J&K govt formation – Mehbooba in a corner: Talks fail, party divided

After ten weeks of suspense over government formation in Jammu and Kashmir, the PDP-BJP coalition has almost collapsed. There is a brief window till Governor N N Vohra calls PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti ahead of the April 8 deadline for a decision on dissolution of the J&K assembly, and the only way this broken alliance can be mended is if the BJP leadership decides to accede to Mehbooba’s demand and issues public assurances on the agenda of alliance.

After the collapse of talks, Mehbooba took an early morning flight to Srinagar on Saturday. Sources said she hasn’t left her Gupkar Road residence after arriving at noon, and she hasn’t met any PDP colleague. Sources, however, said she is planning to “speak to her party colleagues and inform them about the circumstances that caused the alliance to break”.

Sources close to Mehbooba said that there is an attempt to break the PDP to pave way for a fresh alliance. “She isn’t concerned about it. She has told her party that she would prefer to fight it alone but not form a coalition government with the BJP just for the heck of it,’’ said a source close to Mehbooba. “Even if 15 people leave to join a new coalition, she won’t give in,” said the source.

There is speculation in the corridors of power regarding a “B team” within the PDP, which is determined to form a government even without Mehbooba. While J&K has a stringent anti-defection law, a source said defection from the PDP at this time is easy — if 15 members decide to defect, they only have to choose a legislature party leader other than Mehbooba to pave way for a coalition with the BJP.

Currently, however, the PDP legislators seem to be behind Mehbooba’s decision on not taking over unless the BJP leadership makes public a time frame for implementing the agenda of alliance.

The PDP, sources said, is divided into three groups regarding Mehbooba’s decision. One group is happy since they see the alliance as a political liability which demolished the party’s base. They think that Mehbooba will come out of this challenge, not only unscathed but also stronger. They see an opportunity to rescue the party from what was seen as inevitable decline. They were rattled to see the scant attendance at Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s funeral in January and read the public mood as a wake-up call. In fact, there wasn’t much to celebrate on the governance front after 10 months of the coalition government, because the PDP leadership was “finding the Centre reluctant to move fast on urgent issues like disbursement of flood relief or fulfilling of the promises in the agenda of alliance”. The second group, led by a party old guard, thinks that “resistance within electoral politics, especially in a place like Kashmir, isn’t a way forward because it hasn’t worked earlier”. “If you go against the wishes of Delhi, you will not achieve anything but wilderness,’’ he said. “We are in pro-India politics in Kashmir, which comes with its own exclusive limitations. The ultimate aim of this politics is to get power. We gave it up. Unfortunately, stances based on principles don’t work in electoral politics in Kashmir.”

This group thinks “it is political naivety on the part of Mehbooba to think that she would be allowed to become a leader like Mamata (Banerjee), J Jayalalithaa or (Parkash Singh) Badal. Opting for wilderness in this situation is disastrous”. Whatever happens, the PDP leader said, “Mehbooba has shown guts to stand up against Delhi. How will it unfold politically for her, we will have to wait for a few weeks”. The last group comprises those who have developed a strong rapport with the BJP over the last one year. The speculation of a possible defection is regarding this small group.

Whether the group is able to poach 15 legislators from the PDP’s 28 — the number necessary to elect a rival legislature party chief — will be known in the next few weeks. “There are such whispers making the rounds but the credibility of such talk will be clearer only after the PDP leadership, especially MLAs, meet,’’ said a source. “Till then, it is speculation. It is much more difficult to break NC or Congress and poach their legislators, primarily because of the anti-defection law”.

So why isn’t Mehbooba concerned about the speculation regarding the defection attempts? “She knows such a move will make her stronger politically. It will be a stab in the back. Remember Farooq Abdullah returned stronger after 1984 when he was toppled through defections to Congress. These are different times and those who think they can desert the party to ally with BJP won’t be able wash that taint ever,’’ said a PDP leader. “In any case, these are mere speculations till now. Let us see what happens”.

What is clear, however, is that if the BJP doesn’t have a change of heart before Governor Vohra calls Mehbooba — as head of the largest party in the assembly — to form the government, this political crisis will reach its climax. Sources close to Mehbooba said she may even go for a press conference, soon after apprising her party, to announce the break-up officially.

Vohra will have to take a call regarding the dissolution of the assembly before April 8 — the assembly has to meet at least once within a period of six months. But there is also a contrary view that this provision doesn’t apply because the assembly is in suspended animation. Vohra’s next step, in fact, will be the Centre’s move. And if the BJP leadership has plans other than holding fresh assembly elections in J&K or reconciling with Mehbooba’s stand, there will be further political uncertainty in the state.

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