In Depth

Mehbooba’s ‘buoyant’ camp in the ‘boycott’ bastion

Even as the last-leg polling for Anantnag parliamentary seat concluded on May 6, the fate of the political party that used south Kashmir as its launching pad before its citadel, hangs in balance. But by fielding their vocal trump card on their home-turf, Peoples Democratic Party offers a raison d’être that polls for them was an attempt to restore the snapped ties with the glowering grassroots. However, even PDP knows: It isn’t a walk in the park for them.

Tracing the cinematically grey late-90s of Kashmir, the lady Mufti would self-drive her oddly-descriptive Maruti 800 all the way from her Nowgam residence to the Press Colony, where she would individually pay visit to each media-house.

Being the daughter of India’s first and only Muslim home minister, while many would humbly welcome, a few would just ask her to wait, like any other visitor, and she, happily would – after all, ‘Daddy wanted to hold a press conference…’

She would convince the editors to assign one of their reporters, whom she would herself – four at a time – ferry back home, serve a cup of kahwa, as meanwhile, she would again do a few more rounds, until there’s enough Press assembled for her father to take the floor.

Ever since the long-playing Congressman, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, dreamt of setting his foot on the home-turf, Kashmir’s soon-to-be-Baji had been then working day in-and-out like a small-time grass-root worker, only, and only, to execute ‘Mufti sahab’s khwaab’: the PDP, or the Peoples Democratic Party.

Now after two decades of ‘tumultuous’ rise in Kashmir politics, the same dream is certainly turning out to be a ‘nightmare’ for Mehbooba Mufti, as once the ‘well-bricked’ political outfit, now seems to be fading.

Since its inception in 1999, the political graph of PDP ascended steeply without having any break-even points. It climbed right since its debut appearance where it won 16 seats in 2002, then securing 23 in 2008, while in 2014, it comfortably swept away 28 seats – but it was strangely, at this point, the party noted the beginning of its ‘unthinkable downfall…’

With the third and final phase of parliamentary polling for the south Kashmir constituency over, many political pundits had earlier predicted it to be a one-sided contest in favour of the former CM Mehbooba Mufti. Because obviously, it sounds unbelievable for a party like PDP to bite the dust in its own backyard – so much so, that one of its spokespersons had joked with this reporter by offering him the opportunity to “declare the polling result in favour of Baji, even before the Election Commission officially would.

But then, simply drawing the lines of reality, it could be argued that Mehbooba possibly seems to have ‘lost her ground’ – simply going by the low voter turnout in all the three-phases, and furthermore, considering two percent polling from that of her hometown Bijbehara, which contrastingly in 2014 election, was echoing with the melodious tunes of women folk dancing for the success of their lady leader.

Five years later, on April 23, when she had arrived at the polling booth to observe her crucial vote, there were only a handful of burqa-clad ladies long-waiting to welcome her, only, to chant discreetly for the sake of media-shutterbugs: ‘Mehbooba ji aage badho, hamm tumhare sath hai…’

However, in the world of harsh-realities, Mehbooba is one aloof individual. Whether it be the declining fan-base over her mishandling of 2016 uprising, or a failed north pole-south pole alliance with BJP, or be it the ‘betrayals’ from the dependable ones: nothing has gone well for the PDP chief, since the demise of her father in 2015.

Let alone talking about the decline of ground support, “the party” – in the words of Mehbooba’s close aide, Khurshid Alam – “is considering the parliamentary election as an opportunity to reach out to people, with an aim to regain the lost trust…

For a quick interview, Alam had arrived at the Srinagar office in his lavish white-and-bright four-wheeler, donning a grey suit and retro sunglasses, guarded by the armed men all-through.

When he had joined PDP in 2014, he had promised to put in his ‘blood and sweat to strengthen the party’. Five years later, he still ‘absolutely’ stands by his comment and is now party’s Srinagar face. And during the times when the party faced setback in the form of senior leaders’ exit, 65-year-old Alam stood behind it like a rock.

Once seated comfortably, he sounded one confident political being making no bones about his street demonstrator side—his faded avatar of yore, earning him PDP’s ticket from Khanyar. Even as he emerged loser, from the seat where NC’s Ali Mohammad Sagar has firmly established himself as a lock, stock and barrel, Alam’s party loyalty made him MLC. The recent return of ‘agitated’ PDP on Srinagar streets had mostly Alam written all over it. Back in his office, he was feeling smug over his rise in the party ranks.

But how’s he hopeful about the final results.

Khurshid Alam at the PDP headquarter in Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

“We’ve fielded candidates in all the three parliamentary seats in the valley… but the outcome is something I cannot really predict,” he kept it low.

Apart from contesting herself, Mehbooba placed two new entrants, Aga Mohsin and Qayoom Wani, from central and north Kashmir, respectively.

While Mohsin, a top shia leader from Budgam, had joined the party in 2017, Wani, a former employee leader from Tangmarg, joined only in February this year. So, barring Mehbooba, the other two parliamentary faces were barely even considered as a threat by their rivals.

Moshin and Wani were fielded by the party as a replacement to the PDP co-founders – Tariq Hamid Karra and Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, also the winners of their respective constituencies in 2014.

When Mufti Sayeed was envisioning the rise of PDP in late 90s, it was Karra and Beigh who believed, and stood by him to map the party’s success.

But soon after Mufti’s demise, the two veteran patrons too fell apart. While Karra already joined Congress in 2016, Beigh seems to be indulged in a long cold war having once even publicly threatened to quit the party.

The conflict of interest developed right since the talks of PDP forming an alliance with right-wing BJP started brewing back in 2015, although eventually, it was Beigh and Karra who had accompanied Mehbooba to stake claims to form the government with the saffron party.

Back at his home in Srinagar’s Shivpora locality, Karra recalled the day it was – “March 23, 2016…”

“… after that, I never saw her (Mehbooba).”

Mufti’s decision to join hands with the saffron party was seen as the great betrayal by scores of people in the valley, because why not, the PDP had banked highly on the anti-BJP slogans during its rallies before 2014 elections.

And when finally the alliance was formed, a new narrative had taken over the outraged Kashmiris – to be that of a ‘North Pole and the South pole’.

Decoding the ‘disaster of alliance’, attributing to Karra’s simple analysis, as he said: “…My argument is that the North Pole and South Pole is destined to come together only on the day of Judgment, and if you’ll forcefully push to do the unlikeable, then yes politically, you got to be prepared to witness the day of Judgment.”

Tariq Hameed Karra (left) with late Mufti Sayeed.

And BJP, only two years later in July 2018, ditched Mehbooba by abruptly withdrawing the support, and since then, the party only seems to be gathering the left-over pride, with which it went to the parliamentary polls.

So far, at least 11 members have left PDP and joined the rival outfits.

“The party deviated from its prime agenda,” Karra noted, while further analysing the reasons behind the PDP’s downfall. “When we floated the party, our focus was to solve the Kashmir issue and prosper the state politically, administratively and economically. With 28 seats, the party could’ve considered the support from National Conference and the Congress to easily form a secular government, but strangely, the hunger for power drove PDP to the wrong side.”

Khurshid Alam had asked this reporter to remind Karra of the times he was at a close-door meeting with Mehbooba – “where he, donning a black suit and rose-printed hankie in his pocket, had been suggesting her to go for the coalition, but then months later, again in that same black suit and rose-printed handkerchief, was seen opposing the decision… why so?”

To which, Karra mindfully ducked: “See, it doesn’t behove me to respond to a politically small person, who has nicknames in the society because of his tainted personality. Unfortunately… politics has become a refuge to all sorts of tainted people… they join politics to cover up their bad deeds… very unfortunate!”

But then, if Karra was so against the coalition, why did he accompany Mehbooba to New Delhi to claim stake to form the government?

When this reporter tried finding the answer after the former PDP veteran put him off, a senior party worker, wishing anonymity, narrated: “Modi actually disliked Mehbooba. The trap was set in a way that the BJP was willing to make Altaf Bukhari the chief minister. Mehbooba could see her party falling apart, in literal sense. She was influenced. She was told there’s dissent within the party as the two senior leaders – Tariq Karra and Muzaffar Beigh – were not on her side. So to convince Karra, she had gone to his residence in Delhi, where, I was told, she cried and persuaded him to support her decision.”

Pertinently, in a press conference that Karra had held after resigning from the PDP, he was asked by the reporters the reason behind him proposing Mehbooba Mufti’s name for the CM candidate, to which, he had replied: “I only preferred a lesser evil.”

And therefore, today Mehbooba is on the wrong side, just like Omar Abdullah was in the previous election, believes veteran Kashmiri journalist, Mohammad Sayeed Malik.

“But she still has some chances,” he said. “And it’s because Muftis understand grassroot politics. In Kashmir, mainstream parties sustain themselves on the flesh and blood of soft separatism [the core belief of PDP]. Then they change according to the centre’s diktat.”

Veteran journalist Mohammad Sayeed Malik. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

Meanwhile, at the PDP office in Anantnag, Iftikhar Misgar is a regular attendee. Of all my three visits to the party quarters, he was one only noticeable face that consistently marked its presence, all of it, amidst a deserted vibe that echoes loud inside the single-storey wooden structure, symbolising the obvious predicament of the PDP.

In a small party room, he sat comfortably at one corner of the sofa, engaged in his cell-phone, interacting in bits and pieces with one of his fellow mates, party’s district president.

A senior political activist, Misgar was still getting used to the new workplace he brought himself into, having then joined only 15 days ago. So, what brings him to the PDP, during contrasting times when even some veterans have deserted it?

He answered diplomatically: “It’s a long forecasting… At the end of the day, every politician has desires, and so do I.”

Now a PDP ‘loyalist’, he had contested against Mehbooba Mufti for the Anantnag assembly twice on behalf of Abdullahs, but could only manage to bite the dust. All in all, one can decode Iftikhar’s entry in to the party with a famous proverb – If you can’t beat them, join them!

“South belongs only to the PDP and no other party has its influence here. And one thing that I like about PDP is its top leader’s accountability. For example, Mehbooba doesn’t mince her words back in Delhi and sticks to what she says, unlike Farooq Abdullah,” he noted.

But despite Baji’s image-makeover, the party fought the election in millimetres, said PDP’s young gun, Waheed Para.

“And within that limited space, you’ve to operate. The space of overall politics, especially in south Kashmir is very limited,” Para said, matter-of-factly.

Back in 2014, the space was with the party, he continued. “Now it has gone to the other side, not mainstream but separatism. There’s a lot of anger also. 30,000 people coming to militant’s funeral might not be seen as a political statement, you may not consider, but it is one,” the party loyalist said.

PDP’s Youth President Waheed Para.

Only five years back, Para said, PDP had thousands of people, who held open meetings without fear or any pressure. “But right now, it’s very tight, lot of political workers and cops have been killed,” he said. “We understand there is pain, there is a problem, and we don’t want to be seen insensitive to the situation. We want votes, but not at the cost of people’s sentiment. This election looks more like enforced.”

After 11 important party faces deserted PDP, Para said, blanks are being filled. “And as party is regrouping, I think Mehbooba Mufti is back to the Kashmir narrative set by her. She has started visiting militant families, coming out on street, talking about Jama’at and JKLF ban. Mehbooba Mufti is known for starting a trend and then the other politicians follow. She’s in news, she’s in debates, she’s in discussion, and very quickly, she’ll be back to power.”

But despite PDP’s buoyant approach driven by its leader’s lately found blitzkrieg, media advisor to Mehbooba Mufti clearly sees stress in the air. “In many areas we could have done better but the polling percentage was low this time around,” Suhail Bukhari said. “For example, in Sangrama, where I come from, we had only 9000 votes polled out of 75,000, while in assembly elections, we had seen 45,000 polling approximately. So it’s only the uphill areas where votes are polled.”

Optics might suggest National Conference, Peoples Conference or whatever, but one cannot write off anyone, Bukhari believes.

But down in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, the place frequented by both former journalist Bukhari as well as young Mehbooba Mufti, a senior journalist, Shah Abbas, offered his diligent take on PDP’s present plight: “It was Mufti Sayeed’s experience and his daughter’s hard work that led to the rise of PDP; and then, it was Mufti’s demise and Mehbooba’s inexperienced leadership that triggered the party’s downfall.”

Indeed, the party presented as the ‘middle ground’ has seemingly lost its own ground in the valley right now. And much of it has to do with PDP’s sliding stronghold in the sulking south.

 

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