The Peoples Democratic Party emerged in 1998 to break the monopolistic political structure of Jammu and Kashmir, which till then had been dominated by the National Conference. It may have been felt in certain quarters that lack of political pluralism had contributed to political problems there. This, along with the “option” or alternative to separatism that it presented, appears to have been the structuring context of the emergence of the PDP, both as a party and a political force.
However, there are some who believe that the party received encouragement and support because of a darker aim to fragment and divide the Kashmiri vote – a classic case of divide and rule, where extra-regional players would come to be king makers in the politics of the state. Credence is lent to this theory by the fact that since 2002, the state has been ruled by coalition governments with the chief minister being Kashmiri but the real power lying elsewhere. The objective of dividing the Kashmiri vote: to displace Kashmir as the centre of gravity of the state and elevate Jammu over it.
All this may be 100% correct, or there may be some variations, but the fact remains that the PDP emerged as a major political force and an alternative to the National Conference. From the perspective of mainstream politics, Jammu and Kashmir now had a duopolistic political structure or even an oligopolistic one – people had a choice.
The PDP went from success to success and gained inexorably in both vote and seat share. In the Assembly elections in late 2014, it soundly defeated the National Conference to take power in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was well on its way to dominating the state’s politics.
Fast forward two years and the picture that emerges is not one of the victorious, confident party of 2014. The coalition government holds and the PDP is still in power in the state. But its future now looks increasingly bleak – in the aftermath of over two months of street violence, triggered by the killing of militant Burhan Wani, that has left more than 80 people dead.
While some say the power of the party and the government it heads is notional in the wake of the protest movement, others say that even governmental power will not redeem or save the party. It has lost its core support base and there is intense resentment against the party.
This is not to imply that the party will disappear from the political landscape of Kashmir. But that it might, in all likelihood, be a rump force with multiple power centres within it, jostling and jockeying for position, space and power. The question that emerges is why did things come to such a pass?
One argument in this direction is that the PDP became arrogant and hubristic and, in the process, lost touch with reality. Its disconnect and flight from reality emerged initially in its alliance with the BJP – an instrumental and opportunistic partnership for the sake of power and to deny its opponent, the National Conference, political space.
This arrogance then manifested itself in the haughty and imperious behaviour of its political representatives. And it percolated to the domains of governance and politics.
One example that might illustrate this point was the endeavour of a Bangalore-based company to build an unprecedented branding exercise that could catalyse investor interest in Kashmir. Its plan was to hold a Davos-type business summit, IDEAS-Pahalgam, in the South Kashmir town, drawing diverse people – diplomats, business leaders and media magnates – from across India and abroad. For this, the company had partnered with the Asian Arab Chamber of Commerce, which has a presence in 43 countries. The case was presented to the government, which showed initial interest but later created such hurdles and obstacles that the organisers were forced to give up.
That was just one example. There are innumerable others.
Now, with the protests in Kashmir entering their third month, what does the future hold for the PDP? While in the opposition, it made its political space by keeping a distance from the Centre. But now in power, it has relinquished and abdicated even a pretence of this identity. It has, in effect, even abdicated government and become an extension of the Centre in the state. This – historically – has not gone down well with the people of Kashmir, which remains the centre of gravity of the state.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the party, has alienated the people with her rhetoric and her handling of the crisis in the Valley.
Given this, the future of the party is probably one of gradual decline from its political pedestal and then a split – both vertical and horizontal. These scenarios are both likely and probable. The powers that be might not want the PDP to disintegrate and may try to prop it up as a cohesive unit. This would take blandishments, cajolery or even bribery, and it may or may not work.
In the end, it all depends on the people of Kashmir, despite the Centre’s historical role as a string-puller and manipulator of the state’s politics. People are the carriers and harbingers of history. Will the people of Kashmir still accept the PDP, warts and all? It increasingly looks likely that a dim future awaits the party.
Sajjad Haider is the Editor-in-Chief of Kashmir Observer, where a version of this piece first appeared.
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