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The November Kashmir’s two dark horses were closest to Chief Minister’s office

The Chief Ministers who missed the oath

Jammu: As Bhartiya Janta Party, at its highest level, engages in creating a nationwide narrative that displacing ‘dynasties’ is necessary to build the politics of future in Kashmir, Sajad Lone, who inherits a mainstream strand of 44-year-old separatist party of his father, and Altaf Bukhari, who built a party on the fall of so-called special status, have lately been aggressively marketing themselves as alternatives to the Abdullahs and the Muftis.

In the politics of power, elections are central to establishing the legitimacy of leadership. At this time, one does not know when are the elections going to happen in Jammu and Kashmir and what would be the nature of key actors. However, Sajad Lone’s and Altaf Bukhari’s names will go in the history of Kashmir as two dark horses who had reached the closest to office of Chief Minister. Literary, oath away.

The story is of around these days four years ago.

Five months after Bhartiya Janta Party pulled down Mehbooba Mufti government, Center’s well thought out move had queued up in November 2018, lakhs of people to the polling stations for Panchayat elections boycotted by most regional parties seeking assurance on protection of the Articles 370 and 35A.

Having claimed a high moral ground of poll boycott and ridiculed the Panchayat elections for their uselessness when ‘special status of Jammu and Kashmir was on stake’, the Peoples’ Democratic Party and the National Conference sat on the margins of politics waiting to compete against each other when next elections are held. Hoping very little for the revival of Assembly, that was under suspended animation since June 20, the parties looked forward to Assembly elections together with Lok Sabha polls in early 2019.

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However, in the November 20, the two parties, particularly the PDP, were woken up by a press conference by former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig. At a suddenly called presser, Baig said he was willing to join Sajad Lone if he floats a third front. Baig’s presser was a long story of hurt and neglect in the party he co-founded, but the PDP and the NC quickly picked up the hint of what was possibly going on behind the curtains.

The exact plot may not have been known to anyone on the afternoon of November 20, but the PDP and the NC could gather one for sure -the BJP may be putting up a front to form a government. Any ‘short-circuit’ government in circumstances such those was poised to be a political disaster for any stakeholder, but the real worry for PDP, NC, and also the Congress, was to prevent a split in their parties.

The speculated third front of Sajad Lone, as publicized by Muzaffar Baig on that afternoon gave all relevant actors of that time an immediate job of number crunching. Sajad had only two members in the suspended Assembly. Assuming he was being prompted by BJP, with 28 MLAs, he would still be short of 14 MLAs to stake the claim. Baig’s presser was a further confirmation that his public support to Sajad may have been a tactical move to inform the fence sitters within PDP that time has come to switch over.

Mehbooba Mufti’s letter to Governor Satya Pal Malik staking claim for government formation

This shortfall of 14 MLAs was obviously to be filled up from PDP, NC and the Congress. Till the evening of November 20, 2018, the houses of three parties were visibly intact but none of the leaders had absolute confidence of their members not switching to Sajad Lone’s ‘third front’ made public by Muzaffar Baig. From Ghulam Mohammad Bakshi’s plea to B.N. Mullick on the intervening night of August 8-9, 1953, Kashmir offers countless examples of switching loyalties once the power has been confirmed.

A panicked PDP dialed Ghulam Nabi Azad in New Delhi to explore Congress’ support while in Srinagar, Mehbooba sent her senior colleague Altaf Bukhari as his emissary to Omar Abdullah for checking what National Conference was up to. This was going to be a very unusual alliance. They cited the urgency of defending Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, but the immediate concern of these leaders was to prevent split in their parties.

Every hour mattered  

In New Delhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad confirmed that talks have happened with the leaders of PDP and NC, and the Congress was willing to support an alliance to prevent BJP from coming to power.

“The PDP, National Conference and Congress have agreed to join hands to form a new government in Jammu and Kashmir”, senior PDP leader Altaf Bukhari confirmed in Srinagar. He said around 60 MLAs were supporting the proposed alliance in the 87-member House.

“The leaders have agreed to form an alliance. The PDP, NC, Congress at the leadership level have agreed. What are the contours of the alliance, it has not come down to MLAs. I am an MLA and I have been told only this much,” Bukhari told reporters after a meeting of few legislators at his residence on November 21. Earlier the same day, he had met with Omar Abdullah at his Gupkar residence.

The Chief Ministers who missed the oath 

After Baig’s presser of the previous day, it was now certain that BJP has picked up Sajad Lone as its Chief Ministerial face. This choice fitted the bill in every manner -non-Abdullah, non-Mufti, young and articulate, a former separatist coming to power with BJP.

Sajad Lone informs Governor Satya Pal Malik over the WhatsApp

Who would have been PDP-NC-Congress alliance’s Chief Minister if that was to happen? As already said, the urgency at that time was to stall BJP’s project Sajad, rather than actually forming the government.

However, if Governor Satya Pal Malik was to invite this alliance, the internal strategic thinking was to have Altaf Bukhari as Chief Ministerial nominee. This was in line with US President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.  In February-March 2016 aftermath of Mufti Sayeed’s passing, when Mehbooba took the uncalculated risk of daring BJP, Altaf Bukhari was believed to have pocketed a good size of PDP for an alternate deal with New Delhi. Exactly four years later, he confirmed Mehbooba’s fears when most PDP legislators of 2014 became co-founders of Bukhari’s Apni Party in March 2020.

Asked, after his meeting with Omar Abdullah, if he was in the running for the Chief Minister’s post, Bukhari said, “There is no such thing. The chief minister will be from among the leaders. This issue is not about chief Ministership”. “This alliance is being formed to address the Kashmir issue, the situation in Kashmir and to protect the special identity of the state that we have in the Constitution of India”, he said.

The exercise of day-and-a-half beginning with Muzaffar Baig’s press conference, had to decide a Chief Minister between Lone and Baig but Governor Satya Pal Malik had other ideas.

Raj Bhawan Communique. Governor Satya Pal Malik Dissolves Jammu and Kashmir Assembly

On November 21, before going to bed for the night, Governor Satya Pal Malik dissolved the Legislative Assembly, the last Jammu and Kashmir had as a state.

In another November

A Union Territory since 2019, as Jammu and Kashmir awaits its first Assembly, Sajad and Bukhari remain in full election mode to realise their dream. It is another  Jammu and Kashmir in another November.


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About the author

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Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch

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