The interestingly named, Gupkar Declaration, adopted by almost all the valley-centric mainstream parties on the 4th of August, 2019 is already an anecdote in the long and contentious political history of Kashmir. It would not have been even a footnote but for the fact that it was evidence of the irrelevance of these parties for the Government of India. For, barely 12 hours after their declaration that “we will do whatever is required to protect the special constitutional position of the J&K”, the Union Government by abolishing it literally told them “neither you, nor what you do matters”. It was as simple and stark as that.
Now, a year later, that seed of irrelevance sown by the Union Government has yielded Gupkar Declaration 2.0; a show of solidarity which can become a green shoot of strength. Interestingly, the Congress Party and the CPI (M) have joined in now. Irrespective of whether it was blessed by their respective “high commands” or it is a localised show of solidarity, their participation is significant. The Foreign Minister of Pakistan not only taking note of this political development but supporting it in a press conference is a major shift in their position which cuts both ways; in fact many ways. However, locally, the joint action will be greeted with loud croaks of cynicism and understandably so. At the moment it is nothing more than an opportunity for the political class to redeem itself in its own eyes; redemption in the eyes of the people is still some distance away.
The public mood, disinterested and dampened as it is, is in favour of a unified approach. Indeed, it has been so ever since the elections results of 2014; the valley vote was divided between NC and PDP, resulting in the BJP getting the highest vote share of 23 per cent in the state. While there were no serious efforts made then to do a post-poll alliance, the NC had reached out to PDP with support from outside. Admittedly, not out of love for PDP but more to keep BJP out and also have a “lame duck” government in Kashmir.
Not that there is much to choose from between the two. Two decades back, only NC had a political history and historical baggage. Now, with two three-year-stints in government, PDP has also acquired both rather quickly. Idiosyncrasies and individual preferences of their leadership apart, there real differences between the two are personal not political. It is not like, say an AIADMK and a DMK in Tamil Nadu which are not only ideologically different but even their caste composition and support base is different. AIDMK is upper caste pro-Hindu while DMK has a base in the lower castes, Dalits and minorities and is avowedly secular. The former is for a strong centre and the latter is a federalist party batting for stronger states.
None of these is the case between PDP and NC. Both are autonomists. Both are valley centric; PDP from inception was meant to be so and NC became so after parliamentary pact with Congress wherein it electorally ceded Jammu to them. Both are broadly secular in outlook even if it may not appear so from the composition of its cadres and leadership. The social capital of the two parties is exactly the same. There is no class differentiator either. Much is made of PDP’s “Pir” social base, but that is more in terms of the values and mind set of the organisation rather than the cadres.
Often PDP is also seen as a rural party and NC an urban one. This impressionistic classification is probably caused by NC’s urbane leadership; their voters are entrenched rural, thanks to the land reforms. NC still has an extensive support base across the Valley, while PDP has an intensive rural base was confined to South Kashmir. It has a focussed share of the urban middle class as well. This is evident even from the elections results of 2014. Though NC’s vote share was exactly the same as that of PDP, it managed to win less than half the number of seat of PDP because of the spread and scatter of its voters.
True that Mufti Mohammed Sayeed by his personal manner, political mettle, and governance method gave PDP a different political culture but that was buried along with him. Indeed, now NC and PDP are to the political sphere of Kashmir, what Lux and Liril are to the marketing world of soap; only packaging is different. The same holds true for smaller parties as well. To that extent, August 5th 2019 provides only a trigger for coming together of these parties; the substantive raison d’etre lies elsewhere.
For these parties and in particular their respective leadership, a joint forum is a route to political survival and electoral salvation. While they will ostensibly bury their “deep differences for the cause of Kashmiris”, they will actually be covering up their individual acts of omission and commission. It is a bargain hard to forgo especially because the coming together queers the pitch for the new challengers, like the Apni Party. If they stand out, they risk being seen as “sell outs”, and if they join, they risk losing relevance in the valley even as they gain greater relevance elsewhere. Also, in a situation where, politicians had become bigger than parties, this development will be a good reassertion that parties, which are repositories of a political ideology, are more powerful that well connected individuals.
By and large the civil society of the valley sees this joint forum a vindication of the wisdom of crowds. While they are happy about the mainstreamers having their noses rubbed to the ground, the underlying sentiment is that “realisation has dawned upon them, finally”. Of course, there are no slogans of support, but there is a smug satisfaction.
What is important today more than the text of Gupkar Declaration 2.0 – which as correctly pointed out by NC leader, Basharat Bukhari, has been superseded by events — is the coming together of all the Kashmir-centric parties with a purpose. Therein lies its significance. Again, for the moment, how long can it last or be allowed to last is a secondary issue.
To put it in perspective, this is only for the second time such a political development is taking place. The first time being in 1955 when Plebiscite Front was founded, immediately after the first, the mother of all Constitutional Order, 1954 was promulgated. The Front which called for a UN supervised plebiscite, finally signed the Indira Abdullah-Accord in 1975. In those 20 years, which then Sheikh Abdullah himself labelled as “siyasi awaragardi”, the boycotted elections enabled easy victories for those backed by Delhi. That is history. So too is the way in which emergence of the Muslim United Front (MUF) – though not comparable as a grouping — was dealt with in 1987 elections paving the way for subsequent political developments.
For now, the platform from where the Gupkar Declaration emerged can be best described as a “Mainstream Hurriyat”; a motley political group which has been strung together on three words: Status quo ante. To convert such a tactical move into a strategic initiative will take time, commitment and effort sans ego. That is a big ask. The real challenge for the mainstream parties is how to make this fledgling forum bigger than the sum of their individual presence; the whole has to be bigger than the sum of parts. This will happen only when the significance of this initiative is matched by the substance of its political position which cannot be just “tinged with morality” … in which “material interests supersede ideological ones”, (Philip Stuart, British Communist intellectual, on resolution of Kashmir, quoted by Ramchandra Guha). Instead it has to be uncompromising on principles, far sighted in thinking and cognisant the ground realities.
Till such time as the Gupkar Declaration gains in substance, the symbolism, perhaps unintended, reflects the tragedy of the present and the irony of the past. Gupkar, is an anglicised version of Gopedari, the place where King Gopaditya is known to have settled the Brahmans who he had got from outside Kashmir! Pandit Kalhana also mentions two eminent persons named Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu of the Gonandiya Dynasty living in Gupkar, on the outskirts of the capital city of Pandrethan. Somewhere in the 1860s — up until 1890s it was recorded by Walter Lawrence as a “village”—it got transformed into residence of the new power elite. Now, Gupkar is to Srinagar what Lutyens Delhi is to Delhi. And how the political nerve centre of the NC moved from downtown Mujahid Manzil to uptown Gupkar is a story in itself about the transformation of the politics in Kashmir.