Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik (L) dissolved the state Assembly on November 21, 2018, paving way for fresh elections in the restive Indian state. Photo: The Times of India/Bilal Bahadur
Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik (L) dissolved the state Assembly on November 21, 2018, paving way for fresh elections in the restive Indian state. Photo: The Times of India/Bilal Bahadur

In a sudden move, the Governor of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, dissolved the state assembly on Wednesday night. His move ended the high drama over the formation of a prospective government. The conflict-ridden state is now bound for fresh elections, in all likelihood in April 2019.

Malik told the media that he dissolved the legislative assembly because parties with “opposing political ideologies” came together to form a government which would not have been stable.

However, Malik, installed by the BJP-led federal government, is seen as a political appointee. Critics view his move as a clear indication that the BJP, which prior to pulling out was in power for four years in an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), wants to retain control through the Governor’s office.

The PDP, who had staked claims on forming the government with the Indian National Congress and the National Conference, is likely to petition the Supreme Court to contest Malik’s orders from the Raj Bhavan.

In an unusually-timed development, on the evening of November 21 at around 8:30 pm, the Raj Bhavan issued the order: “By virtue of powers vested upon me in terms of proclamation P-I/18 of 2018 dated 20th June 2018 issued under sub-section (1) of section 92 and in exercise of the powers conferred me by clause (b) of sub-section 2 of section 53 of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, I hereby dissolve the Legislative Assembly”.

Staking claim

The restive state has been under the Governor’s rule since June when the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which ran a coalition government in the state with the regional PDP, pulled out of their three-year alliance.

In a sudden move on Wednesday, the PDP, which had the highest numbers with 28 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the 87-member assembly, set out to form a government in a fresh alliance with the Congress and their traditional rivals, the National Conference, parties that held 12 and 15 seats respectively.

The PDP president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti quickly fired off a letter to the Raj Bhavan, hopeful of being able to muster the support of 56 MLAs (only 44 votes are required to constitute a majority on the floor of the house). But in a counter move, separatist-turned-mainstream leader Sajad Lone, who heads the Peoples Conference and claims the support of 25 MLAs from the BJP, also sent a letter to the Governor proposing the formation of a government.

What apparently proved to be a game changer was that “over a dozen rebel” members from PDP, led by Imran Reza Ansari, decided to throw their weight behind Sajad Lone as the chief ministerial candidate.

Political sources said the “rebel support” disputed the majority claims of Mehbooba in her letter to the Governor. Government sources said that given the “dilemma on who of the two had actual numbers to form the government”, the Governor decided to dissolve the assembly.

Interestingly, none of the two parties could formally fax their letters to the Raj Bhavan as the fax machine there was said to be “defunct.” In the end, both sent their letters through a Whatsapp number at the Governor’s office. The letters arrived within minutes of each other, with Mehbooba’s in the lead. She even tweeted a picture of her letter and tagged the Governor’s official handle on Twitter to catch his attention.

Defection and rebellion

The political drama unfolded on November 20, when veteran PDP leader and Member of Parliament Muzaffar Hussain Baig addressed a press conference hinting that he would join Sajad Lone’s party. A day later Mehbooba took the lead to stake a claim for forming the government.

Sajjad, on the other hand, had support from the BJP and the PDP rebels led by Ansari. Political sources said there had been a possibility that the People’s Conference party would form the government in the state with support from the BJP and rebels on December 15, but they were waiting for Baig to “formally join them.”

But a counter plan was also underway. Senior PDP leader and former minister Altaf Bukhari was already lobbying for an alliance with the arch-rival National Conference (NC). Sources said that Bukhari had been touch with the National Conference leaders since August. When his close aide and a prominent Kashmiri hotelier hosted a party at his new hotel in the hill resort of Sonamarg, it was attended by leaders from both the parties and some other “influential faces.”

Enjoying the  influence of a “powerful business lobby” in Kashmir, Bukhari was by now a front-runner for the chief minister’s post.

However, political pundits look at the dissolution of the assembly as a relief for the Congress party, the PDP and the NC. Observers said that for the National Conference party the alliance would be “guilty” of supporting the arch-rival PDP. For the PDP, a government without Mehbooba Mufti would mean changes to the party’s power equations. But the Congress party had the biggest stakes, which could affect its performance in the 2019 general elections.

The alliance would have been a boost to Kashmiri Muslims as the three parties in the prospective alliance’s main representatives in the assembly are from the Kashmir valley. A sympathy wave from Jammu-based Hindus could benefit the BJP.

The golden chance for Sajad Lone to rule the state is over, for now. However since he is seen as a “politician of patience”, he is unlikely to challenge the dissolution of the assembly. Some PDP leaders, however, are planning to petition the Supreme Court. “Though she (Mufti) is not that willing, we are looking for the possibility to seek legal respite. By dissolving the Assembly after getting the letter on staking claims to form government, the Governor has eliminated the essence of democracy,” said a PDP leader on the condition of anonymity.

The dissolution of the assembly has paved way for fresh assembly elections in the state that will come under President’s rule on December 19. The assembly term would have otherwise ended in March 2021.

Official sources say that keeping the assembly in suspended animation for five months since June has cost the cash-starved state around 500 million rupees, including the security-related expenditure on lawmakers and their perks.