It has been 11 days since the results of Jammu and Kashmir's election were declared. Without a decisive mandate, parties are still busy talking to each other about possible combinations to form a government.
The PDP, headed by Mufti Mohammmad Sayeed won the most seats, and therefore its options are abundant, but each potential alliance is weighed down by problems. Though the party made its choice obvious - it strongly suggested it wants to partner with the BJP - the unconditional support offered by the Congress and Omar Abdullah's National Conference has actually put roadblocks in the PDP's preferred route.
The PDP has said it would like an agreement with the BJP if it follows the line taken by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had supported the PDP agenda, which was seen as pro separatists, at least in tone and tenor.
In an 87-member assembly, PDP's tally is 28 - its best ever performance since the party was launched 15 years ago. The BJP has won 25 seats, mainly from Jammu's Hindu heartland. On the face of it, the alliance between these two parties seems to be the only way out, not just to represent the people divided along communal and regional lines, but also to ensure a numerically-strong and stable government that enjoys a strong backing from a friendly Centre.
Such an alliance becomes especially crucial because of the mammoth task ahead for the state government in reconstructing Srinagar and other parts that were hit with pulverizing force by floods in September. There's also the urgent need to check growing unemployment, which will depend heavily on generous assistance for the cash-starved state from Prime Minister Modi's government.
But a PDP-BJP alliance could create a dangerous political vacuum in the Kashmir valley and the Muslim-majority parts of Jammu. Here is why.
In 1999, the PDP was formed in the wake of a perceived anti-Kashmiri policy practiced by the Farooq Abdullah government in the state. Human rights violations had crossed all limits as the infamous Special Task Force and other security agencies were given a free hand to unleash brutalities on common people.
People were looking for an alternative to the National Conference and even after an extensive campaign centered on soft separatist rhetoric by PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, there was hardly anyone who expected that this newly-formed party could dethrone the mighty NC.
Days before the results of the election in 2002, PDP patriarch Mufti Mohammad Sayeed told me that the PDP could win three to four seats. The 16-seat victory came as a windfall and the defeat of Omar Abdullah from his family bastion Ganderbal was not just a rejection of Abdullah family, breaking the unquestioned monopoly of NC over power politics in Kashmir, but it also sent a strong message that people are yearning for change. This legitimized the PDP's claim to form the government in coalition with the Congress. Interestingly, the Abdullahs' NC was still the single-largest party in the house.
Mufti's controversial words that "militants don't need guns anymore because their representatives are now in the assembly" still reverberates in the ears of those who wanted a dignified exit from the militant movement and sought to join the mainstream without completely divorcing the separatist discourse in Kashmir.
The PDP doesn't attempt to disguise that its symbolism and rhetoric echo a soft separatist sentiment. The party flag is borrowed from the erstwhile Muslim United Front or MUF, an amalgam of Kashmiri groups that lost the 1987 elections to the Abdullah-Congress alliance in a widely-believed rigged poll that is believed to be a trigger for the subsequent outbreak of militancy. The MUF became the Hurriyat Conference later. The PDP didn't miss a single chance to accuse the National Conference of pushing MUF candidate Mohammad Yousuf Shah into militancy because he lost hope in the democratic process. Shah is now Syed Salahudin and the Pakistan-based chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
The PDP's biggest contribution to Kashmir's political process so far has been to provide a sense of accommodation to those who had lost all hopes in the fairness of the democratic system. In the process of taking the space occupied by separatists in Kashmir's political landscape, the party has amalgamated certain facets of the separatist narrative. But that seems to be a means to hoodwink the separatist constituency. The end is to capture power. Their aim is to alter the perception that Kashmiris have been stripped of their rights and everything is being decided in Delhi, and that a state government is merely a puppet in the hands of the Centre.
The PDP did succeed in changing this perception to some extent while Mufti was the Chief Minister for three years after the 2002 polls. Measures like the introduction of Srinagar- Muzaffarabad Bus service, talks with Kashmiri separatists and Vajpayee extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan in Srinagar soon after he addressed a PDP rally in the town in 2003 contributed to this shift.
People started to believe that Srinagar is part of the policy and decision-making process even as Mufti led a coalition government with the Congress. The NDA government, especially PM Vajpayee and L K Advani, firmly stood behind Mufti's "healing touch" policy and other rhetoric that accompanied it.
At the same time, the PDP was being accused of being hand-in-glove with the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group. Mehbooba Mufti would regularly visit the families of slain militant to offer condolences. Nobody questioned Mufti's "patriotic credentials" and he was instead trusted and respected in the corridors of power in Delhi.
Some people in Kashmir were watching all this in total disbelief and at times deep suspicion as well.
Since 2002, the PDP has grown manifold and it appears to be steadily replacing Kashmir's grand old party, NC, especially among the youth. While most of these educated youth are ideologically and emotionally pro- separatist, the arrival of PDP on the scene has given them an easy alibi to find refuge where they can at least see some resonance of their emotional moorings.
But as PDP is dropping broad hints to forge an alliance with BJP, its biggest worry is what will happen to its ideology and support base in Kashmir in the event of a covenant. A senior PDP leader and top strategist admitted that this is not Vajpayee's BJP and they know the perils of this alliance in the time when "Ghar Wapasi" - a euphemism used to describe the conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism - has become a full-time occupation for the affiliate groups of the BJP.
"Our alliance with the BJP is like going to the gallows and hoping to return with a trophy," he said.
A strong lobby within the PDP, however, is supporting the alliance with BJP and the balance seems to be tilted in their favour. But if the green of the PDP mixes with the saffron of the BJP, a vacuum will be created in the Valley .Remember, the MUF was outcome of a similar vacuum created by the NC- Congress alliance in J&K in 1986. At the time, the NC was seen as the sole representative of Kashmiri nationalism. After its alliance with Congress and the perceived abandoning of its core ideology, the subsequent fallout was topped by the outbreak of militancy.
The PDP is hoping that in case it forges an alliance with BJP, the saffron will go green. That expectation is misplaced because it is impossible to see the PDP impacting BJP at a time when the saffron party is on a resurgent trajectory across India.
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