The King’s Party in Kashmir

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was the great hope for Kashmir of many in Delhi. Its rise in the late 1990s/early 2000s was intended to break the National Conference’s monopoly of “mainstream” politics in the Kashmir Valley, adding both another partner for the Centre and another articulation of how Kashmir could be both Indian and, in some ways at least, autonomous.

The protests of the last 40+ days have broken an already-strained PDP project. Its alliance with the BJP in the J&K state government put stress on the PDP’s credibility with its Valley constituency, and Mehbooba Mufti’s succession of her deceased father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, was rife with indecision, delay, and lack of clarity. Things have only gotten worse since.

Praveen Donthi’s detailed Caravan history of Mufti’s career in Kashmir and Delhi helps us understand the particular niche the PDP aimed for and the pervasive pressures that have now undermined it. Donthi notes that Mufti arose from the fragmented politics of the 1960s Valley, becoming a Congress stalwart in an NC-dominated polity in part due to personal and political rivalries and feuds. His later peregrinations into the Janata Dal, return to the Congress, and founding of the PDP show how hard he worked to maintain relevance in “mainland India” while also trying to keep at least some foot in Kashmir against the much-hated NC (with the exception of helping to get the 1996 election going).

This balancing act is extremely difficult for anyone. Delhi is not interested in substantial autonomy for Kashmir, much less chief ministers who consistently challenge security forces, the Home Ministry, or the PM. The deep history of Kashmir since 1947 shows Delhi consistently intervening to stave off such a figure or a party. This limits the ability of Kashmiri parties to stand up for Kashmir and get any kind of results.

Yet being in the mainstream, working with Delhi, and doing things like allying with the BJP (whether in the NDA, like the NC, or at the state level, like the PDP) also alienate major parts of the Valley. The two dynastic parties of the contemporary Valley are seen by many as lackeys, sell-outs, and corrupt opportunists who do Delhi’s bidding; they are the local collaborators who hold Kashmiri aspirations for independence (or, less popularly, accession to Pakistan) at bay through a mix of patronage and repression. They are viewed as doing Delhi’s bidding, not Kashmir’s.

As I argued back in 2013, this combination makes it impossible to “restore normalcy” in Kashmir. I’ve been wrong about many things, but I was very confident that I was right on the argument of that Asian Survey piece. And here we are.

The current situation has destroyed the PDP’s already-troubled balance between these two pressures. We have the ruling central government – whether Modi, Rajnath Singh, or Arun Jaitley – taking a hard line and putting its blame heavily on Pakistan, against a backdrop of previously framing the Kashmir issue as needing an infusion of (delayed) development funds. There seems to be a fetish for mouthing vague rhetoric that was relevant back in the Vajpayee days, but the protesters were barely born when Vajpayee was working on Kashmir issues. Meeting with some delegations at the state guest house does not equal actual political movement. The Army seems to be getting restless at the political status quo, but Modi and Singh ultimately call the shots.

Mehbooba Mufti genuinely doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing, and her party’s spokesmen have done a very poor job. Either she needs to go all-in with Delhi’s line, or consistently challenge it; swinging between the two while often also going silent is kind of stunning to watch. I really don’t get it. Omar Abdullah is going after the PDP with great vigor, the Valley’s political bloodsport apparent for all to see. And the protesters view all of these people are either irrelevant or malevolent.

At some point the protests will dwindle as winter comes, the CRPF companies keep flowing in, and Delhi puts its attention elsewhere (Balochistan, UP elections, whatever). But the PDP has taken a blow to any claim of being an autonomous political voice that it will be brutally difficult to recover from. I don’t expect an upsurge of support for the NC; its legacy (such as 2010’s protests and 2014’s floods) is not one that will attract the angry Kashmiri protester.

We are entering a new period in the Valley’s politics. Mainstream party politics will chug on as a grim Rube Goldberg device, separatist leaders have lost control of their movement even as mass sentiment has further hardened against India, Pakistan will continue to push its agenda, and Delhi will just throw whatever security forces at whatever protesters it thinks is necessary while making gauzy, soon-forgotten assurances. So don’t expect an enduring “return to normalcy” anytime soon.

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