Playing the Lone hand

Rebels and independents figure prominently in the BJP’s plans to return to power

INDIA-KASHMIR-POLITICS Three to tango?: BJP general secretary Ram Madhav with Sajjad Lone (right) and PDP leader Haseeb Drabu (left) | AFP

AFTER THE SUDDEN collapse of the PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir, there are reports about the BJP trying to form a new government with the support of Sajjad Lone of the People’s Conference, and of rebels in the Peoples Democratic Party, who have accused former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti of corruption and nepotism.

There is also talk of the BJP trying to install the first-ever Hindu chief minister in the Muslim-majority state. A party leader, however, insisted that it was not a priority for now. “That [installing a Hindu CM] would make the party accountable for all happenings in Kashmir, and make it vulnerable to attacks from the opposition,” he said.

According to the leader, the BJP had several other options to end the political impasse in the state. While BJP insiders have not ruled out patching up with a “weakened” Mehbooba, the leader said the party was carefully considering forming a government with the help of PDP rebels. Apparently, the rebels believe that they can sidestep the state’s stringent anti-defection law with the help of the speaker of the assembly. They can continue to be members of the assembly if the speaker delays action against them even after they are expelled by the PDP. In 2011, six MLAs of the BJP, who had violated the party whip in elections to the legislative council, were allowed to continue till the end of the term.

Lone could be a candidate for the chief minister’s post if the BJP and PDP rebels come together. He has good relations with the BJP and, like most PDP rebels, hails from north Kashmir. When the PDP-BJP government came to power in 2015, the BJP had allotted him one of its ministerial berths, despite opposition from chief minister Mufti Muhammed Sayeed. With Lone at the helm, the party would not need to install a Hindu chief minister to implement its agenda.

Lone could become chief minister if the BJP and PDP rebels agree to form government | Umer Asif Lone could become chief minister if the BJP and PDP rebels agree to form government | Umer Asif

According to sources, Lone is in touch with PDP rebels and a few other legislators. He also has a rapport with Haseeb Drabu, whom Mehbooba had sacked last year as finance minister for saying at a public event that Kashmir’s was not a political issue, but a social one.

A BJP leader blamed Mehbooba for the breakdown of the alliance. He said her stance in the aftermath of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua was the biggest reason behind the BJP’s withdrawal of support. “She [Mehbooba] pronounced the accused guilty even before trial had begun,” the BJP leader told THE WEEK. “Then she demanded action against two BJP ministers, Lal Singh and C.P. Ganga, for attending a rally of the Hindu Ekta Manch.”

The BJP leader said the media labelled the two BJP leaders as pro-rapist. “After that, the party was forced to ask the two leaders to resign,” he said. According to him, BJP supporters felt helpless and betrayed by the move. “We thought it would adversely impact the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, not only in Jammu but outside it as well. We had to act.”

Mehbooba also opposed the transfer of the Kathua case to the CBI, which would have helped the BJP calm tempers in Jammu. The BJP leader said the PDP also created hurdles in granting the status of a district to Nowshera in Rajouri, a popular demand of the people of the area. Also irking the BJP was Mehbooba’s directive to deputy commissioners of police not to provide any protection for the eviction of tribals in Jammu, mostly Gujjar Muslims, without the approval from the tribal affairs department.

Responding to BJP president Amit Shah’s allegation that the PDP was discriminating against Jammu and Ladakh regions, Mehbooba tweeted recently: “The allegations… have no basis in reality. Yes, the valley has been in turmoil for a long time and the floods of 2014 were a setback; therefore, [it] needed focused attention.” She also tweeted that getting the “pro-rapist ministers” removed from her cabinet, issuing orders not to harass the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities in the guise of anti-encroachment drives, and not handing over the Kathua case to the CBI were her “duties as CM”.

Despite the conflicts of interests, sources told THE WEEK that the BJP had not ruled out the possibility of forging another alliance with the “considerably weakened” Mehbooba. “The BJP wanted to corner Mehbooba, and they have succeeded in that,” said a source. The BJP had persuaded a number of PDP legislators to rebel against Mehbooba when she delayed taking oath as chief minister for 40 days after the death of Sayeed, her father, in 2016. The impasse had created the impression that Mehbooba was planning to snap ties with the BJP because of the unpopularity of the alliance in Kashmir.

It is evident that Mehbooba is feeling the pressure again. In a recent interview to a television channel, she said that people’s trust in democracy would be eroded if the BJP splits the PDP. On July 8, she held a meeting with 20 PDP leaders, 12 MLAs, and several councillors, for the first time after the BJP withdrew from the coalition. Sources in the PDP told THE WEEK that Mehbooba and her trusted aides are trying to placate the rebels, though there has been little headway so far.

Political observers in Kashmir believe that all parties, sans the PDP, stand to benefit from the political crisis in the state. By dumping the PDP, the BJP has signalled to its supporters in Jammu that it will not hesitate to make sacrifices to protect their interests. The Congress stands to gain in Jammu from the failures of the BJP, while in the valley, the National Conference will benefit at the PDP’s expense. The possible gains of its political rivals are one reason that the BJP has not ruled out mending fences with the PDP, even as it hopes to bring about a political realignment with the help of PDP rebels, independents and Sajjad Lone.