The much anticipated coming together of Engineer Rashid’s Awami Itehad Party (AIP) and Shah Feasal’s Jammu & Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) in the form of “People’s United Front” (PUF)” as a pre poll alliance has created ripples in muddy waters of Kashmir valley’s extremely competitive electoral politics. The ramifications of this alliance are not only being felt by two main Kashmir based parties – National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) but also by Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (PC), which is a major political player in North Kashmir.
The question that arises is that – Will PUF be able to challenge the dominance of parties like NC, PDP and PC in Kashmir valley and carve out a space for itself in the ever-changing dynamic field of Kashmir’s electoral politics? The last time, J&K state had a pre-poll alliance was in 1987, when Congress and NC allied together in a controversial and disastrous move that pushed Kashmir valley into never ending cycle of violence, death and destruction, with allegations of rampant poll rigging levelled against the NC for trying to stop the newly created – Muslim United Front, a political wing of Kashmir’s Jamaat-e-Islami from winning majority of seats in Kashmir valley and capturing power in J&K assembly.
However, unlike Congress – NC alliance of 1987, which was seen as an alliance of Jammu led Congress and Kashmir led NC, the PUF actually comprises of an alliance of purely Kashmir based political parties. Further, the main adversaries of PUF are also Kashmir based parties like NC & PC in North Kashmir and NC & PDP in Central and South Kashmir. At the heart of this alliance lie two different persons, who ventured into electoral politics after serving with state and central administrative system. While Engineer Rashid left his job as construction engineer with semi government J&K Project Construction Company, Shah Feasal took plunge in electoral politics after resigning from his job as an IAS officer.
In their coming together as PUF, both Engineer Rashid and Shah Feasal actually compliment each other. While Engineer Rashid has earned tremendous popularity in Muslim majority regions of Kashmir valley as well as Pir Panchal (Poonch & Rajouri) and Chenab valley (Doda & Kishtwar) regions of Jammu division, Shah Feasal on the other hand is making special efforts to reach out to Hindu dominated regions of Jammu and Buddhist dominated regions of Leh & Zanskar. Engineer Rashid himself can be seen of late, reaching out to non-Muslim communities like Kashmiri Pundits and Dogra Hindus to expand his support base and make his AIP much more inclusive.
The fact however remains that while Engineer Rashid has already shown his political mettle in recently held Lok Sabha elections, where he ended up leading or coming close second or third in 11 out of 15 assembly segments of North Kashmir, the impact of Shah Feasal’s JKPM on ground is yet to be ascertained, though personal charisma of Shah Feasal in Lolab as well as among educated youth of Kashmir remains undeniably strong.
The electoral performance of PUF in upcoming J&K assembly elections will depend upon how effectively is it able to challenge its main political adversaries – NC, PDP and PC and convince the people of Kashmir that PUF is a viable and credible political alternative to the traditional mainstream parties. Ideally speaking, it will make more political sense, if instead of fighting all three – NC, PDP and PC together, the PUF focuses on its “real” political adversary – NC and PC (in North Kashmir).
Based on all indications from recently held Lok Sahba elections, the PUF will be better served, if it focuses on defeating NC (and PC in North Kashmir) in a direct fight by facilitating unified fight against NC & PC, for which, it should ideally enter into “understanding” with the PDP to make sure that there is no division of votes against NC & PC. For example, in Gurez assembly segment of North Kashmir, where the PUF does not have significant presence, it should allow PDP to take on NC in a direct fight without fielding any PUF candidate and thereby increasing chances of defeating NC. The PUF must further work towards bringing other smaller parties of strongmen like Mohammad Yusuf Taragami of CPI(M) and Hakim Muhammad Yaseen under a “mega alliance” of an expanded PUF, which could then emerge as a “third front” of Kashmir’s electoral politics.
The strength of PUF lies in the fact that unlike traditional mainstream parties of Kashmir valley, its constituent members don’t carry historic baggage of mis-governance, elitism, nepotism, corruption etc., which has plagued credibility of traditional mainstream parties of Kashmir. Also, one needs to keep in mind that the full scale of the impact of Engineer Rashid’s political outreach is not known yet since he fought only from Baramulla Lok Sabha seat. One doesn’t know as to how much of ground has, he gained in rest of Kashmir valley, especially in Central Kashmir, where both AIP and PUF are expected to make significant gains.
The fact that Engineer has been able to perform well not just in Kashmiri Sunni dominated constituencies but also in Kashmiri Shia, Pahari Muslim and Gujjar & Bakarwal dominated constituencies point to his widespread reach, which can benefit the PUF outside North Kashmir in large parts of Central Kashmir as well as Pir Panchal and Chenab valley.
Lastly, the significance of the emergence of PUF can be gauged from the fact that political detractors of the PUF have already started maligning it by calling it a “sadhbhawana alliance” or a move to “divide” Kashmiri votes, all of which indicate to a growing political restlessness, especially in the camps of NC and PC. The fact however remains that “conspiracy theories” no longer determine the fate of Kashmir’s electoral politics. The people of Kashmir want a new political discourse with new faces, who could bring peace to Kashmir valley and resolution to Kashmir problem and they might as well give PUF a chance.
(The author is a Political Activist and aspiring Politician, who has worked as PRO to Ex-CM of J&K. He holds MBA & MPA degrees, besides having many years of corporate work experience at some of top Fortune-500 companies like INFOSYS TECHNOLOGIES BANGALORE…)