Independent Kashmiri politician Engineer Rashid’s politics has always been marked by distinct separatist overtones. Now, in what is being viewed with suspicion by prominent political parties in the Valley, he has floated his own party — the Awami Itihad Jammu & Kashmir.
“My party will be a nationalistic Kashmiri party,” said Rashid. “It will not be a party of Indian agents, but will work to fulfill the political aspirations of Kashmiris.” Rashid plans to field candidates in north Kashmir and even in Srinagar in the 2014 polls, hoping to enhance his tally in the Assembly from a solitary seat.
However, for Kashmir, Rashid’s party is one more addition to the existing five mainstream parties. Two of them, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), are predominantly stronger than the other three, the Awami National Conference (ANC) led by Muzaffar Shah, the Jammu & Kashmir Democratic Party led by Ghulam Hassan Mir and the People’s Conference headed by the separatist-turned- mainstream leader Sajjad Lone. In the 2008 Assembly election, even north Indian regional parties like the Lok Janshakti Party, BSP and SP, who have virtually no presence in the state, were in the fray, garnering a few hundred votes each.
While anywhere else in the country, one more political party would be a part of the normal political process, not so in Kashmir. Rashid’s entry as a leader of a political party is already being viewed with unease by a large section of the population in J&K who think that the formation of more political parties will fragment the Kashmiri mandate and diminish the Valley’s political sway and say in governance.
The situation is paradoxical. On the one hand, people in the Valley want to be rid of the dynastic rule of the NC and PDP, and on the other, they fear political marginalisation as several parties vie for the crucial 46 seats in Kashmir province, which play a decisive role in who rules the state.
The advent of the PDP as a credible Opposition in 2002 has already profoundly altered the scene. While the party has ended the NC’s political “monopoly”, it has also turned the Congress into a king-maker. With the Valley’s seats split between them, the NC and PDP are hardly in a position to form the government without the Congress’ support. This is why the Congress has been ruling the state for the past 11 years as part of the coalition governments, first with the PDP in 2002-08 and thereafter with the NC. Now, this cycle is set to repeat in 2014: it could either be a Congress-NC or a Congress-PDP coalition, with the Congress choosing and rejecting its partners.
But the smaller parties like the People’s Conference and now, Engineer’s party, threaten to alter the political landscape of the Valley like never before. For one, these two parties, along with existing smaller parties and popular independent leaders like Hakeem Yaseen, are likely to further nibble away at the tallies of both the NC and PDP. If the NC and PDP lose a share of their seats to the new parties, the Congress ironically could emerge as the largest single party in a Muslim majority state steeped in separatist politics. It then will not only be in a position to select a partner, but will also be the dominant party in the coalition.
It is not that Kashmir has not been a multi-party society before. Before the eruption of the secessionist movement in 1989, J&K was a scene of unyielding political tussle between the NC, Jamaat-i-Islami and People’s Conference. However, the NC was and still continues to be the only pan- J&K party, while the Jamaat -i- Islami and People’s Conference were only bit players. The Jamaat, despite being an old cadre-based party, could hardly garner three to four seats and the People’s Conference a maximum of two seats. But their poor showing wasn’t necessarily a reflection of their popularity. All pre- 1989 elections in the Valley except the one held in 1977, are believed to have been rigged in favour of the NC.
The election of 1987, the last such exercise before militancy changed the Valley, witnessed the worst poll fraud. The Muslim United Front (MUF), an amalgam of Opposition parties, including the Jamaat, which appeared certain to win the election, won fewer than five seats. The MUF also included Umat -i- Islami, the party of Qazi Nisar, a charismatic leader from south Kashmir whose rise to political stardom was meteoric. This, despite the fact that his politics had no overt separatist overtones, otherwise a pre-requisite for the leadership in the state. Nisar somehow pulled it off on a plank of Kashmiri sub-nationalism shot with a strong religious appeal at a time when religion in politics was not such an anathema in the world.
This is what made him one of the leading lights of the MUF. Nisar helped churn up a massive wave in favour of the amalgam, which looked set to sweep the polls. But the rigging of the 1987 polls and the subsequent violent upheaval aborted this genuine democratic mobilisation. Nisar was subsequently assassinated by militants in 1993 for his alleged role in efforts at reconciliation with New Delhi.
But in today’s Kashmir, massive rigging of polls is no longer an option, even while poll boycott in urban areas distorts the electoral scene, with old and established parties like the NC enjoying an edge over others. This is what makes the birth of new parties so significant. It is expected to further undercut the electoral standing of the NC and PDP, and while it may be a welcome diffusion of power, will end up undermining the capacity of any Valley-centric party to form the government either on its own or as a majority partner in a coalition.
What accentuates this unease further is that while the Kashmir Valley has seen growth of new parties, Jammu hasn’t. It is still the traditional parties like the Congress, NC, BJP, PDP and the Jammu-centric Panthers Party who make the electoral landscape.
“We are not against new parties but this process is not natural,” says Naeem Akhter, chief spokesman of the PDP. “We believe that some State agencies are promoting this fragmentation. But we also believe that people will see through this game and know the value of a united voice.”
Tanvir Sadiq, the political secretary to CM Omar Abdullah, sees the development as a “systematic conspiracy” to dislodge the NC. “Parties are floated to weaken the NC because we represent the political aspirations of the people of the state,” he says. “Now we are witnessing a fresh effort to divide Kashmir. But this will not happen.”