On a cloudy Saturday, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and member of parliament Muzaffar Hussain Baig were enthroned on a dais in Srinagar, facing a large gathering. Seated on the floor of the dais were most of the People’s Democratic Party legislators.
July 28 was the party’s 19th “Foundation Day”, the first major convention since the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of the coalition with it, causing the government to fall in Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, the People’s Democratic Party has been riven by dissidence, with several legislators speaking out against Mufti and the senior party leadership, threatening to jump ship.
On July 24, all office bearers had resigned from their posts. That included Sartaj Madni, former vice president of the party, Mufti’s uncle and a major cause for the allegations of nepotism levelled at the party high command. The party leadership denied the move was meant to handle the discontent within the ranks, only saying that they were meant to pave the way for a “revamp”. The Foundation Day function was going to be a show of unity after weeks of dissidence. But the party’s “rebel legislators” were missing from the stage on Saturday and the leadership barely addressed the concerns and resentment of it workers.
Instead, party president Mufti washed her hands of the civilians killed in firing by security forces during her tenure as chief minister. She called the alliance a “cup of poison” that her legislators told her “to drink”, lest she insult her late father, the party’s founder and the chief minister before her, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. She defended Article 35A, which allows the state legislature to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir and accord them special rights and privileges. She urged the Centre to respond to the “hand of friendship” extended by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan.
Not many party workers in the audience were impressed. One worker from Pahalgam, associated with the party for more than a decade, said he had showed up at the function just for “hazri - attendance”. “My heart was against it,” he said.
Hundreds from across the Kashmir Valley had gathered at the park where the function was being held in Srinagar. Those seated in the front appeared to listen with rapt attention. At the back, the audiences chattered or planned the rest of their day in the city. Many said they were not party workers. They had simply come to the function in return for favours from the party.
A party worker from Pahalgam constituency, which Mehbooba Mufti once represented, said attendance from the area was down to about a hundred from more than a thousand who would attend in previous years. The drop in attendance, he said, stemmed from growing resentment over the People’s Democratic Party’s failure to deliver on its promise of bringing development to the area.
When anti-government protests broke out in 2016, after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, many of the People’s Democratic Party’s workers faced threats, especially in the districts of South Kashmir. In the last two years, several functionaries have been killed, forcing many party workers to go underground and others to resign. There was a growing sense that they had been abandoned by the senior party leadership, which remained aloof in Srinagar, unable to provide them with security.
The abandonment faced by workers was still fresh in the minds of those attending the Foundation Day function. “I was beaten up,” said the party worker from Pahalgam, recollecting the frenzied months after Wani’s death. “The militants considered us party workers when the party itself did not.”
Besides the humiliation faced in 2016, the party had a general disregard for workers, he said, which was never witnessed before and has not been addressed so far. “Benefits were given to those so-called leaders, who were taught politics by workers like us. Now they began dictating terms to us,” he said. “What every worker of political parties craves is respect. That is no longer there in the party.”
Even so, many workers, he said, continued to serve the party. “Still we had not asked for leadership from the party,” he said. “We only wanted sustenance to support our families. If we can’t run our own affairs, what will we do for the party?”
A ‘cosmetic exercise’
Faced with the rebellion of legislators, Mufti had announced an “outreach” two weeks before the Foundation Day function. “It is an outreach programme aimed to rejuvenate the party at the grassroots level,” the party’s spokesperson, Rafi Ahmad Mir, had told Greater Kashmir. But the outreach is too little too late, workers complain.
The worker from Pahalgam said he was not approached for any outreach meeting and suspected it was a “selective” measure, meant for the “near and dear ones” of senior party leaders. Earlier, another worker from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, who was part of one such meeting, had termed it a “cosmetic exercise”, restricted to the “upper levels” of the local leadership. Many workers, he said, had attended the meeting to “gauge the party’s sincerity”.
At a meeting attended by at least 70 people, he said, only a few spoke out and that too in brief, without going into their grievances in any detail. “They were cordial and responsive. But that had been missing when they were in power,” he said, describing the chief minister and the party leaders from Srinagar who had descended on the district. “There was talk of making changes in the party but it seems she [Mufti] is not willing to distance herself from those very close to her.”
The party leadership was still, he said, ignoring those who “gave their blood and sweat”. “They have created an isolated circle, from where no communication goes in or out. They are aloof from our basic aspirations,” he said.
The attendance at the Foundation Day function was not necessarily a show of support, he said, adding that workers from various parts of the Valley were in touch with each other and did not want to reveal the full extent of their resentment yet. “It’s a wait and watch policy for now,” he said. “If there is a chance at government, a new dispensation, many party workers will leave the party. Maybe en masse in some pockets.”
If Mufti was “serious” about revamping the party, the Anantnag worker continued, “she has to take a serious decision. Give responsibilities to those who work on the ground. Loyalists and those who have been imposed need to be shown their place,” he said. “Kashmir needs leaders who know the ground. Someone from the grassroots needs to rise. Otherwise nothing here will change.”
Shabir Ghulabaghi, a former worker from the Central Kashmir district of Ganderbal, quit the party this year, after being associated with it almost from the start. The People’s Democratic Party’s continued focus on South Kashmir, the traditional stronghold, and its denial of access to the senior leadership, he said, had finally forced him to take this decision.
For him, the party had given the reins to those who had failed electorally and pushed workers like him to the wall. “We wasted our time with them,” he said. Any attempt at a rapprochement, he said, would not work now.
Even those who called themselves “loyalists” of Mehbooba Mufti are quietly drawing away, such as the worker from Pahalgam. “I have given my youth to the party,” he said. “Now I have to think of my family.”
Rumours of a third front
The rebellion that had threatened to split the party down the middle has left a lasting impact. In spite of an apparent reconciliation, whispers of a “third front”, an alternative to the two Valley-based parties, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference, had not died down.
“I have been approached indirectly because they know I am a loyalist of Mehbooba,” he said. “They must have directly approached the other workers and members.” With the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 approaching fast, he said, the present confusion would be cleared up and all would become “black and white”.