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Difficult Conversations Await the INDIA Alliance in J&K

With the National Conference declaring that it intends to contest in the three Lok Sabha seats it currently holds in J&K and Ladakh, seat-sharing talks may be a tricky affair.

New Delhi: National Conference (NC) president Farooq Abdullah has thrown down a gauntlet with his remarks on seat-sharing arrangements with the INDIA alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in Jammu and Kashmir.

Speaking with reporters in Srinagar on Thursday, February 15, Abdullah said that there are “no two opinions” that the NC, which is part of the INDIA alliance, was going to contest the 2024 general election in J&K “on the basis of our strength”.

His remarks triggered speculations that after Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, the NC president could be the latest addition to the list of political leaders who have deserted the fledgling INDIA alliance in recent weeks.

Omar Abdullah, the NC vice-president, however, clarified that his party “continues to remain a member of the INDIA alliance”. He claimed that the NC has had “informal talks” on seat-sharing with the Congress, which leads the INDIA alliance, while asserting that his party was going to contest on three out of six Lok Sabha constituencies in J&K and Ladakh on its own.

The three constituencies – Srinagar-Budgam, Baramulla-Kupwara and Anantnag-Rajouri – were won by the NC in the 2019 parliamentary election. “Therefore, the seats that are to be discussed are those held by the BJP (Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh). We are firm on that position,” Omar told reporters.

The three parliamentary constituencies are spread over 12 districts of the Kashmir valley and Pir Panjal region where all the three major constituents of the INDIA alliance in J&K – Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), NC and the Congress – have had a significant presence.

In the 2014 assembly election in J&K, the PDP had emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats (including three seats in the Pir Panjal region and the rest from Kashmir Valley) followed by the National Conference with 15 seats and the Congress with 12.

Jammu-based editor and political analyst Zafar Choudhary said that the NC’s decision was unlikely to be acceptable to the allies of INDIA in J&K – PDP and Congress – which could force a “fight to the finish” between the three parties.

“While the BJP looks confident on its two traditional Lok Sabha seats (Jammu and Udhampur), the absence of an NC-PDP-Congress alliance would clearly put the BJP in a position of advantage in Anantnag-Rajouri and Ladakh seats. An unofficial BJP ally could even emerge as a key competitor in north Kashmir,” Choudhary said.

Rekha Chowdhary, former professor of political science at the University of Jammu, believes that the NC is in a “better position” electorally in Kashmir than other political parties.

“The main rival of the National Conference in Kashmir, which is the PDP, has become quite weak because of the exodus of some of its leaders and other factors. The PDP has lost its confidence and the party is not in a position where it can negotiate seat-sharing with other INDIA partners,” she said.

Zafar Choudhary agreed that the PDP has been suffering politically because of its alliance with the BJP in 2015. “All subsequent events including government formation crisis following Mufti Sayeed’s death, 2016 civilian unrest, fall of government in 2018 and the casual handling of the dismissal of assembly project the PDP in a poor light and, consequently, the NC in a better position,” he said.

However, a senior PDP leader said that there was “no question” that his party was going to stay out of the Lok Sabha contest but “our foremost goal is unity”. He said that the party was in the midst of a “consultation process”.

“We won’t take a decision under pressure or in a hurry because it’s not a question of just the elections but how to strengthen our voice at the national level and in the parliament,” said the PDP leader, who served as a minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government.

The PDP leader said that the party will “ideally want to be a part of a united voice” against the BJP from Jammu and Kashmir. “But if one of the constituents does not want to yield space to others, we would feel our attempts from 2019 to forge unity in J&K, first in the form of Gupkar Alliance and then the INDIA alliance, have failed.”

Zafar Choudhary said that the Gupkar alliance between the three parties did not work electorally as in the middle of the 2020 District Development Council (DDC) elections in J&K, “the parties also realised that they compete on the same electoral landscape for their individual survival”.

“Since then, Omar has believed in separating the electoral and ideological agenda within the Gupkar alliance. In November 2022, the NC released a list of 46 leaders for as many constituencies in Kashmir calling them Constituency-Incharge. This was a clear message to the allies that there was no scope for alliance whenever assembly elections are held.”

He said that Dr Abdullah and Omar have “consistently held divergent views” on the alliance, “While Dr Abdullah has always reiterated the primacy of the Gupkar Alliance, Omar has taken more practical actions to consolidate on a post-2019 advantage uniquely available to the National Conference.”

Rekha Chowdharyy said that the NC’s performance in the DDC election may have contributed to the party’s “confidence” about its performance in the upcoming election.

“The commitment (to INDIA alliance) is not entrenched in the political parties in Kashmir. No party will sacrifice its interests for the interests of any alliance. While Mehbooba Mufti is more committed to the INDIA and Gupkar alliances for the survival of her party, NC is not dependent on either,” she said.

Addressing the media in Srinagar, Omar said that political parties have to make “small sacrifices … for a bigger objective”. “If the objective of INDIA alliance is to weaken each other, the National Conference is ready for negotiations. What purpose will a weakened National Conference serve if the aim is to defeat the BJP?”

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