panchayat level. Imagining the future political landscape from there should not be difficult. It is almost certain that even if the delimitation exercise of the electoral constituencies results in an electoral disadvantage for the Alliance, it will contest the assembly elections too.
An uncertain course
Most observers in J&K today say that if a credible democratic project isn’t allowed to democratically re-shape the region into an inclusive and stable polity, the political vacuum would be hard to manage. Besides the concerns about perpetual political instability in Jammu and Kashmir today, the erstwhile state’s rapid slide into poverty, business bankruptcies, land dispossession, and growing financial indebtedness are not good signs at all.
Any decent democracy, at the end of the day, cannot flourish if there is no level-playing field for its myriad political actors to peacefully and democratically engage with the people. Any stable and prosperous economic system requires a stable polity deriving its power, legitimacy and mandate from the people it represents.
Jammu and Kashmir today presents a picture of a landscape in chaos. Too many gaffes with its shape and spirit, right from the 5 August decision, has put this erstwhile state on a very uneasy and uncertain course. Still reeling from the shock of the tectonic changes made to its structure and spirit, the last thing that J&K needs is a bulldozer brand of politics that seeks to establish only one kind of political view and belief. The sooner the pitfalls of that approach are understood the better.
The writer is author of ‘Omar Abdullah: The Burdens of Inheritance‘. Views are personal.