In Depth

Grand old party, ‘the proxies and the B Team’

As Kashmir’s unionists are locking horns over three Lok Sabha seats in the valley, it’s the grand old party National Conference leading the poll blitz with its vintage autonomy vows. However, it’s the sweeping wave coming from north Kashmir’s political windmills that makes NC decry ‘Delhi designs casting shadow on its magic number’.

Having cautioned of senior Abdullah’s mercurial side, my highly strung fingers barely noted down the ten digits of arguably Kashmir’s seasoned unionist at present. It actually took me hours before I would decide upon the right time to disturb him for an interview, that too, to a cub reporter not many know of.

It was exactly around 5:00 in the evening when I, with my fingers now crossed, dialed the much-ambitious phone-call to Dr. Farooq Abdullah – who noticeably has quite a non-political WhatsApp picture posing candidly with in-style sunglasses and sporting an oddly orange-shaded golf attire, supposedly clicked while trying his hands on the rich-man’s game.

“Hello yes,” came a croaky voice from the other side of the line. And with that, my mixed bit of excitement and nervousness played the better of me: he mistook me to be a reporter from the Frontline magazine. But then, to my fortunes, the happy Farooq Abdullah asked me to ring him sharp at 10:00 the next morning. I did so, only to be uninterestedly given another timeslot – 5:00 pm.

Himself his party’s parliamentary contestant from central Kashmir, Abdullah had a field-day ahead in Ganderbal where he was scheduled to hold a political convention with his on-ground workers. It did not go as expected. He was reportedly booed by the students of Government Degree College while passing through the area. Moreover, later in the day, a video surfaced on social media, capturing a fumed Farooq Abdullah ridiculing an unlikely question posed by a local journalist; thus now indicating the clear swings of his mood.

Regardless, now for the third time in exactly 24 hours, I was about to test my luck – this time, only to fall flat and answerless. “Arrey bhai kya press, I’m busy with elections,” he ridiculed, and this time, with no intentions of another delay.

“Sir, I have been following your camp from now over three weeks. It would be really appreciable if you can manage some time from your busy schedule?”

“What do you want to ask? Likdho, Farooq Abdullah ne kaha hai NC hi jeetegi [Write away, Farooq Abdullah has said only NC will win]. Now thanks, bye!”

Farooq Abdullah, 81, addressing a public rally held recently in Raj Bagh, Srinagar. From preaching to his voters, to turn to religion for ‘inner solace’, to usual war of words, senior Abdullah plans to leave no stones unturned going to the parliamentary elections. (FPK photo/ Wasim Nabi)

More than being amazed by what I had just heard, it left me laughing. But true to what he said, not many political analysts and even the street-scholars pull down the possibilities of senior Abdullah easily securing his seat from Srinagar. And then the mini-sized red-flags of the party roped wide across the city streets, go on to speak of what is believed to be, a one-sided contest.

Healing from the horrors of previous elections where Farooq Abdullah had faced his first electoral defeat in his 42 years of political career, he and his party now look forward to turning the tables. Going by what the chief spokesperson, Aga Ruhullah has to say – the party not only aims at retaining the 15 assembly seats won in 2014, but also are hopeful of crossing the majority magic-figures.

A soft-spoken individual, Ruhullah was last year nominated as party’s youngest-ever chief spokesman. Hailing from a family of an influential Shia cleric in Budgam, he lost his father in an IED blast in the year 2000. And only two years later, he contested his first assembly election where since he remains undefeated, marking a hat-trick of wins, with subsequent victories in 2008 and 2014.

But for his party as a whole, the year 2014 was one of the worst ever in over the 80-year-long political legacy. As Ruhullah himself remarks, “2014 was a complete wave against National Conference, every odd thing was against us, even nature went against NC before the elections – there was a flood of magnitude which we never saw in a hundred years.”

National Conference Chief Spokesperson Aga Ruhullah. (FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi)

Having witnessed NC’s downfall up-and-close after being inducted by Omar Abdullah in his state cabinet in 2009, Ruhullah does accept that his party ‘may have made the mistake’ by driving itself from the ‘right’, but then, this time around, the party looks strategically sound while in-particular approaching all the three divisions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.

Specifically talking about the Kashmir Valley, Ruhullah looks confident about winning the three parliamentary seats as he only counts Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP as the lone ‘direct-threat’ from southern Kashmir – where the party has unexpectedly handpicked a not-so-known face: Justice (Retd.) Hasnain Masoodi.

Masoodi, back home in Srinagar, was seen altering every minute mistake made by his associate while articulating the daily press statement, because now, gone are the days when the words of the former High Court judge would be reported by the media houses in Kashmir, without saying.

Three years back since his ‘landmark’ judgement on the Article 370 and 35-A, now, Masoodi seems to have evolved as an advocate with a pinch of an adolescent want-to-be politician, as he tries: “I’m here, to aware people about the significance of the state subject… I want to make people aware of choosing a strong leadership that can fight, and, defend our constitutional rights.”

Doubling his role as a columnist—who in the past figured number one on the list of secessionist writers prepared by state police’s intelligence wing in the valley— Masoodi has written scores of pieces on Kashmir’s right to autonomy, which ironically is also NC’s prime slogan going to the big elections.

And perhaps, one can arguably say it has been Masoodi’s love for state subject that got him the parliamentary ticket from the south, from where someone as renowned a face as Mehbooba Mufti has her base strong and set, but then, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the former justice.

NC’s parliamentary contestant from south Kashmir, Hasnain Masoodi, at his newly-built office located in the backyard of his luxurious residence in Baghat, Srinagar. One of the wealthiest contestants, Masoodi has stated he personally has Rs 88 lakh in his back accounts and immovable assets of worth Rs 6 crores. (FPK photo/ Zishan Amiri)

He believes Mehbooba’s ‘days are over’ after a ‘failed’ coalition with the right-wing BJP. Only recently after filing the nomination papers, he had taken a jibe at the former chief minister by saying that he now looks forward to talking about ‘milk, toffees and pellet raaj’.

Notably, in one of his columns dated August last year, he had mocked the Mufti-Modi union comparing to that of a helping-frog and true-to-its-nature scorpion:

“Scorpion with humble gait approached frog, and after exchanging pleasantries, requested for a ride across the river. Frog said, ‘Do you take me for a fool! How do you expect me to take you on my back when I know well that you will sting me?’ The scorpion replied, ‘I am not stupid! Don’t I know that if I sting you, both of us will be doomed, and that it would not be in my interest and safety to sting you?’”

“….Frog, convinced by the logic of scorpion, agrees…Scorpion, true to its nature, stings…”

Though,” he further wrote, “there may be some disagreement on the identity of the characters in the story: who acted as scorpion and who suffered like the frog. Whether it was a case of scorpion persuading frog to carry it, or other way round – frog volunteering to give the scorpion a ride, conscious that it was born with the blessings of the scorpion… may also trigger some debate.”

Masoodi might be a good writer, but as a novice politician, he was vocally seen short of new narratives during the 45-minute-long interview with this reporter. With each question, Masoodi was seen getting uncomfortable as he couldn’t help but conclude the majority of his answers with the promise of autonomy.

For instance, while answering on how he has been trying to reach out to the people from his south Kashmir constituency, he swirled his reply around the autonomy subject like: “See, I haven’t held any huge public rally as yet, but then I am reaching out to my people in small groups of say 20-odd.

“When the other day (BJP President) Amit Shah said his party will do away with Kashmir’s special status by 2020, it concerned me a little. I believe it is now my responsibility to make people aware of the importance of Article 370 and 35-A.”

“…If suppose you win, how exactly do you plan to retain the autonomy rights? There must be some concrete plan the party must have discussed with you?” I asked, about half an hour into the interview.

“No, roadmap…” he fumbled, “I’m actually not privy to; I believe the party leadership would be in a better position to tell you that…”

Even Masoodi’s counterpart from the north, Mohammad Akbar Lone seemed unaware of the party’s on-paper approach to restore the autonomy, as he says – “We will just… go for it… we will have to.”

Few days back, speaking to reporters in his backyard, Lone was seen coming hard on his rival-parties accusing them of making ‘false political promises’ to the people of Kashmir, ‘now-and-again’.

“What they’re doing is nothing but building castles in air… Befooling the awaam has now become a trend, that’s all I would want to say. Thank you,” he answered, keeping it short and crisp.

Akbar Lone, a veteran party loyalist is known for calling a spade a spade – something that has helped him seize some very controversial moments, be it in the assembly house, or on the streets of Kashmir.

NC’s parliamentary contestant Akbar Lone, 72, while interacting with journalists post a public rally held in Baramullah’s Pattan area a week back. For media organisations, Lone’s one potential-TRP; recently, TOI and Republic TV had run a catchy graphic of him ‘lauding China for shielding brother Azhar Masood’. (FPK photo/Zishan Amiri)

He’s one of the rare politicians who’s known for openly expressing his love for Pakistan, time and again. And for that, he has even been accused by the political pundits of ‘fuelling violence’ in the valley.

Only recently his counterpart from Rafiabad, BJP’s MM War had demanded an FIR against Lone for ‘praising’ Pakistan. But then, Lone is Lone, who back home cared enough to express zero hoots in-return.

“It’s a blessing in disguise for War that he got the mandate from BJP,” he ridiculed, and with a smirk, further added, “Well let’s not talk about him; I don’t take him seriously, he is one drama.”

I immediately realised I was sitting with one not-so-press-friendly politician, which is rare in the times of 2019; but then, the right set of questions had to be regardless-ly, put forward:

“There’s a lot of anger in the people against the mainstream politics. No denying the fact that they’ve time and again pledged the same set of narratives for decades. So now this time around, what makes the promises of your party different from that of others,” I asked, “in contrast to your comment made outside while you were talking to the media?”

“See,” he paused for a while, before continuing, “(I said so) because National Conference is guided by honest party leaders, while the rest of the parties are dictated by Centre’s leadership. They’re their master’s voice. But NC is a different league.”

“But didn’t your party in power promise to revoke AFSPA? What went wrong?”

“We were not having the support of (coalition-partner) Congress and they did not like us.”

“So do you rule out the possibilities of joining hands with them, if the need arises?”

“Absolutely… because every time they’ve only ditched us…”

(FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

Although the party has publicly displayed a ‘friendly contest’ with Congress in the southern part of Kashmir, the intentions are clear and straight – “It’s only a tactical alliance, not a possibility of a coalition,” as chief spokesman Ruhullah explains. Why, because of the ‘direct threat’: the BJP.

According to Ruhullah, the party has been approaching the big elections keeping in mind the overall ‘dynamics’ of India’s political scenario, which he says, has ‘worsened’ since the right-wing BJP took over New Delhi.

“In Kashmir, we’re contesting in the entire three parliamentary seats, but not in Jammu region because we see BJP there as the direct threat. Therefore, our aim is to consolidate the entire population of the state on an identical line… This way we can unite the secular votes which the BJP is not beneficial to. Our primary focus there is just to defeat BJP… That is why you see we’ve aligned with Congress,” he says, quickly correcting – “tactically aligned, I mean…”

But Ruhullah does hope the party’s former alliance out-powers BJP in New Delhi “for India’s sake”, but if “God forbid”, he adds, “that doesn’t be the case… let there be any government, we’ll still fight forward to get away with draconian laws like Public Safety Act and the Armed Force Special Power Act” – the party’s other two highly-adapted slogans, apart from the autonomy assurance.

And to execute these promises, he believes, the National Conference will have to do the unthinkable, of becoming the single-majority party in the state.

“The people of J&K have witnessed a disaster in the form of coalition governments since 2002,” he says, revisiting the last time NC was in power all by itself.

When further asked to reason the coalition failures from that of his party’s end, he explains: “See, when Omar Abdullah was in power alongside the Congress party back in 2008, he had actually started working on withdrawal of AFSPA… but unfortunately, the then defence ministry did not give a positive sign, and their inputs put a barrier; otherwise Chidambaram still goes on to say we were about to do away with AFSPA.”

“So when Omar sahab says he will do away with PSA, and the AFSPA, be assured he will…”

Donning a typically white kurta-pajama and a navy-blue Nehru coat, he took the centre stage amidst a loud ‘National Conference… Zindabad!’ slogans, coming from a highly enthusiastic crowd gathered in thousands.

“It is no secret why I am here today, standing amongst my very own people,” the junior Abdullah started his speech, addressing a public rally in Baramulla’s Pattan area about a week back.

NC’s Chief Ministerial face Omar Abdullah during a rally in Baramulla’s Pattan area last week, ahead of the parliamentary elections. (FPK photo/ Zishan Amiri)

“Hardly anyone would have noticed what I said in Bandipora the other day, but then credits to the Prime Minister sahab, who happened to not like my speech and used it as a target to attack his opposition, asking if they were in favour of what I said. Janaab Modi sahab, what did I even say? I would suggest you to go and read the history of this country, and see, under what circumstances did Jammu and Kashmir become the part of India,” Omar rolled his guns, amidst arouse of applause.

“The Sadr-e-Riyasat I talked about (in Bandipora), isn’t some new talk of the town… this is something that has been promised to us: our own map, a distinctive flag and our very own constitution under which the state of J&K enjoys the right to elect its very own… Prime Minister…”

Since his famous ‘I am a Muslim and an Indian too’ speech a decade back, the junior Abdullah has certainly come a long way to now remind New Delhi about his ‘autonomy rights’. In fact, majority of his public speeches going to the 2019 elections have swirled around the slogans of the state subject.

“Our people have sacrificed their blood to colour the party flag in red,” he further reminded the crowd. “…the people of J&K have faced nothing but alienation. The so-called democracy here operates in accordance with the boycott calls; lesser the voter turnout, better for them… You people are deliberately threatened to not come out of your house and vote, and they reap benefits from it,” he added.

(FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

If only then, Omar would’ve predicted the coming: the voter turnout for the Baramulla constituency only dipped further to 35%, compared to that of 39% in 2014.

But in the times when Omar’s ‘direct threat’ BJP is making its steady climb in the valley chancing upon the low voter turnout – examining that, NC looks like one worried outfit.

“The so-called nationalist or hyper-nationalist voters in Jammu, they are consolidated and since 2014 the fragmentation is being concentrated in the areas where anti-BJP or anti-establishment sentiments exist,” spokesperson Ruhullah says.

Regardless of what the political pundits have to note about BJP’s Kashmir campaign, NC, sees a clear plot: ‘THE DELHI-DESIGN!’

The rise of the saffron party, alongside its ‘B-team’ – who Ruhullah refrains from calling ‘proxies, because understatement’ – has certainly left many in the NC camp brainstorming the defeat-plan.

They are a B-team who obviously cannot come with a nameplate of BJP in the valley; so to fight them, we are definitely in fray,” the spokesman says.

“Can you specify the members of the ‘team’?”

“…Isn’t it well-known that People’s Conference is an entity created directly by the BJP?”

Back in his newly-renovated house in Handwara, Sajad Lone was engaged in a heated conversation with his district SP over ‘unwanted slapping of PSAs’.

“Listen, lower your voice… Mr SP, lower you voice… I said, lower the tone… Let you know, you are talking to someone who represents these people,” he warned the officer on the other side of the line.

Seated in one corner of his living room, he was surrounded by at least about 100 men – adjusting themselves on the stairway, some standing at the doorstep, as many even sitting on the ground in an oddly congested setting – but, not a single bit of voice clashed to that of Lone’s, who looked absolutely irked by the officer’s response.

Surrounded by the local residents and party workers, Sajad Lone while on-phone with the SP at his residence in Handwara. (FPK photo/ Zishan Amiri)

“During the panchayat elections,” Lone told the officer, “3,20,000 votes were polled of which more than 2 lakh were cast alone from my district. Come on officer, don’t you think they need some pat on their backs? …When they reach Sopore with voting ink on their fingers, they get beaten red-and-blue and your policemen do nothing but watch the show. Neither here any killings take place, nor do the bullets fly…”

If only he knew the first individual to face the anti-voting bullet on day 1 of parliamentary contest, would be a class 7 student from his very-own district.

Once a separatist himself, Sajad Lone’s PC has over the years clearly evolved it’s ideology from representing resistance sentiments in the valley, to infamously aligning themselves to ‘elder brother’ Narendra Modi’s right-wing BJP.

When Ruhullah spoke about fighting BJP’s proxy in the North, the first name that he had mentioned was of the PC chief.

Lone is one hated personality in the NC camp, so much so, that even party’s new-joinee and the MLA face from Pattan area, Reyaz Bedar, ridicules him of being someone who has ‘no respect for people’s sentiments and ideology’.

“What sort of character is he, I tell you; yesterday you were a militant and now you become a politician? Shameful,” he exclaimed to this reporter at his residence in Pattan. Contrastingly, Bedar was a counter-insurgent before having officially joined NC in August last year, with an aim to ‘reconstruct the Kashmiri society’.

Reyaz Bedar having his moment as a novice politician, while addressing the crowd on the streets of Baramulla’s Pattan – where from he is contesting for the assembly seat. (FPK photo/ Zishan Amiri)

Not that the PC camp carry any lesser hate for the Abdullahs in-return. “Omar married a Sikh girl Payal Nath, his sister is married to Sachin Pilot and his father Farooq has a British wife… How is that not shameful?” Ashiq Hussain, party in-charge from Handwara constituency, had earlier told this reporter when he accompanied him on an on-field visit.

While moreover, contrasting to NC’s anti-BJP strategy, Lone in a rally held only on the last day of campaigning for the Lok Sabha had taken a jibe at Omar Abdullah by publicly questioning: “Who, after the 2014 elections, met the top BJP leadership for more than two and half hours in a high-rise building at Connaught Place and sought support from them to form the government?”

Lone, who had recently come this close to joining hands with the saffron-party for the CM seat last year, now looks forward to executing his dream with sky-touching hopes going to the 2019 elections.

And, it wouldn’t be baseless to say that the former separatist has an identical roadmap to what the BJP camp had earlier shared to this reporter – alarming a possibility of BJP-PC coalition with the right-wing party, if obviously, things go as per plan.

But, if only it were to be that easy for Sajad Lone – keeping in mind the kind of possible competition it has from his strange bedfellows from the same north-end: Engineer Rashid and former IAS Shah Faesal.

Recently Shah Faesal had said that ‘his vote will be for Engineer Rashid’. (Source: Twitter)

Likewise, even the National Conference sees the two controversial politicians as ‘trouble’ to secure crucial seats from the north.

The IAS topper Faesal, who after resigning from his administrative service, later coming up with a party of his own, was initially rumoured to join the Abdullahs.

“In fact,” NC spokesperson Ruhullah claims, “the day he tweeted his resignation, the very next Monday he was supposed to come and join the party.”

“So then what went wrong, why didn’t he?”

“His mind changed. I would say he lent himself to the section of people on Facebook, and you cannot make out how many opinions had come from genuine accounts? He just succumbed to mob-politics, basically.”

“…And other thing that many people suggest also needs to be taken into consideration… which is that Delhi and its establishment had certain influence on him…”

True or not, Shah Faesal’s rise as a politician in Kashmir has been strangely set on unpredictable lines. Having now formed a political party of his own, JK Peoples Movement, he decided not to contest in any of the elections, parliamentary and as well the assembly; thus, raising claims of ‘another New Delhi’s plot’.

At his overly-glorifying party launch held in Raj Bagh a few weeks back, he had concluded his speech rubbishing all the speculations: “Remember, I still had 25 years of civil services… aur yeh choddkar koi agent nahi banta [and compromising on that, no one would become an agent].”

(FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi)

“Even if…” Ruhullah on the other hand, notes, “Shah Faesal goes to say, or even if I believe him that he is not the creation of any agency, but the result that he is going to deliver, is, you know, dream result for the agencies; he in any case is serving them, be it by his design, or, by conscience…”

Other than Faesal, Ruhullah also believes ‘people like Engineer Rashid’ are playing in accordance with ‘New Delhi designs’.

Moreover, even People’s Conference’s Ashiq Hussain had termed Rashid an ‘agency guy who was close to getting exposed, but luck favoured him’. “He is Sajad sahab’s product, don’t you know?” Hussain remarked.

“This is just rubbish!” – was absolutely-fumed Engineer Rashid’s first reaction to all the ‘Delhi-Man’ allegations. “I can put a hundred allegations in-return, for example now I am saying they are all just… stupid people.”

Hailed by many for his dramatic street protests and ridiculed by several for being a ‘sell-out’, Rashid is one man full of conjectures. Commonly known as MLA Langate, he has gained some controversial moments in his tenure.

Founder and a ‘patron’ of his very-own JK Awami Ittehad Party, he joined politics in 2008 contesting from his home-village, where he pulled off an upset victory by defeating veteran faces from NC and the PDP outfit.

Back home in Srinagar, Rashid wearing his signature pheran was losing his breath while coughing due to a chilly March morning that had put him to a complete bed-rest.

Bed-ridden Engineer Rashid at his residence in Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Zishan Amiri)

“This is just rubbish; I don’t even want to answer this question. It’s just shameful and disgraceful,” he said, struggling to overcome his wheezing voice.

But despite having said so, he went on to continue: “They say Engineer Rashid is a ‘product’ of PC? First tell me one thing; it was Abdul Gani Lone who was in politics, right? He himself used to say ‘I am a simple villager’. He was working as a Ghat Munshi – which means less than a class 4 employee. My grandfather, a revered learned man of his times, gave Gani Lone a status. After that, he was dragged into politics and went on to get a degree in Law. It was my family who supported him and that’s when he became a leader.”

During the mid of the interview, Rashid suddenly termed PC’s mindset as ‘jaagirdaarana”, roughly implying colonial’. He was one angry not-so-young man!

In his decade-long political presence in Kashmir valley, ‘no-nonsense’ Rashid hasn’t made many friends – but going by the recently captured candid movement shared between the Engineer and the new political entrant from Lolab, suggests a possible grouping of the two buddies – who share similar homes, accusations, claims and somewhat similar set of ideas.

But Rashid, as he himself says, is a ‘one-man-army’. “In fact,” he boasts, “You will be surprised if I will tell you this: four months before launching the party, (Delhi CM and Aam Aadmi Party chief) Arvind Kejriwal consulted me. He took me to Delhi. We discussed things for four-five hours – Manish Sisodiya, Kejriwal, me and one of my friend.”

Regardless the bluff, when it comes to drawing a pattern between the two, the list of ‘potential- assembly-contestants’ does speak volumes, with many among them being PhDs, journalists, social activists, professors and scholars – similar to what Kejriwal’s party believably comprises of.

“See, I am not ambitious man,” he continues, “I am not worried to get my MLAs in power. All I want to do is represent the sentiments of the people of Kashmir. I want to make a movement, not a party.

“That’s why you see people are afraid of me. NC, PDP and PC, all know if Engineer Rashid shows a bit of inclination towards New Delhi, ‘hum sabki chutti hojaayegi [we all will have to pack our bags…],” and then with that counter-claim, Rashid concludes.

Regardless of Rashid’s ‘lesser-ambitious’ plans of expanding his party, any small attempt leading to the ‘division of votes’ is a headache for over-the-horse NC camp. Like how Ruhullah sees, the ‘proxies, or the B Team’ working in accordance to the ‘Delhi design’, are like obstructers to the party to cross the ‘magic-40 plus’ figure.

‘The New Delhi establishment doesn’t want to entirely do away with NC, similarly they do not want PDP to die either; but they want to design the politics of Kashmir in a way that no single party goes beyond 15 seats,” Ruhullah notes.

An NC supporter during a rally. (FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi)

“They want us to secure about 8-10 seats in central, likewise 8-10 with PDP in south Kashmir and they want a political force in north [which is Shah Faesal, Engineer Rashid and Sajad Lone]; with the result of which no political party can gain beyond 15 seats in Kashmir valley, which is a clear damage to democracy,” he adds.

But amidst all the ups-and-downs, friends-and-foes and the games-and-designs, Ruhullah is one determined politician waiting to see his party do the unthinkable of emerging as the single-ruling party in Jammu and Kashmir – as he concludes: “Honestly, I will be disappointed if we settle anywhere less than the 40 mark.”

 

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