The alliance between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that fell apart last month in the restive north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is likely to be revived in the coming weeks.
Highly placed sources told Asia Times that the parties, which went their separate ways on June 19, have in the last two weeks engaged in “back channel diplomacy” aimed at forming a new government in the state. Veteran PDP politician Muzaffar Hussain Baig is said to be in line to take over as the state’s new Chief Minister.
A formal announcement is expected in the first week of September. Until then, the Hindu nationalist BJP wants all attempts to form a government to be put on hold in the Muslim-dominated state while New Delhi concentrates on conducting the annual Amarnath Yatra Hindu pilgrimage to the cave shrine in the Himalayas in Kashmir.
Sources said the PDP and the BJP have reached agreement on Muzaffar Hussain Baig becoming chief minister for the remaining three years of the state government’s six-year term, which ends in 2020.
It is understood that former Chief Minister and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti has been holding secret meetings with her close aides in the state and in New Delhi. BJP leaders in the national capital are also assessing what they require to finalize the new pact.
Baig, a 72-year-old Member of Parliament from north Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency, was among the founding members of the Peoples Democratic Party in 1999. An open admirer of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, last year he stoked controversy by hailing Modi’s government as “God’s gift.” Unlike other potential candidates for leadership of the rumored alliance, Baig is said to have a healthy rapport with New Delhi.
Sources say this is the main reason why the BJP’s point man on Kashmir, senior leader Ram Madhav, cancelled his scheduled visit to the valley on July 21. There, he had been expected to hold another round of talks with separatist-turned-lawmaker Sajjad Gani Lone, who was tipped as a prospective chief minister, with support from PDP rebels headed by Maulana Imran Reza Ansari.
But the BJP is becoming apprehensive about forming an alliance with Sajjad for fear that supporting a former separatist leader may affect the party’s performance in the upcoming 2019 general elections.
Baig’s prospects as chief minister, on the other hand, present a win-win situation for both the PDP and BJP. For Mehbooba Mufti, Baig’s coronation will not only bring her party back to power through “command in experienced hands,” but will also check the threat from possible rebels emerging within her party. Baig was known to have issues with Mehbooba’s governance and party management when she headed the J&K government, but these problems seem to have been resolved.
For the nationalist BJP, Baig is a non controversial figure, who unlike many other mainstream Kashmir politicians has always supported the state’s integration with India even during periods of unrest.
Baig, who during the PDP’s maiden stint in power in 2002 held key ministerial portfolios including that of Law, Finance and Tourism, is seen as a seasoned hand who has already proved his worth.
“There were no complaints of corruption or mis-governance against him as a key minister then, whereas he is a true nationalist. This is something which makes him attractive to achieve Modi Ji’s goal of transparent, honest and good governance in J&K,” said a senior BJP leader, who asked not to be identified.
While the PDP is yet to comment on the issue, Baig’s sudden rise has not gone unnoticed.
At the July 28 party convention in the summer capital of Srinagar, Baig was the only senior party figure other than Mehbooba to be seated on a chair on the podium. All other senior leaders sat on the floor. Baig was also the second last leader to speak, before Mehooba.
Mehbooba Mufti, who is currently braving a second rebellion within her party, wants to consolidate her position as a strong party leader. In 2016, after the demise of her father and former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, she was initially reluctant to succeed him, and there were rumors of a coup being organised by close aides.
At the time, businessman-turned-politician Syed Altaf Bukhari was accused of trying to dethrone her. When Mehbooba eventually took power over the party, Bukhari was initially removed from the council of ministers. However Bukhari now claims to be a Mehbooba loyalist, and he was one of the leaders who sat on the floor while Baig was in a chair at the party event. Bukhari says his “unity with the party leadership must have silenced many faces.”
While Baig, a prominent lawyer with a master’s degree from Harvard Law School, is likely to head the government, Mehbooba plans to give a key portfolio to Bukhari, who is seen as one of the PDP’s key funders.
Despite repeated attempts by Asia Times to contact him, Baig did not respond. “Baig Sahib is not feeling well, he is unable to talk,” the man who picked up the phone told Asia Times.
Interestingly, though both the PDP and BJP declined to speak on developments pertaining to Baig, neither party would rule out the possibility of him emerging as chief minister.
“We have not taken any such decision. There has been no such meeting, no such deliberation. What will happen next I don’t know, but as of now there is no such thing,” PDP spokesman Muhammad Rafi Mir said.
Senior BJP spokesman Ashok Koul said any such decision would be taken by the party leadership in New Delhi. “We have made no such proposal. Even if it’s made it will done by our leadership,” he said.
The formation of a new alliance remains an option because Governor NN Vohra has failed to dissolve the state Assembly despite repeated appeals from the regional parties.
The PDP, at 28 seats, has the highest number of representatives in the 87-seat Assembly; the BJP has 25, the Congress has 12, and National Conference has 15. Independents and others occupy seven seats.
The only way for any two-party coalition to achieve the 44 seats necessary for a majority would require reconciliation between the BJP and the PDP. This is once more on the cards.