SRINAGAR, Kashmir — People's Democratic Party (PDP) dissenter and MLA from Pattan, Molvi Imran Ansari, has thrown his weight behind Sajjad Gani Lone, a former separatist who is now leader of the Jammu & Kashmir People's Conference, lending credence to a theory floated by PDP loyalists that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is working hard to prop up a third front in Kashmir.
Ansari's support for Lone—a man who has openly spoken of his admiration for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was given a cabinet berth in the coalition government at the BJP's behest—suggests that the PDP's ill-fated alliance with the BJP didn't just damage its credibility amongst its constituents, but could tear the 20-year-old party apart.
Interviews with senior PDP leaders and officials in the governor's administration reveal that elections are unlikely to be held this year, giving the nascent third front the time to mount a credible challenge to the state's two-party set up.
"The new alliance will rally around Sajjad Lone. We have like-minded people who, when the time comes, will come out in support of the third front," Ansari told HuffPost India in an exclusive interview. "Right now, we might be three MLAs but I assure you when the times comes we will have 23."
Ansari's support for Lone is the capstone of a months-long process in which the PDP has sought to shake off its tag as a pro-BJP collaborator, even as party president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has struggled to keep her party together.
The following granular account of Mufti's struggles, and the plans of a new rival front, reveal an unsettling new chapter in New Delhi's attempts to muddle Kashmir's political processes. If past history is any indication, such attempts have invariably resulted in fresh instability, violence and estrangement.
"The rebellion inside PDP is aimed at weakening regional powers and creating a sectarian fault line in Kashmir," said a senior PDP loyalist, speaking of the rebels. "I hope they realise how New Delhi is using them for this purpose."
A few weeks after the BJP pulled out of the PDP coalition government in Kashmir in June 2018, five PDP legislators held an extraordinary press conference in Srinagar in which they asked for Mufti to step down.
"We don't believe in two-family rule," Ansari, then a prominent PDP dissenter, said at the time. "These two families have always believed that they are indispensable."
While one of the families was the Abdullahs of the National Conference, the other family was the Muftis.
Ansari's statement set off alarm bells in the PDP. The party was facing an open rebellion for the first time since Mufti's father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, set it up in 1999. For seasoned Kashmir watchers, the rebellion was a sign that the BJP was looking to weaken the party.
Days later, Mufti held a closed-door meeting with her loyalists, during which she said that anyone who thought she should step down as the party's chief ministerial face should speak up, according to two MLAs who were present.
"She said she had no qualms in continuing as PDP's president if majority of her party members think that there is any other individual who can be their chief ministerial candidate," said a senior PDP leader. "All the party members present at the meeting threw their weight behind Mehbooba."
Senior PDP leaders said Mufti's gambit had reinforced her control over the party.
"She knew that there is no other leader of her stature in the party who could challenge her," said a senior PDP leader considered a close ally of the former CM. "No one dissenting at the meeting or, later on, joining the rebel MLAs proves that Mehbooba ji showed her muscle on the day."
Friction between the BJP and the PDP began almost immediately after the government was formed, party leaders said, and worsened in the winter of 2015 when Mufti's father, Sayeed, was admitted to the hospital in December 2016 and subsequently died in January 2016. Mufti took his place as chief minister, but was upset by her coalition partners.
"No one from the state BJP leadership or the centre came to visit the hospital. But our allies crossed the limit when not even single prominent leader turned up for Mufti Sahab's funeral," a senior Srinagar-based PDP leader said. "I know for a fact that this had hurt Mehbooba ji very badly."
With Sayeed's death, senior PDP leaders said, the valley lost a politician capable of working with leaders from across the political spectrum.
"I remember the day Mr Vajpayee had to deliver his speech in Srinagar, it was raining very heavily in the night before," former PDP cabinet minister Naeem Akhtar said, recalling the party's alliance with a previous BJP regime. "We thought that the PM's speech would be a disaster because of the weather but the morning turned out to be quite sunny. Mr Vajpayee then spoke in front of a crowd of thousands and after his speech even remarked, 'I didn't know that Mufti Sahab decides Kashmir weather as well'."
In summer of 2016, security forces killed Burhan Wani, a charismatic militant from the Hizbul Mujahideen, prompting widespread protests. The response from security forces, the Modi government's policy of violent escalation and the indiscriminate use of pellet guns further alienated Kashmir's population.
"Besides the unrest in 2016, BJP's stand on article 370 and 35A, which guarantee special status to Jammu and Kashmir, had a tremendous effect on the psyche of people here," said Rafi Mir, chief spokesperson of the PDP. "Add to this the lynchings of people on suspicions of having beef, the Kathua rape of a minor girl and subsequent support of some BJP leaders, (it) made it very hard for us to tell our supporters why were we in alliance with the party."
"We were hoping to take Delhi and Islamabad on board and find a solution through a dialogue. Is it possible to stop infiltration or militant activities without stopping Pakistan?" said Waheed Para, president of the PDP's youth wing. "With Modi's mandate, we were of the view that dialogue on Kashmir was a possibility, unlike previous failed attempts by governments of the day. This was not executed,"
While the PDP hopes that shedding the baggage of the BJP will help it regain credibility among its followers, the rebel faction appears to be eager to solicit the Hindutva party's support.
"The BJP-PDP was an agenda of alliance based on common minimum programme (CMP) that was adopted by the the coalition government," said Ansari, the PDP's rebel MLA. "Yet, Mehbooba Mufti, after the demise of Mufti sahab tried to bargain for more from the BJP which, in retrospect, was a major mistake on her part. We lost a great deal of time to work for the coalition as well as the people of Kashmir and what did she get at the end of it, nothing at all."
Ansari said Mufti had surrounded herself with a coterie of advisers, and distanced herself from the party's mass base.
"After she became the CM, she started to ignore suggestions, advice of mass leaders and instead relied on sycophants, family members and friends who haven't fought any election," Ansari said.
In Mufti's place, Ansari has been talking up Sajjad Gani Lone. A former separatist and now leader of the Jammu & Kashmir People's Conference, Lone made it to the coalition cabinet after the BJP insisted he be given a seat at the table.
Lone had made his allegiances clear in November 2014, when he described Modi as a "great human being".
"The PM is a great human being. I was pleasantly surprised with his down-to-earth personality, his vision about bringing in investments into the state," Lone told reporters after he met the Prime Minister. "I could not make out whether I am talking to the PM or my older brother."
Sofi Yosuf, the first ever BJP legislator from Kashmir and currently the deputy head of the party's Kashmir unit, refuted the allegations levelled against his party but didn't outrightly deny its association with Lone.
"Sajjad Lone has been our coalition partner and continues to be so. In the case of PDP, we made an alliance with them to respect the mandate of people from both Jammu and Kashmir, but Lone had a prior association with the BJP. We are not propping up a third front or putting pressure on Lone to become the chief minister. BJP does not betray its partners. In fact, Lone was given a ministerial birth instead of me. That is what BJP stands for. The cracks or splits in PDP is an internal matter of the party," said Yosuf.
If Ansari is to believed, Lone now stands a chance of becoming the chief minister of the state.
"There will be only one face in the third front," Ansari said, when asked who would serve as the third front's chief minister. "That will be of Sajjad Gani Lone".