Ajaz Rashid writes about the fall from grace of Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP

 In the past four years, nothing went right for Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on J&K’s political turf. From an “infamous” alliance with BJP to disgraceful loss of power in the State and later a rebellion that shook the party’s base, one after another, the problems haunted the PDP chief to the extent that her leadership came under question.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections was seen an opportunity for her to resurrect herself, not only within the party but in J&K politics as well. She chose to fight from southern Kashmir seat of Anantnag, PDP’s stronghold of yesteryears.

 

The Shocking Loss

But, Hasnain Masoodi, a greenhorn in J&K politics and National Conference candidate, who was not considered in the race by many, proved to be the giant-slayer, defeating Mufti from her home turf.

The loss not only means a big setback for her, but it could have a bearing on PDP too which is yet to come out of the rebellion shock fully. As Commander-in-Chief Mufti’s leadership could also come under question since the PDP, which had swept 2014 polls in Kashmir, winning all three seats, drew blank this time.

When the elections were announced, Anantnag was seen as a direct contest between Mufti and Congress’ state president GA Mir. Hasnain, a retired J&K High Court judge, who had joined NC only a few months ago, was dismissed as a contestant by political analysts. But that changed completely when the three-phase election to the constituency was over on May 6. And when the counting started on the morning of May 23, Hasnain took an early lead. There was not a single round of counting when he trailed behind his opponents.

But what shocked many was that Mufti stood at No 3 through all rounds of counting, behind Mir, struggling to gain the second spot even once, in an election which witnessed a resounding boycott, with just 8.76 percent of total 13.97 lakh voters exercising their franchise.

“It is over. We have lost,” a senior PDP leader told me at 1:50 pm on the counting day when a total of 10,4630 votes had been counted and at least 10 rounds were still left.

Five minutes later, Mufti, the former chief minister, took to Twitter to accept the defeat.

“I’ve been fortunate to get the love & affection of my people. They have every right to express their anger for my failings. Accept their verdict with humility. Congratulation to the winning candidate from NC. I’m grateful to my party workers and colleagues (sic),” she tweeted.

 

While her party headquarter in Srinagar wore a deserted look, less than a kilometer away, the mood was festive at NC headquarters. NC Vice President Omar Abdullah and senior leaders were camping there since later morning keenly following the trends.

The NC has won all three seats from Kashmir. While the party President Farooq Abdullah retained Srinagar, its senior leader Muhammad Akbar Lone secured the maiden Lok Sabha win from Baramulla. But it is Hasnain’s victory that has come as an icing on the cake of the party.

Hasnain drew a total of 39, 898 votes while Mir got 32,534 votes and Mehbooba, who stood at third, got 30068 votes.

 

HASNAIN, THE GIANT-SLAYER

Masoodi, 65, who retired from J&K High Court in January 2016, is known for his landmark judgment of October 2015 when he ruled that Article 370, granting special status to J&K, was permanent feature of the constitution.

“Article 370 though titled as ‘Temporary Provision’ and included in Para XXI titled ‘Temporary, Transitional and Special Provisions’ has assumed place of permanence in the constitution,” the division bench led by Masoodi had ruled.

Masoodi did his Masters in Law from Harvard University and started as judicial munsiff in November 1982, before he was elevated as Principal District and Session Judge, Srinagar. In 2009, he was promoted as additional judge of J&K High Court.

Born on January 2, 1954 in Khrew village of Pulwama district, Masoodi comes from a highly educated family. His parents Ghulam Ali Masoodi and Zainab Khatoon were known educationists. Though he was selected for Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) in 1984, he decided to continue in the judiciary and went to the US eight years later to pursue higher education in law.

During his career as a judge, spreading over 28 years, he has held several important other positions as Registrar Vigilance, Principal Secretary to the Chief Justice, Register General of the High Court, Special Judge Anti-corruption Kashmir.

The NC picked Masoodi as a candidate for Anantnag on March 19 for debut in electoral politics. His son Yawar Masoodi is also associated with the party and lost 2014 assembly polls from Pampore assembly constituency in south Kashmir to PDP.

During his entire campaign, Masoodi’s speeches were focused on the “misrule” of the PDP during its stint in the government, in coalition with the BJP, for three years and the civilian killings which took place in entire south Kashmir in the past three-and-a-half years.

Masoodi’s win also assumes significance as he was up against the two stalwarts in Kashmir politics.

While Mehbooba had not lost any of the six elections she has fought – two LS elections and four state elections – in her 23 years of political career, Mir is a former cabinet minister who was thought to have an edge in this election.

“It is the verdict against Mehbooba Mufti and the politics which she, as chief minister, and her party played since 2015. It is the verdict against the repressive policies that the party, when it was in power, adopted against people of Kashmir in south and beyond,” National Conference spokesperson Imran Nabi said. “People have taught them a lesson.”

 

What led to Mufti’s fall?

In her tweet, Mehbooba referred to peoples’ “anger” against her which she suggested led to her downfall.

This anger stems from the violence people of south Kashmir have witnessed after PDP assumed the office, in coalition with the BJP, in 2015.

Spread over four districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian, the south grew as a stronghold of PDP as the party expanded its presence on political landscape of Kashmir.

But this growth coincided with rise of local militancy in south Kashmir particularly after 2010. The young commander Burhan Wani was the factor behind changing the course of militancy in Kashmir, drawing scores of Kashmiris into the fold. After more than a decade the militancy had again become a local phenomenon.

He was now the poster boy of Kashmir militancy, a household name in the south. And when the young rebel was killed in an encounter in the summer of 2016 Kashmir erupted for five long months. As the uprising faded gradually Government of India gave up on the path of dialogue and, instead, cleared ‘Operational All Out’ – one of the biggest anti-militancy operations in the country.

The south became the new ground zero of the war between militants and security forces. In the 40 months since more than 640 militants have been killed by the forces. Over 300 civilians have also died, many of them during encounters while trying to help trapped rebels escape. Each death, however, added to the anger on the ground, uniting people in times of grief, as New Delhi continued to rely on an iron fist to handle seven decades of political turmoil in Kashmir.

“Willingly or unwillingly Mehbooba Mufti was the face of this new aggression by New Delhi in Kashmir that an entire population getting, first isolated and then rising in rebellion against the state. She remained so much pre-occupied in the government that she didn’t even realize that the people who had voted her to power were becoming the victims of the policies approved by her government,” said a political analyst, wishing not to be named.

During the PDP-BJP rule the south Kashmir saw death and destruction closely and it united people in their grief. More than 100 civilians were killed in Kashmir, most of them in south Kashmir, during the 2016 uprising when Mufti was the chief minister. Her ‘toffee and milk’ remarks still echo in the minds of people, particularly young in the entire south.

“The buck for each of the bad decision that was either taken by the state government or New Delhi stops at her (Mufti) door today,” said the political analyst.

Before rising to power in state politics, Mufti would visit families of slain militants and civilians to sympathies with them. After losing power in June 2018 the PDP chief tried to restart the journey. She visited a family of militant and a civilian and took on the governor’s administration for harassing the families of the rebels.

But, the governor Satya Pal Malik termed the visits as “drama” by the PDP chief after losing the power. She also came in for severe criticism from opposition led by National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah.

“The architect of “Operation All-out” & the overseer of the operations that killed hundreds of militants since 2015 is now going from one militant home to the next trying to rehabilitate a badly damaged reputation,” Omar tweeted on Jan 3. “She used militants by sanctioning their deaths to appease the BJP and now she uses dead militants to try to appease the voter. Just how gullible does she think people are?”

 

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

The data from the election commission of India shows that PDP lost 12 of the 16 Assembly segments in south Kashmir in the elections. Mufti couldn’t even hold on to Anantnag Assembly constituency which she had won in by-election in 2016, to become chief minister.

“Today the party (the PDP) stands decimated in the south. Only a miracle can help the party make a turnaround in the south,” said the political analyst.

While the party would require putting lot of hard work to try and regain the lost ground in the region, the major worry for Mufti could come from her party colleagues.

Earlier this year when the party was hit by rebellion the voices had grown louder, calling for Mehbooba to step down as party chief.

“These demands could come back to haunt the PDP chief again and the worries for her are bound to grow again,” he said.

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