In August 2022, Ghulam Nabi Azad – former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a stalwart in national politics – severed his five-decade-old ties with the Congress and soon after, announced the launch of his new political party. It created ripples in the political circles of Jammu and Kashmir.
Azad’s re-entry into J&K politics after a gap of 14 years was expected to create instability and dissension in not just the Congress but also other regional parties. It was widely believed that Azad would attract leaders from various political formations.
But four months down the line, his party has started to implode and is far from emerging as a serious contender on Jammu and Kashmir’s landscape, raising questions on its future.
The quick crumbling of Azad’s Democratic Progressive Azad Party shows how new political parties are failing to get traction in J&K where electoral politics has been manoeuvred and rigged since 1947. Other new parties that have emerged on J&K’s political landscape after the imposition of Central rule in the erstwhile state in June 2018 have almost met with a fate similar to DAP’s. As many as nine new parties have emerged in J&K after the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support to the Mehbooba Mufti-led government with whom it had a six-year power-sharing agreement.
The birth of new parties is being met with suspicion and cynicism in a Kashmir where electoral politics has been largely loathed in the last three decades. Many stakeholders accuse these formations of being New Delhi’s creations to divide vote in Kashmir, and the Pir Panchal and Chenab regions of Jammu.
The first such political formation that took birth in J&K during the ongoing spell of central rule was the Shah Faesal-led Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Movement, which has completely disappeared now. In March 2019, Faesal, the Indian Administrative Service topper of 2010, launched a new political party . Its slogan was ‘Hawa badlegi‘. The winds will change.
Launched with much fanfare, the party got a shot in the arm in the beginning itself with former minister and three-time MLA Javid Mustafa Mir joining it. It entered into a pre-poll pact with former legislator Er. Rashid, who is now lodged in the Tihar jail in a terror funding case.
But the party became dormant once the BJP-led Union government unilaterally read down Article 370 and reorganised J&K into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019.
Like other mainstream politicians, Shah Faesal was also detained by the authorities and later booked under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA). After his release in 2020, Faesal resigned from politics as well as from the party he had founded.
Faesal’s exit from politics proved the death knell for the party with his successors failing to keep the party afloat. Leaders of JKPM joined different parties including Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party. The party is now non-existent. Faesal has now returned to government service and is at present posted as deputy secretary in the Union culture ministry.
Syed Altaf Bukhari, former minister in the PDP-BJP government and businessman, floated the abovementioned new political party, comprising mostly former ministers and ex-legislators from PDP and Congress, in March 2020.
Bukhari created the party at a time when all top mainstream leaders of Kashmir were behind the bars to prevent them from questioning or protesting the August 5, 2019 decisions.
Dubbed as the “king’s party” by its opponents, the Bukhari-led outfit promised to fight on for restoration of J&K’s statehood and to protect the rights of natives when it came to land and jobs. In its first electoral test in November-December 2020, the J&K Apni Party fared badly, winning only 12 seats out of 172 seats it contested in the district development council polls when National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Peoples Conference and other parties came together.
It managed to install its chairmen in two district development councils of Kashmir Valley through poaching and other means. One such district was Shopian where it managed to win only two seats, while PDP secured four, NC three, independents four and Congress one.
The Apni Party has managed to stay afloat, due to better resources and alleged official patronage.
The year 2022 saw the formation of a new political party by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had earned goodwill across the board for his three-year term as its chief minister from 2005 to 2008. However, he doesn’t have a large political constituency.
His loyalists welcomed his return to J&K’s politics but Congress as well as Apni Party were all fire against him, charging him of having been propped up by BJP’s.
In August last year, immediately after Azad’s resignation, his loyalists in the J&K unit of Congress resigned from the party and threw their weight behind him. But before the formal launch of his party in September 2022, his aide and former MLA Surankote Choudhary Muhammad Akram quickly distanced himself from the party. Akram is the son of powerful leader Choudhary Mohammad Aslam Lassanvi, who was the first Gujjar leader from J&K to become a Rajya Sabha member.
THe Azad-led party, which was failing to attract faces from parties other than Congress, on December 22, 2022, expelled former deputy CM Tara Chand, former minister Manohar Lal Sharma and Balwan Singh – all for “anti-party activities”.
Tara Chand and Manohar Lal Sharma have significant influence in Hindu-majority areas of Jammu. They were expelled after the Azad-led party came to know that they were hobnobbing with Congress. They have now re-joined Congress.
Their exit created a serious dent in the party, with its opponents now it calling it a party of the erstwhile Doda district or Chenab Valley – something that points to its diminishing influence.
As per sources from within different parties, the Azad-led party approached more than 10 former ministers and ex-legislators to join but they refused. Other than Congress leaders, only little-known political activists from other parties have joined its ranks.
On January 6, 2022, 17 of its leaders including former deputy CM Tara Chand, former minister Peerzada Muhammad Sayeed, former MLA Balwan Singh , former MLC Muhammad Muzaffar Parrey returned to Congress ahead of entry of the party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra in J&K. This could boost the fortunes of Congress in the Jammu region.
Talking to The Wire, former deputy CM Tara Chand said that the Azad-led party is crumbling and its future is dark.
“How can a party grow when selfish people are calling the shots in it? The party failed to expand and those who have joined are leaving it now,” he said.
He added that the emergence of new parties is dividing the secular vote in Jammu and Kashmir. “Secular forces are getting divided. If secular forces would join hands, they can keep other forces at bay in J&K,” he said.
However, former minister and leader of Azad’s DAP, Taj Mohiuddin, said their party is expanding and would emerge as an alternative to existing parties.
“You should first understand that introducing a new party takes more than a year. We have made significant progress in very less time,” he said, adding that they will win more than 20 seats in the assembly election of J&K.
According to political analysts, survival of new political parties is not easy in the present political environment of J&K.
Political commentator and academic Noor Muhammad Baba said that it is very difficult to dislodge political parties with social base anywhere in the globe. “It won’t be easy to replace political parties with roots in Jammu and Kashmir either,” he said.
He said there is also suspicion over the creation of new parties, given the political environment.
Senior journalist Zaffar Choudhary told The Wire that all political parties, including new and old, are operating in an unprecedented political vacuum. “They don’t have anything to offer to people, and they don’t have the capacity to question anything. The post-2019 status quo of directionless politics will change only when the elections are announced. At present there are no risks worth taking for the political parties,” he said.
J&K has been without an elected government for the past four and a half years and it is being administered directly by New Delhi through the Lieutenant Governor and bureaucrats. The Union government and the Election Commission of India have been dithering over conducting an assembly election, even though all pre-poll processes, including delimitation and revision of electoral rolls, have been completed.