2020: The year of new experiments in J&K politics

In the run up to year 2020, when Jammu and Kashmir witnessed politically docile five months – from August to December 2019 – owing to the detention of dozens of leaders, one could just hope for the political logjam to end. The leaders were detained either on or before August 5, 2019 when the special Constitutional status of J&K was scrapped. The New Year bells rang in the Valley with an eerie silence in the political circles, as leadership remained confined to detention, either at their respective homes or the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre, which had been declared a sub-jail.

A quiet welcome to the last year of the decade was also seen in the backdrop of several leaders being booked under the Public Safety Act.

For J&K, there couldn’t have been a more politically low-key winter than that of 2020 – December to March- when under Governor’s rule, politics and local leadership took a back seat.

Suspension of internet services for most of the winter period, coupled with an ailing economy due to the lockdown after August 5, 2019 added to the gloom and doom.

Political pundits say this was one of the most fragile times for Jammu and Kashmir’s politics, and the most non-happening time as far political activities go.

Even as dozens of leaders, including three former chief ministers remained detained, there was a small window left open which saw a ray of hope for politics. In absence of their senior leaders, the second-rung leadership of parties such as National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, kept criticising the continuous detention of their senior leaders and demanded their release.

On March 8, the first major political development in over 8 months occurred, when former PDP leader and Minister Syed Altaf Bukhari launched his JK Apni party. Bukhari has been reiterating that his party is keen that land and jobs in J&K remain exclusively secured for its domiciles but he believes that restoration of Article 370 cannot be achieved politically but only through judiciary.

As the Apni Party and BJP seemed to dominate J&K’s political turf, families of detained leaders including Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti began knocking the doors of court of law for their release.

With the end of the winter chill, detained politicians could see a hope for being freed after petitions filed for release of dozens of leaders started yielding results. After being booked under PSA, NC patron Dr Farooq Abdullah’s release in March first week didn’t just bring in a new dimension to Jammu and Kashmir politics but paved way for new political possibilities. A day after his release, Dr Abdullah was called upon by senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad at the former’s Gupkar Road residence. After eight months of a political lull, the Abdullah-Azad duo of political heavy weights addressed the media and vowed that “it was the high time that democracy is restored”.

Within days of senior Abdullah’s release, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and subsequently dozens of other leaders were released, paving the way for a guessing game. Speculations were rife that Abdullah father-son duo have been released in lieu of a “bond signed” by the two. With much curiosity people waited for the sort of approach the Abdullah’s would follow after their release.

While the senior Abdullah was vocal and vowed to get back Article 370 from day one of his release, Omar’s approach was being seen as more calculated. By the time the onset of spring and bloom of flowers changed Valley’s landscape, almost the entire NC leadership was out from detention. It was the first anniversary of August 5, 2019 when Omar Abdullah opened up in an interview with an English daily and an op ed piece for the same newspaper, wherein he ruled out contesting any elections till Jammu and Kashmir remained a Union Territory. Many saw this as Omar’s covert acceptance to scrapping of the special status. This even lead to a difference of opinion and NC leader Agha Rohulla expressing his concerns publicly, the senior Abdullah asserting that Omar’s views were purely personal. In many interviews, emotionally charged Farooq Abdullah didn’t just show his resentment to the decisions of August 5, 2019 but even hinted that the Gupkar Declaration- signed by seven political parties just a day before the abrogation of Article 370- was not just restricted to papers.

The signatories of the Gupkar Declaration- which apart from NC and PDP included Congress, People’s Conference, Awami National Conference and JK People’s Movement-in September passed a resolution that vowed to stand by the Gupkar Declaration of August 4, 2019. Around the same time high-profile visits such as that of BJP senior leader Ram Madhav and others to the Valley also reflected BJP’s political ambition in the newly carved out UT. Even as Gupkar 2.0 was being touted as the “big political uprising” of 2020, first a conspicuous absence of bureaucrat-turned politician Shah Faesal and later his exit from politics made headlines. The senior Abdullah, who later went on to head the parties’ amalgam, which got renamed as People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), often described Faesal’s exit from politics as his personal wish. Another signatory of the Declaration, Awami Itihad Party, also remained behind the curtains as its supremo Engineer Rashid continues to be under detention and lodged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Within weeks of PAGD formation, Mehbooba Mufti’s release from detention after 14 months brought on stage the most vocal persona of Kashmir politics. Within hours of her release, a mid-night audio message released by Mufti on social media sounded alien to ears that had become bereft of any outright government criticism for more than a year. Since then, Mehbooba has been bluntly opposing the government policies and describing her political existence, an attempt to get J&K’s special status restored and even been talking about the resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Amid Covid-19 pandemic, a fragile economy and many pressing local-level issues, J&K in 2020 saw politics coming back on track. Dozens of PDP leaders were also released from home detention as the year began inching towards culmination. However, by the end of the year the announcement of the District Development Councils (DDC) elections gave a fillip to politics in J&K. The first election held after more than a year and a half saw a direct contest between PAGD and BJP. The PAGD decision of jointly contesting the polls and a lot of hullabaloo over seats-sharing had started exposing the chinks in the alliance. But all went well for it as the PAGD swept the polls and BJP emerged as the single largest party. The spotlight though came on the independent candidates who won a considerable seat share. Political pundits would also be keenly looking at how well-knit and PAGD remains in days to come and how well does the BJP perform on Kashmir’s newly laid political turf.