In Kashmir, the marriage between the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party is all but over – both parties have decided to separately contest all three Lok Sabha seats in the Kashmir Valley.

The parties are members of the Opposition INDIA alliance as well as the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, formed after the sudden abrogation of Article 370 and the downsizing of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union territory on August 5, 2019.

While ties between the parties had been strained for a while, that the National Conference decided to field its first candidate from the high-stakes Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary constituency was seen as the final straw by PDP leaders.

Before the delimitation exercise, this constituency was represented twice by former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and once by her late father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed – and is seen as the home turf of the PDP chief.

“They have left no option for us other than to field candidates and contest the elections,” Mehbooba Mufti told reporters in Srinagar on April 3, two days after the National Conference announced its decision.

The disunity between the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party has many implications for Kashmir’s politics. Any division of the vote between two regional mainstream players of Kashmir Valley will give an edge to the Bharatiya Janata Party, particularly in the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency, say observers.

The bigger message, observers say, goes beyond the elections. The decision to go separate ways signals the death of the spirit of the Gupkar Alliance – in which Kashmir’s mainstream parties set aside their differences to take a stand of unity and solidarity against New Delhi.

“The alliance has ended, it will exist only as rhetoric in the media to show that these parties once came together for a cause,” said a scholar of political science, who has studied mainstream politics of Jammu and Kashmir.

An alliance undone

The Gupkar Alliance was formed in 2020 when a group of Kashmir’s mainstream parties and a national party came together to fight for the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Even though it was not an electoral alliance, both the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party contested the 2020 district development council elections collectively. That attempt at unity appeared to resonate with the people – the alliance won a landslide victory in Kashmir Valley.

During talks within the INDIA alliance, the Congress had tried to negotiate a seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties. “Sonia Gandhi had suggested that three former Chief Ministers should contest on three seats of Kashmir valley,” a PDP leader, who requested not to be identified, told Scroll.

Such an arrangement, if agreed to by the National Conference, would have given the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat to Mehbooba Mufti. “It would have been acceptable to us. Unlike NC, we are not saying give us all three seats. For the sake of unity, we were ready to concede two seats to the National Conference,” the leader added.

The National Conference, however, went ahead and announced its first candidate for Anantnag-Rajouri. It has fielded influential Gujjar leader and a five-time legislator Mian Altaf for the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary constituency.

“If we fight individually, BJP’s chances increase. That’s why we expected that the NC would consult us,” another senior PDP leader said. “But for them, we do not exist. They have not held any interactions with us. They talk to us through the media.”

The Congress has not reacted to the developments in Jammu and Kashmir.

PDP’s struggle

In the aftermath of August 2019, the Peoples Democratic Party has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of the central government and investigating agencies. “Nearly 40 members of our party including former legislators quit the party due to the pressure from the Centre, those who did not quit were booked in various cases,” said the PDP leader. “Even Mehbooba Mufti and her family were not spared. They were forced to beg for a passport.”

Requests to renew the passports of Mehbooba Mufti’s mother, her daughter and her own were denied by the central government – and granted only after the courts intervened.

The PDP leader said the National Conference is wrong to see an opportunity in his party’s travails. “Why is the National Conference reading the assault on us as its success? We are fighting against the [BJP-led] Centre but the National Conference is fighting against us. Shouldn’t we both be fighting against the Centre?”

The Peoples Democratic Party draws its influence largely from south Kashmir districts like Anantnag, Pulwama and Shopian. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the PDP bested the National Conference by winning 25 seats in the Valley – its best-ever performance. Eleven of those seats came from south Kashmir.

The delimitation process altered the map of Anantnag parliamentary constituency by adding six Assembly segments of Jammu’s Rajouri and Poonch districts to the seat, slicing off one of the two Assembly segments of Shopian district and removing all four Assembly seats of Pulwama district to make them part of Srinagar parliamentary constituency.

“The parliamentary constituency which was completely altered and damaged was Mehbooba Mufti’s constituency. It’s part of the BJP’s plan to destroy the PDP,” said the PDP leader.

The Centre has also changed the reservation arithmetic of the Union territory – a decision whose impact will largely resonate in Rajouri and Poonch districts of the Anantnag-Rajouri Parliamentary seat. In February, the Union government granted Scheduled Tribe status to the Pahari community who form the majority in Rajouri and Poonch districts.

Observers have pointed out that the widening of the reservation umbrella for Paharis is part of Bharatiya Janata Party’s plan to win the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary seat where a substantial number of Hindus also live. If the saffron party manages to win the seat, it will be its first major electoral victory from Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley.

In October 2020, members of six parties from Jammu and Kashmir held a meeting on the Gupkar Declaration. Photo: Sara Hayat Shah/Twitter.

‘Sacrifice is suicide’

On its part, National Conference has reasoned that the idea behind fielding candidates on all three Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir Valley is based on the performance of 2019 elections. In 2019, National Conference had won all the three parliamentary seats in Kashmir. In Anantnag seat, Mehbooba Mufti stood at the third position while Hasnain Masoodi was declared the winner.

“The party [PDP] that stands at number 3 [in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections] has no right to ask for a seat. If I had been told before joining the INDIA alliance that we would have to weaken ourselves for another member of the alliance, then I would have never joined it,” National Conference vice-president and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah had said last month.

Abdullah’s statement triggered a sharp reaction from Mehbooba Mufti, who accused the National Conference of “damaging” the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. “I’m disappointed and sad. As a member of PAGD, they [the National Conference] did what BJP could not,” Mufti had said.

The senior PDP leader said the party has dropped the idea of “sacrificing” by not contesting any seats in Kashmir. “Sacrificing at this time will be suicidal,” he remarked. “And who knows if we sacrifice contesting Lok Sabha elections today, they [NC] might expect the same during Assembly and panchayat polls. Where will it stop?”

‘It’s all about power’

Since 2018, Jammu and Kashmir has been under the direct rule of New Delhi. In the aftermath of August 5, 2019 and the loss of statehood, the Centre has shown little eagerness to conduct Assembly elections in the union territory.

While Kashmir Valley’s three seats do not have much numerical significance in the 543-seat-strong Lok Sabha, many in Kashmir were expecting the local Kashmiri leadership to put up a united front against the BJP.

According to the political science scholar in Srinagar, the NC and PDP together had a greater chance of victory. “But obviously, the grassroots workers of the party are not happy with the alliance because they have to sacrifice their party interest.”

“Any division of vote in Kashmir between National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party will benefit the BJP or its proxies,” said Farooq Ahmad, a local trader in Srinagar who said he was disappointed by the news.

Ahmad blamed both the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party for having preferred their parties over the unity of people. “Is the party bigger than the people?” he asked.

“BJP says it’s Naya Kashmir,” he underlined. “But they [BJP] also know that the lust for power is as old as the history of mankind.”