In an unprecedented performance, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) garnered three out of six seats from Jammu & Kashmir in the General Election. This has made the PDP a favourite to win the Assembly polls scheduled for later this year. If not win, then at least emerge as the single largest party in a position to form the government; in an extreme case, in partnership with the BJP, which won the other three Lok Sabha seats.
How did a party born in contested circumstances in 1998 come this far? The National Conference (NC) alleges that the PDP was formed by New Delhi to neutralise its dominance and also fragment the mandate in Kashmir to dent the Valley’s primacy in government formation. If so, then the PDP has achieved all these goals.
But as its recent sweep of the Valley’s three Lok Sabha seats underlines, the PDP has not, after all, been hampered by the alleged circumstances and the design of its birth. In the 16 years of its existence, the PDP has grown into a vaunted state-level political entity, which has gradually edged the NC away from its monopolistic position in the state. And it has done this by spinning a quasi-separatist political narrative about itself and backing it by aggressive street mobilisation.
The PDP’s momentous journey began in 2002 — just four years after its creation in 1998 — when, against all expectations, it won 16 seats in the 87-member Assembly and formed a government in alliance with the Congress. This was the first time that the NC had lost power in Kashmir through a democratic vote. Thereafter, the PDP went from strength to strength in six years in power, carving along the way a robust agenda and a political personality.
The 2008 Assembly polls saw the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP increasing its tally from 16 to 21 seats, thereby cementing its standing as an established party. However, its bid to retain power fell through after the Congress switched loyalty to the NC. But, this hardly dented the PDP’s enhanced political standing in the state.
“I would consider the 2008 Assembly poll outcome as a mandate for the PDP,” says journalist Naseer Ahmad. “While the PDP increased its number of seats by five, the NC barely managed to retain its 2002 number, which was 28; four of them by meagre margins.”
However, six years in the Opposition did test the PDP’s capacity to stay the course. And the chief reason for this was the fledgling nature of the party, which comprises leaders with an individual political standing and support base of their own.
While the NC’s 80-year-long history and deep roots in the psyche of Kashmiris gave it a grassroots depth, lending the party a capacity for political resurgence, the PDP possessed no such advantage. The party did not have its baptism by an inspiring mass movement. Soon after its formation, the PDP tried to live by the narrative of the separatist political movement; then a decade-long struggle with its amassed grievances, which the NC under Farooq Abdullah was ill-equipped to handle.
In 1998, the PDP was essentially a political party forged in haste to tap into the growing anti-NC sentiment. And in 2002, the party won more or less by default, being the only alternative to the NC in the Assembly election.
But what distinguished the party subsequently was its ability to consolidate its political credibility in the years in power. A task always challenged by the circumstances of its birth.
“Once the PDP got into its groove, the party left definite imprints on the complexion of the internal debate of the political conflict in the state,” says journalist Ahmad. “Its merit was not so much in the delivery of governance — which was a redeeming difference from the earlier rough-neck NC dispensation — as in manufacturing a new perception of the situation in the state.”
However, in recent years, the PDP consciously moderated its soft-separatist rhetoric, fearing it would make the Centre insecure. But the party followed a calculated strategy to widen and deepen its base in the state: first and foremost, fashioning a political discourse, which looks at the issues and the situation through the prism of the prevailing public sentiment. Second, expanding the state’s middle ground to be accommodative of the Valley’s entrenched mainstream-separatist divide. And third, the party’s term in a coalition government with the Congress, which it harks back to as a proof of its good work and which has now gained wider public resonance as the NC-Congress government fails to make a demonstrative difference.
Looking ahead to the Assembly polls, likely to be held in November, the PDP hopes to build upon the current success and secure a majority on its own. The party has set its sights mainly on the 46 seats in the Valley and the expectations of a deeper encroachment into Jammu and Ladakh, which has 37 and four seats, respectively. If the current disaffection with the NC and the Congress persists, which is the likely short-term scenario, the PDP has a strong chance to emerge as the single largest party.
The party has already started preparing in this direction. For now, it has strictly rejected insinuations of an alleged tie-up with the BJP, an alliance it sees as potentially detrimental to its chances in the Assembly polls. But at the same time, the party seems disinclined to pursue the strident soft-separatist line it plied in the previous Assembly polls, choosing instead to pitch itself as the facilitator of any Indo-Pakistan effort for a Kashmir solution and as an instrument in shaping the public and political opinion in the country in favour of such a process.
Its manifesto released in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls promises a special session in Parliament on J&K in which “the members of PDP would anchor the debate and steer the discussion of the House towards a stated J&K policy, which is quasi-legislative in its moorings”.
“Our parliamentarians will seek to create an environment for resolution at the national level, not just through formal parliamentary deliberation but through informal political networking as well,” the manifesto says.
This time, the PDP has not made self-rule its central plank. Elaborated in its vision document for the state, self-rule calls for a drastic redefinition of Kashmir’s relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan. It calls for a constitutional restructuring, dual currency, rollback of Central laws applicable to the state, an elected governor, even the renaming of the titles of governor and chief minister as sadar-i-riyasat (president) and the prime minister, respectively.
“We continue to want a permanent resolution of Kashmir within constitutional parameters,” says senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “We may not be talking about it through the media, but we do mobilise our grassroots support on this issue. For now, we are working to consolidate our gains. If the PDP gets a majority on its own, we would certainly play a constructive role for a solution.”