Soon after the National Conference (NC) drew a blank in the 2014 General Election, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took the familiar recourse to Twitter to express his disappointment. This time he quoted Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… words that I identify with closely.”
A chastened Omar also urged the people of the state to write directly to him on his personal email account. “I would like to hear from you as to the reasons for the enormous setback (the) NC has faced in these elections,” Omar wrote.
Omar had every reason to feel worried. It was the first time that his father and Kashmir’s most prominent politician, Farooq Abdullah, lost and that too to the less-fancied People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Tariq Hamid Karra. Karra won by a whopping 42,280 votes in Srinagar, which saw just 26 percent turnout. Similarly, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti won by 65,417 votes in Anantnag and her partyman Muzaffar Hussain Baig won by 29,219 votes in Baramulla.
The NC’s coalition partner, the Congress, was similarly decimated in Jammu and Ladakh, where it lost all three seats to the BJP, which was riding the Narendra Modi wave. Though both the Congress and the NC stare at a dead-end in the upcoming Assembly polls, the prospects are bleaker for the latter. J&K’s oldest party, which has monopolised state politics for most of its eight-decade existence, has posted its worstever performance in any poll, thereby mirroring the plight of its alliance partner.
What is shocking for the NC is that not only Congress supporters but a large chunk of its own cadre voted for the PDP and that too from areas that have been party strongholds. For example, PDP posted leads in Charar-i-Sharif and Kangan, two Assembly constituencies that were supposed to independently underwrite Abdullah’s win in view of the endemic urban boycott. Karra led by 3,085 votes in Charar and 3,607 votes in Kangan.
Similarly in Ganderbal, which is to the Abdullahs what Amethi is to the Gandhis, the PDP led by 2,913 votes. In Tangmarg, where the NC was supported by Ghulam Hassan Mir, a senior Kashmiri politician with a committed vote base in the area, the PDP’s Baig polled 4,331 votes more than his NC rival, Sharief-uddin Shariq.
After the outcome, the NC is faced with an existential crisis in the run-up to the Assembly polls, forcing the party to plunge headlong into introspection mode. On 19 May, the senior Abdullah presided over a party meeting at his residence in Gupkar to deliberate on the debacle. The meeting analysed the Assembly constituency-wise performance of the NC in the Valley to assess the depletion of its support base. Senior party leaders also urged Abdullah, who was a Union minister in the UPA-2, to play a key role in rebuilding the party in the state.
The Congress has similarly been undone by the BJP’s unprecedented victory in the state. The saffron party won two seats in Jammu and another in Ladakh. It has been a complete reversal of fortunes for the Congress, which nursed ambitions of emerging as the single largest party in the forthcoming Assembly polls. Not even its rivals thought that the party was bluffing about its chances.
But the Modi wave changed everything. The state BJP unit had been hobbled by the cross-voting scandal in 2012, during which seven of its 11 legislators voted for rival candidates in the Congress-NC combine in the Legislative Council election. However, Modi’s dramatic emergence on the scene resurrected the party’s fortunes.
Modi held two rallies in the state in addition to his speech at Madhopur on the Punjab-J&K border with which he began his national campaign for prime ministership following his anointment as the BJP’s campaign chief at Goa last July.
The selection of Madhopur was important as it was the site of the fateful 11 May 1953 speech by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee while on his way to violate the permit system that then forbade free entry into J&K for Indian citizens. Mookerjee was arrested and put in jail, where he died on 23 June the same year.
The state Congress unit headed by Saifuddin Soz has also started deliberating the causes for the defeat. The crisis for the party is deeper. Over the past decade, the party’s position had become invincible. It may not have been able to form the government in J&K on its own, but it was impossible to keep it away from power. The two major state-based political parties, the NC and the PDP, needed the Congress’ support to form the government.
But Modi seems to have overturned this state of affairs. For the first time, one can envisage a new political configuration taking shape in the state, which doesn’t have a decisive role for the Congress. If the BJP builds upon its victory, retains its existing 11 Assembly seats and encroaches into the Congress base, we could well look forward to a PDP-BJP coalition — a prospect which, however, will not be without ideological and political issues. That is, should the PDP also replicate its sterling show in the forthcoming Assembly election. Or should the PDP sweep the Valley, it might well prefer to go it alone with the support of a few independents.
However, there are still a few months to go before the campaign for the Assembly polls gets underway. And though Omar has proactively begun a process of introspection, he has stopped short of resigning from the chief minister’s post. Observers in Kashmir see it as a move to use his power to bring the governance in line with the demands of the people and hope that the ensuing period abates the strong anti-NC mood in the state.
“A week is a long time in politics,” says local journalist Naseer Ahmad. “And here you have a few months. Any dramatic event could turn things upside down. Six months ago, nobody expected Modi to work up a tsunami in his favour. But he did it not only in the country but also in a Muslim-majority state like Kashmir.”
Says PDP leader Naeem Akhter: “The die has been cast. The people in J&K want change.” When asked whether the PDP could ally with the BJP should a need arise for them to come together, Akhter replied in the negative. He added a rider, though. “For us to work together, we don’t necessarily need to be in an alliance,” he said.
But the redefined political equations hardly detract from the potential impact of the uncertain times ahead. The initial three months of the Modi regime will be crucial, so will be the unfolding political and security situation in J&K. “Any shift in the current constants could make a marked difference to the electoral politics as it plays out in the state,” says Ahmad. “But in case the constants hold, then both the NC and the Congress will be pitted against impossible odds to hold their place in the state.”