Meet the new leaders, same as the old leaders

Salman Anees Soz (left) and Junaid Azim Mattoo
Young Turks  Salman Anees Soz (left) and Junaid Azim Mattoo. Photos: Ankit Agrawal, Faisal Khan

On his day out, Salman Anees Soz leaves his home in Srinagar early and travels deep into the interiors of Baramulla, his native district. He talks to the villagers and listens intently to their myriad complaints. He walks the disfigured country roads and takes stock of the supply of water and electricity. A former World Bank employee and son of Jammu & Kashmir Congress president Saifuddin Soz, the 42-year-old uses these trips to connect with the masses in the run up to the 2014 Assembly polls, which he hopes to contest.

There are no ambiguities in Soz’s political message. He is here to focus on governance and development and not to take a position on the vexed Kashmir issue, which he thinks is for India and Pakistan to settle. “I think my job is to make a redeeming difference to the lives of people, not to make grand promises I cannot fulfil,” says Soz. “Azadi will not come overnight, but in the long wait for its arrival, we cannot stop living.”

This is a refrain that is not exclusive to Soz but is shared by almost all the new entrants to Kashmir’s troubled political landscape, a majority of whom come from established political families or the Valley’s social elite.

Michigan University graduate and American Green Card holder Junaid Azim Mattoo is one of them. “My joining mainstream politics is an outcome of deep introspection and disillusionment with the Hurriyat-style politics, which claims to represent the sentiments and aspirations of Kashmiris but has nothing to offer except shrill rhetoric,” says Mattoo.

Mattoo, the grandson of Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, one of the founding members of the Muslim Conference — the forerunner of the National Conference (NC) — was briefly with the People’s Conference before recently joining the NC. “I think constructive mainstream politics should be about nation-building and good governance and not about rhetoric and emotions,” he says. “Having said that, I don’t think Hurriyat has a copyright on Kashmiri aspirations. We can deal with those aspirations in a more substantial and pragmatic manner.”

Others who have joined politics recently include Salman Sagar, the son of NC leader and Rural Development Minister Ali Muhammad Sagar; Yawar Masoodi, the son of Jammu & Kashmir High Court judge Justice Hasnain Masoodi; and Zeeshan Pandit, the heir of an affluent business family from Sopore. Sagar has been made the provincial president of the National Conference’s youth wing.

In addition to this, the NC and the Congress have invested heavily in student politics. Both parties have formed their student wings in the state headquartered at the Srinagar-based Kashmir University, otherwise a vaunted bastion of separatist politics. The National Conference Students’ Union is led by Usman Gani, a law student in the university.

Though all the new entrants talk of overhauling the system, their rhetoric for change struggles to strike a chord with the people. For one, most of them are part of the old and established political structures with their individual thinking subservient to the entrenched ways of doing business. And adding further to their lack of impact is their roots in Kashmir’s political landscape, with the mixed political legacies of their families overriding their novelty.

This fact is acknowledged by Salman Soz. “I understand that I belong to a political family and I really want to see more political representation from outside this circle,” says Soz. “Having said that, why should my political connection disqualify me, or us for that matter?”

However, the greatest Achilles’ heel of the new-generation politicians is their approach to the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. They avert the issue, arguing it is beyond their “mandate” — a position that may be understandable given their choices but which nevertheless identifies them exclusively with only one part of Kashmir’s political reality.

And therein also lies the profound dilemma of Kashmir politics: the failure to structure a politics that legitimately plays its role between the conflict over Kashmir and efforts to develop the state. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the only one that tried to straddle this divide, has ended up falling between two stools. The party has now switched to re-establishing its pro-New Delhi credentials.

“Yes, Kashmir needs a new political alternative that can legitimately occupy the space between two political extremes — mainstream and separatism,” says professor Gull Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir. “Yes, an Aam Aadmi Party-like idea or a variant of the same, geared to cleansing the system, will certainly be helpful.”

Kashmir’s political landscape is dominated by the Abdullahs and the Muftis, the two powerful political families who control the NC and the PDP respectively. While the NC has been in power for most of the post-1947 period, the PDP, which emerged on the scene only in 1998, rode spectacularly to power in 2002. It was in power for six years through a rotational arrangement with the Congress, with the parties sharing the chief ministership for three years each. However, the Muftis as a political family precede the PDP by decades. Before he founded the PDP, the party’s current patron, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was a Congress leader for four decades.

In the recent past, new political parties have come to the fore, the most prominent of them being the People’s Conference, led by separatist-turned-mainstream politican Sajad Gani Lone. Lone is the son of the assassinated Hurriyat leader and former minister Abdul Gani Lone. But the party has struggled to make a mark.

Lone, however, is in no mood to give up. “For now, we are busy working on the ground with the people. And we are certainly making an impact,” he says. “Not making a noise in the media doesn’t mean we have no alternative and redeeming political vision to offer.”

In this familiar world of political families and progenies, Engineer Rashid is the only rank outsider. The independent mainstream politician, whose politics has been marked by the clear separatist overtones, recently floated a party. Rashid plans to field candidates in North Kashmir and even in Srinagar in the polls, hoping to enhance his tally in the Assembly from his solitary seat.

“My party will be a nationalistic Kashmiri party. It will not be a party of Indian agents,” Rashid said while announcing his party’s formation in the summer. “My party will work to fulfil the political aspirations of all Kashmiris.”

However, all these new political actors add up to little fundamental change in the state’s political environment. The reason is the absence of a new game-changing message that can operate within the competing political ideologies of the state and still maintain its credibility.

While AAP’s stunning success in Delhi has reinvigorated politics in the National Capital with the anti-corruption political movement looking set to spread across the country, Jammu & Kashmir remains stuck with two old political dynasties in the state. What is more, it is now the children of the old and ageing guard who are taking over as the Valley’s new politicians — that too just ahead of the Assembly and parliamentary elections.


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