Srinagar: When he was released Friday after a 211-day detention, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah told reporters in a brief interaction that he won’t speak on political issues.
On Saturday, a press meet was held at Abdullah’s Gupkar residence, which had been converted into a sub-jail since August.
True to his word, Abdullah did not utter a single word at the conference.
The Lok Sabha MP from Srinagar gave the stage away to senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had come to meet the octogenarian politician in Srinagar for a courtesy meet.
While the senior politician remained mum over the issues surrounding his family, his party and the erstwhile state, many in Kashmir’s political ecosystem believe his release will undoubtedly trigger a churning in J&K’s mainstream politics.
Political activity in J&K had remained, more or less, suspended since the detention of dozens of politicians in August last year when the Modi government scrapped Article 370 to abolish Kashmir’s special status.
Abdullah’s first address was not seen as aggressive by the Valley’s politicians. But sources in his party National Conference (NC), and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – the region’s main powers – believe the release will have a bearing not only on his own party but also on his colleagues’, and on rival formations that have cropped up recently.
Change is coming, believes NC
Sources in the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference said the Modi government had been using a hot-and-cold method while dealing with detained politicians in Jammu and Kashmir.
On the one hand, it attempted to initiate dialogue with detained politicians over the past few months, including with Abdullah, his son Omar and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti. On the other hand, it covertly backed defectors, rebels and disgruntled members of political parties to start new outfits.
While political parties and administration officials maintain not much yielded from Delhi’s overtures and attempts, former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat’s meeting with his long-time friend Abdullah this month might have set things in motion, at least for the NC, said a government official who didn’t want to be named.
The NC sources, however, maintained that it was the pressure built on the Centre that made Abdullah’s release possible.
The party’s first and second rung leadership is still under detention, but NC leader Salman Sagar believes the release of his president will have an impact on the suspended mainstream politics.
Asked if the move will affect new political formations such as Apni Party, Sagar said the impact will be overarching.
Threat to NC cadre from Apni Party?
Earlier this month, former PDP minister Altaf Bukhari launched Apni Party, with dozens of former MLAs and MLCs joining in. Most of these leaders are former PDP men, with no mass leader from the NC joining in yet.
However, sources in Apni Party told ThePrint that they were in touch with several politicians belonging to all political parties including the NC.
“More than 20 politicians will join us soon during our launch in Jammu,” said a party leader on condition of anonymity.
Usman Majid, former Congress leader and currently a top leader in Apni Party, said the party will officially launch in Jammu this month, but refused to give out names of leaders supposed to join him.
“We are reaching out to several senior leaders,” said Majeed. “The divine right of the Kings is over,” he added, while talking about “dynastic politics of the Abdullah and Muftis”.
NC’s Salman Sagar said, “Any political process that will be started in the absence of National Conference, parties that are formed, all of it looks stage-managed affair, an eye wash. NC has a legacy and its leadership has a role in Kashmir always.
“In these difficult times, personalities like Dr Farooq Abdullah will have an impact. NC does not need to look for people, we are a cadre based party and our structure stands firm despite the attacks on it,” he added.
Sources in the NC said the threat of Apni Party eating into its cadre base has suffered a major blow with the release of Abdullah. As soon as Omar and party’s general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar is released, the party can go on an aggressive mode, they said.
The party that has suffered the most since the abrogation of Article 370 is Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Top government sources told ThePrint that authorities see Mufti as a leader who can mobilise crowds to protest against the Modi government’s August 2019 move.
So far, the authorities have managed to avoid this scenario largely owing to the massive clampdown and communication blackout. But the first woman CM of Jammu and Kashmir, and the last of the erstwhile state, remains a concern for the government.
With Mufti and her number two, Naeem Akhtar, detained under the Public Safety Act, Apni Party has wreaked havoc among the PDP ranks. The party’s face Rafi Mir, former minister Rahim Rather and strongman Dilwar Mir have all joined Apni Party.
“The strategy is clear. Delhi is supporting those individuals who can eat into our votes. This is a gamble which might benefit the National Conference because Apni Party can only cut our votes. We are being dismantled in the most undemocratic ways,” said a PDP leader on condition of anonymity.
“Among the probables of Apni Party who have a real chance of winning an election are Altaf Bukhari, Dilwar Mir, Hasan Mir and Rahim Rather. The rest will cut our votes,” said the PDP leader.
However, a second PDP member was optimistic, saying the Modi government was following the Punjab model which is bound to fail.
“PDP’s politics has a lot of similarities to Akali Dal. After Akali Dal became too powerful, the Centre backed 17 splinter groups of Akalis but where are they now?” he asked.
For PDP’s Waheed Para, who spent around seven months in detention, the struggle to save his party from invasions is a long and hardened one.
“All our demands – that is to save Article 370 – were within the Constitution. Whatever happened to us happened despite our demands being constitutional? J&K is the only state which has given 6,000 lives (of political workers) for the constitution (of India),” said Para, who is currently under house arrest.
A third PDP leader who didn’t wish to be named said, “The BJP has created a situation where in if we boycott polls in protest of Article 370’s abrogation, the BJP will win. If we take part in elections they will project Indian democracy’s win in Kashmir even if we emerge victorious.”