On May 20, a day after the BJP pulled out from the alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir, the editor of an Urdu newspaper in Srinagar told his reporters that a new government will be formed soon. It was hard to swallow for the newsroom that Sajad Lone—separatist-turned-mainstream-politician, who was a minister in the PDP-BJP alliance, will be heading the new coalition.
Son of Abdul Gani Lone who was killed by unidentified gunmen in 2002, Sajad has called Prime Minister, Narendra Modi his elder brother and doesn’t shy away from calling himself a friend of the BJP.
The editor was right. Lone was preparing the ground to become the BJP-backed chief minister with the help of MLAs mostly from PDP and other parties. For over a month, the word spread in the political and journalistic circles but given the legalities around the formation of the government, it appeared another rumour, far from expediency.
However, by the beginning of July, senior PDP leader Imran Raza Ansari, son of an influential Shia cleric and politician, affirmed support for Lone. Five PDP legislators—Javaid Hussain Baig, Imran Ansari, Abdul Majid Paddar, Yasir Reshi and Saifuddin Bhat—addressed a joint press conference on July 13 and supported the formation of the government and opposed Mehbooba Mufti for sidelining the top leaders and promoting “family rule” in the party.
These were the faces from PDP that were actually supporting Sajad Lone in the government formation.
Why couldn’t Sajad form government?
Lone’s party, People’s Conference, had only two seats in the state Assembly. His plan was to get the support of PDP split-group with some other MLAs and join hands with the BJP to cross the 44 mark. He needed 17 more MLAs.
“We were ready to form the government. Over 18 MLAs from PDP were with us. But Delhi delayed it,” said former PDP MLA Abdul Majeed Paddar, who had rebelled against the party and joined Sajad. “We were told to wait for sometime so that the governor could be changed. We waited and approached again but the Centre was reluctant.”
“I soon realized that Sajad is not going to become the CM,” said Paddar, who was MLA from Noorabad constituency of south Kashmir’s Kulgam district.
The PDP rebels who were part of Sajad led group believe that the concern with the BJP and the central government was the anti-defection law and the political fallouts of a divide in PDP.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti had already warned that breaking up her party and formation of a new alliance will create a “new wave of militancy”.
Sajad and the rebel group, however, remained hopeful that they will form the government Satyapal Malik was appointed as governor.
When PDP and National Conference boycotted the civic polls, Sajad found an opportunity to gain from it. He gave a shock to NC when its spokesperson, Junaid Mattu, joined People’s Conference and contested the urban body polls. He won and became the mayor of Srinagar with the help of BJP.
NC, PDP and Congress realised that Sajad is getting patronage from Delhi and he became an imminent threat. These parties wanted the Assembly to be dissolved but the new governor was in no mood to do so.
After the win in the civic polls, Sajad was gearing up for government formation but this time his opponents were warned. “There is a person who approached all the parties and made them aware about the threat from Sajad,” said a PDP insider, wishing not to be named. “He united them. Behind that person might be someone from the central government.”
Insiders of NC and PDP believe that there was a group in the BJP who did not support breaking of PDP and it was perhaps with their lobbying that the message was sent across.
“The people who brought together NC, PDP and Congress were being backed even by people inside BJP in Delhi,” an insider who was part of the political negotiations claims. He says the only aim of this union was to stop Sajad and dissolve the Assembly.
National Conference president and former chief minister, Omar Abdullah also confirmed in a press conference later that the parties were going to disallow Assembly after some time.
Sajad was in London when PDP’s Altaf Bukhari met Omar Abdullah in Srinagar. Bukhari said the government will be formed soon by the three parties—NC, PDP and Congress. He was supposed to be the Chief Minister of the new alliance. Earlier, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah had refused to head the grand alliance and Mehbooba had already said no because of the crises in her party.
On November 21, after rounds of negotiations and meetings, it was decided by the grand-alliance that they will send the letter of claim to the governor by the evening. They knew that Sajad is preparing to do the same.
“We were okay with government formation. Whosoever would have formed first,” said former PDP MLA, Abdul Majeed Padder told News18. “The concern of every MLA is to complete the term so that he can do work of people. We haven’t got even half of that time. How will we go to people? So it was best to form government.”
Governor Malik dissolved the Assembly as soon as the letters of the claim by Mehbooba and Sajad came up. This became a win-win situation for NC, Congress and especially PDP—the party which was witnessing more cracks and sort of “existential threat” due to efforts to form a government.
The split in PDP
As the negotiations to go for a grand alliance were at its peak, PDP’s founding member and MP, Muzaffar Beigh called a press conference stating that if third-front emerges he will seriously consider joining Sajad.
Beigh tried to convey that he and some senior leaders are not being taken on board by the party while taking important decisions. He said he was not consulted by the PDP leadership on the decision to boycott the local body polls.
“The PDP betrayed the workers, denying them a chance to connect with the people, by boycotting the elections. They left a vacuum and that space has now been occupied. Politics does not wait for people who boycott,” he said.
Beigh even praised Sajad clearly indicating that he was not averse to joining him. “Sajad Lone is like my son… If Sajad (Lone) is interested in (formation of the third front), it should be encouraged. People want something different from the beaten track,” Beigh said.
In July, five rebel legislators had also stated that Mehbooba Mufti is sidelining the senior party leader and is promoting her relatives. “Our motive is to remove Mehbooba Mufti from the party top post,” Muzaffar Beigh’s nephew and the PDP legislator from Baramulla had said.
Mehbooba was accused of promoting her uncle Sartaj Madni, brother Tasaduk Mufti and Peer Mansur, a relative. Besides, there was resentment against bureaucrat-turned-politician Nayeem Akhtar being made minister without contesting elections.
On August 27, Mehbooba relived all of them from their responsibilities and the alienated members were given the responsibility of the party’s new committee.
However, soon after the political drama of November 21, Imraan Ansari formally joined Sajad Lone’s party. Sajad said more people are likely to join him. Ansari is a Shia leader and with his uncle Abdid Ansari have considerable influence in two to three constituencies.
“He (Imran Ansari) is a big leader with huge influence. But this is how politics works,” said PDP spokesperson Mohammad Rafi Mir.
In PDP the apprehension of immediate spilt has ceased for now. Negotiations are going on to bring the party leadership, which is at odds, together.
The party had called a meeting in Srinagar on November 26. However, only 15-16 members turned out. PDP leaders said it was due to the strike in Kashmir that all the members could not turn up and the meeting the cancelled.
However, insiders say members who didn’t turn out for the meeting are at the loggerheads with the party leadership and if they are not brought into the fold a split is inevitable.
“I came from Anantnag to attend the meeting. The leaders who cited strike in Kashmir as a reason were in Srinagar. So it is clear they didn’t want to turn up,” former MLA Abdul Raheem Rather told News18.
Those who met did raise their concerns. Some were very vocal about approaching the court. “I told Mehbooba ji that we should approach the Supreme Court and challenge the decision of the governor as other parties have also expressed their support,” Rather said. However, Mehbooba said there was no “formal letter of support” from other parties.
“We are suspicious if they will support us formally when we approach the court,” Mehbooba was quoted saying by another member present in the meeting.
There has been no meeting of PDP leadership with Muzaffar Beigh till now. “Muzaffar Beig has some concerns with the party and he has expressed it. We have not met him since,” PDP’s spokesperson told News18. “This is normal in any party and there is nothing to be worried of.”
The other former legislators who had rebelled against the party are mute. They are not disclosing their future plans. Few former legislators, however, said they will consider in future whether they should be part of PDP given that its image has taken a hit among the masses, particularly in its base south Kashmir. There is a clear leadership crisis in the PDP and most don’t want Mehbooba to head the party.
In case Muzaffar Beig joins Sajad Lone, the new party in Kashmir will have a strong say in the politics of north Kashmir. But at this point, that seems unlikely.
Will Sajad rise to the occasion?
Days before the attempt to form the government, senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz said Sajad cannot rise so suddenly. “It cannot happen so suddenly that he will create space while Mehbooba will be just watching. Sajad has been a very sweet colleague, he has gained little popularity with his erstwhile colleges but that will not help him altogether to take the command even though BJP may like that,” Soz had told News18, perhaps indicating about the new grand alliance in making.
Soz had said that it will depend on the NC. “NC will not sit back. It is a cadre-based party and has support on the ground. But it is possible that it (third front) may gain strength from PDP, there is already a split group,” Soz had told News18.
Sajad openly supports the BJP in Kashmir but believes Jammu and Kashmir’s special status is “sacred”. In a recent press conference, he said Article 370 and 35A is sacred for Kashmiris and no politician can even dream of tinkering with it.
Soz believes that it is not possible to be the ally of BJP and be popular in Kashmir at the same time. “He will be popular with the BJP but how can he afford to be popular at the same time with the people of Kashmir? Even though Sajad has not created controversies around his personality but he may not succeed,” Soz told News18.
At this stage, there are efforts by Sajad to consolidate the alienated members of other parties and work for his political party, which can emerge as the third alternative in Kashmir.
He seems to be enjoying Delhi’s patronage and there is a famous saying: Kashmir mai sarkar Delhi kai aashirvaad say bante hai [Government in Kashmir is formed with Delhi’s blessings].