SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — Was the abortive three-way alliance between the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the National Conference (NC), and the Congress, an elaborate ruse to force the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s hand in Kashmir, and destroy the fledgling third front headed by Sajad Gani Lone — a former separatist who once called himself Prime Minister Narendra Modi's younger brother?
A week after Governor Satya Pal Malik dissolved the state assembly in the face of competing claims to form the government (at least one such claim was made on Twitter), HuffPost India spoke to key players to find that the BJP — a party that prides itself on a mastery of the dark arts of politics — might have been outsmarted by regional parties faced by the prospect of being pushed off their own turf.
The brief three-way alliance in Kashmir has national significance: suggesting that political commentators — looking for a broad, coherent, national opposition alliance to oppose the dominant BJP — might be looking for the wrong thing. In the heightened political atmosphere leading up to next year's elections, opposition alliances might just be fleeting, strategic and disruptive.
Soon after the BJP toppled Kashmir's elected government in June 2018, the PDP's Mehbooba Mufti cut an increasingly disconsolate figure. Rivals within the party openly called for her to step down as party president, the BJP sought to break her party apart and install Lone, of the Jammu Kashmir People's Conference (PC), as the state's chief minister.
At a public event in Gwalior on November 24, Governor Malik admitted as much. "Had I looked towards Delhi, then I would have had to install Lone's government and my name would have gone down in history as a dishonest man," Malik said. "So I ended the matter once and for all." Malik has since retracted the remark.
But with Governor's rule in Kashmir ending on Dec 19 2018, a Srinagar-based NC leader and two PDP leaders told HuffPost India, Mufti moved swiftly to revive her political relevance. In the third week of November, she made a call to Omar Abdullah, her arch rival, with a proposal to blindside the BJP, Lone, and any PDP or NC cadres looking to jump ship. The call marked the culmination of a week of deliberations between the two parties.
Her message, the NC leader said, was straightforward, "Let it be a lesson to all turncoats".
Days later, the PDP, NC, and Congress announced their intention to band together to form a government, leaving Sajjad Lone, who by all accounts felt he had one hand on the prize, isolated and distraught.
"See the tweets between Omar Sahab and Mehbooba Ji," Lone said in an emotional press conference on 23 November, 48 hours after his bid to power collapsed, "I couldn't believe that these are two ex-Chief Ministers, all giggly and wiggly, exchanging tweets like two kids, making fun of me."
Calling Amit bhai
Before Mehbooba Mufti made the phone call to her arch-rival Abdullah, she reached out to a former ally Amit Shah, the BJP's party president, and Governor Malik, and told them that she was aware of attempts being made to split the PDP and threaten her MLAs.
"The party leadership was then assured by the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that any sort of horse trading to buy the support of legislators for forming a government will not be tolerated," a senior PDP leader told HuffPost India.
"We assumed the assurance by the PMO was enough but it happened so that we were wrong. On ground, threats and pressure tactics continued to be used to break the PDP," the PDP leader said.
(Governor Malik partly corroborated these events in his public statements in Gwalior, stating that Mufti had told him her party MLAs were being lured and coerced to leave the party.)
All through November, Kashmir's rumour mills had hinted at the possibility of a new alliance before the end of Governor's rule in J&K on December 19.
On the morning of November 21, PDP leader and former finance minister Altaf Bukhari met with the National Congress's Omar Abdullah.
"The party leadership conveyed to me that an alliance will be formed with Congress party and NC," Bukhari told HuffPost India at the time, "This is a move to safeguard the special status of the state. Between 55 and 60 MLAs are with us".
Meanwhile, Lone reached out to the Governor's office to ensure his party got a chance to prove their majority first.
"On that day when we all staked a claim, I was the first one to talk to him on the phone and tell him that I want to stake a claim to form the government," Lone subsequently said in a public statement, adding that the governor asked him to send him a fax. "Thereafter for three hours we tried to unsuccessfully send a fax to the Raj Bhawan."
Lone wasn't the only one trying to send a fax. Mufti and the PDP were trying to send faxes too, before resorting to tweeting at the governor.
Later that evening, Governor Malik said he was dissolving the state assembly, and paving the way for fresh elections.
The much ballyhooed three-way alliance ended soon after.
On November 22, Abdullah in his first ever press conference after the stillborn alliance ended, said his party had not sent a letter of support to PDP. Neither, it emerged, had the Congress. Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and a former J&K chief minister himself, told a news channel that his party hadn't formally decided to back PDP either.
Publicly, all three parties have maintained that their alliance was prompted by a desire to safeguard Article 35A of the constitution, which protects Kashmir's protected status.
"We were arch rivals yesterday and we remain to be so today," said Tanvir Sadiq, advisor to Omar Abdullah. "Ours was an outside support that too because we wanted to protect article 35A."
Now with the threat of a puppet government, controlled by Delhi, receding; all three parties have indicated their desire to fight the election separately, and have turned their attention to undermining Lone's so-called third front.
"Time and again we have seen third front have been propped up and they have failed. and i personally feel this will also be a non starter," said Nasir Aslam Wani, a spokesperson from the National Conference. "People here will not go for any experiment anymore. They did it in 2014 by giving a chance to PDP."
Sarah Hayat Shah, another NC spokesperson, said the PDP could not distance its self from its former alliance partner.
"When BJP was running its communal agenda, banning beefing, changing names of cities and towns and vilifying minorities what was the PDP doing. It was the BJP that broke the alliance in the end and not PDP so they have no right to tell the people that they put their foot down when it was needed," Shah said.
The PDP, for its part, said it had hoped to moderate the excesses of its saffron ally.
"PDP is a firm believer in liberal politics but due to BJP's attitude we couldn't achieve what we wanted to," said Rafi Mir, the PDP spokesperson. " The centre didn't properly release funds from PM's 80,000 crore package with which we could have developed the state and shown the results to the people," Mir said. "Had we pulled out of the coalition, people would have asked us why did we run away so we chose to stay."
Mir said adding that despite the massive unrest on ground, their government managed to enforce many developmental projects on ground. "We needed more time," he said.
The question of third front
With elections inevitable, the PDP and NC have sought to undermine Lone and People's Conference in its two strongholds in Handwara and Pattan.
In Pattan, the PC is relying on former PDP MLA and prominent Shia leader Imran Reza Ansari to hold the fort. On Tuesday, the National Conference announced that former J&K SSP Reyaz Bedar had joined the party.
"Bedar, who originally hails from Pattan has a reputation of an upright police officer, and can challenge Ansari in his home turf. Though it is too soon to decide whether he will fight from the Pattan constituency. It is important that the two (Lone and Ansari) are defeated in their own constituencies," said a NC leader indicating that the move will make Delhi understand how important the regional parties truly are.
While Ansari can claim significant support in Pattan, Bedar, with the support of the NC's Shia leaders, might just be the man for the party.
However NC's Sadiq believes that the Shia-Sunni dynamic might not be at play at all.
"Imran Ansari is a prominent leader no doubt but he comes nowhere close to his father who was defeated by Mr Mustafa Kamal in the late 90s," Sadiq said. "People will vote for whom they think can protect them and their state, irrespective of their caste or creed."
In Handwara, Lone's constituency, senior NC leaders said veteran politician Chowdhary Ramzaan, who had lost against Lone in the last election, will be again chosen as the party's Handwara face to deny the BJP space in penetrate northern Kashmir.
HuffPost India tried to contact Ansari and Lone for a comment but both did not respond to messages.