On November 10 in 2014, a rather unusual meeting took place at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence in New Delhi.
The guest was former separatist leader Sajjad Lone. It created ruffles in Jammu and Kashmir’s political circles but hardly did any political pundits fathom that in less than four year’s time, Sajjad Lone may be the key figure for forming the second BJP government in the state. Some are already asking the question: Will Sajjad Lone be the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir?
The BJP dumped the PDP on June 19 to pave way for Governor’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir apparently after the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti blocked the Centre’s “muscular policy” to deal with separatism and terrorism in the Valley.
The PDP has 28 MLAs in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly but its alliance with the BJP alienated its “soft on separatism” political constituency. News reports suggest that the party is facing deep public anger in its bastion of South Kashmir – incidentally, the breeding ground for fresh wave of local militancy in the state.
The MLAs of the PDP are worried about their political future. A group of PDP legislators led by those from North Kashmir have revolted against the party leadership. At least five of them – Abid Ansari, his nephew Imran Reza Ansari, Abbas Wani, Abdul Majeed Padder and Javed Hassan Baig – have accused PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti of turning the party into a “family fiefdom”. PDP MLC Yasir Resi also joined the chorus against Mehbooba Mufti.
These five have launched efforts for a new government in Jammu and Kashmir led by the BJP and excluding Mehbooba Mufti. But there is the anti-defection law that requires a numerical strength of at least two-thirds of the total number of PDP MLAs to hold legislature party meet and request the Speaker of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly to recognise them as a distinct political entity. The rebel MLAs have claimed to enjoy support of 21 MLAs.
With Nirmal Kumar Singh of the BJP being the Speaker of Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, recognition of the rebel faction of the PDP does not seem to be a problem. The BJP has 25 MLAs and together with 21 rebel PDP MLAs, the new coalition that would also have two members of Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference crosses the half-way mark.
But here lies the problem of image for the BJP as it gears up for 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has already hit out at the BJP accusing its state unit of trying to “break” the PDP. Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary in-charge of Jammu and Kashmir, promptly denied the charge.
But a denial of charge does not seem to be enough for the BJP leadership. This is where Sajjad Lone comes in the picture. Having met PM Modi just days ahead of Assembly election in 2014, Sajjad Lone has an advantage that most Kashmiri leaders don’t have. His People’s Conference has only two MLAs still he was made a minister. Mehbooba made Lone Science and Technology Minister in Jammu and Kashmir.
There are speculations that the BJP may encourage the rebel PDP MLAs to join the People’s Conference of Sajjad Lone in order to deflect charges of splitting the party to another regional player. The BJP does not have any significant presence in the Kashmir Valley but Sajjad Lone can help it hold the power lever from a vantage point there.
A major loss of face and popularity for the PDP is good news for the National Conference of the Abdullahs. This may turn into a big challenge for the BJP in the next Assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir.
On the other hand, the BJP leadership does not want to be seen as engineering a split in the PDP. This, the BJP believes will dent its “clean image” after walking out of the Jammu and Kashmir government “in national interest”. But while negotiations are going on in the back-channel involving Sajjad Lone and rebel PDP MLAs, the BJP fancies its chances of getting its first chief minister in the only Muslim majority state of the country as it prepares for the next Lok Sabha elections.
Sajjad Lone has been participating in elections directly or through proxies since 2002. Support of sitting PDP MLAs would expand his People’s Conference’s political base. This also suits the BJP for 2019 elections. The coming together of the rebel PDP and Sajjad Lone’s is being referred to as “Northern Alliance” for the rebels from North Kashmir launched the fresh initiative.
The rebel PDP MLAs are reportedly not willing to concede this demand. They also don’t want mid-term election fearing loss. The security situation in Jammu and Kashmir does not seem to be conducive for holding election. The rebel MLAs want assurance that the election would not be held before the expiry of term.
This situation works in favour of Sajjad Lone. He has the support of the rebel PDP MLAs. For the BJP, Sajjad Lone has been a supporter of PM Modi and is often seen praising his style of governance. With two MLAs, Sajjad Lone is being seen as the front-runner in the race for chief ministership in a Jammu and Kashmir government dominated by the BJP.
News credit : Indiatoday