Valley's Panchayat Polls Usher In Change18 June 2011
Times of India
Srinagar: The panchayat elections in Jammu & Kashmir have been a stunning success, and while their impact on grassroots democracy and development in Kashmir has attracted attention, its political impact has gone largely unnoticed. These elections have set in motion events that could potentially change the political landscape of the state. Although the polls were fought on a non-party basis, all mainstream parties fielded candidates - as did People's Conference of the Lone brothers. Sajjad and Bilal head different factions of the party, having split over Sajjad's decision to fight the 2004 general elections, with Bilal choosing to remain within the Hurriyat. Today, the Lone brothers work in tandem. The decision to contest panchayat elections was a joint one. Their party's performance in Handwara, their traditional base, surprised many. People's Conference bagged a third of all sarpanch seats it contested. Insiders say this performance all but ensures People's Conference will contest the next assembly elections. The Lone brothers are looking to expand the party cadre beyond Handwara and, in the weeks ahead, they plan to visit various districts to set the ball rolling. But no matter how well they do, it would be difficult for them to take on the National Conference-Congress combine on their own. And it's here that things get interesting in the shape of Mufti Mohammad Syed-led PDP. The Congress in recent years has played a decisive role in government formation. It installed the previous PDP-led government before switching to NC in 2008. But the nature of this NC-Congress tie is causing acute discomfort to PDP. 'If the Mufti's want to meet Sonia Gandhi, he has to seek an appointment, while Omar Abdullah is best friends with Rahul Gandhi. It's a different relationship, and it's personal. We can't match that,' says a PDP groupie. The feeling in PDP is that all things being normal, the NC-Congress combine is here to stay. So, for many, the PDP with its strong base in South Kashmir, and the People's Conference capable of growing in the North, are natural allies. ' Many PDP leaders like Muzaffar Beg are old People's Conference men. Their political agenda, too, is in sync. PDP's self-rule and Sajjad Lone's achievable nationhood are startlingly similar documents,' said a political observer. If it comes through, this alliance could be formidable. But problems remain. For a long time, mainstream parties have ruled - the Congress and BJP delivered the Jammu region, NC and PDP took care of the Valley. But with BJP all but decimated in Jammu and Congress out of the calculation, PDP has to work overtime to gain a foothold in the region. The recent appointment of a noted Kashmiri Pandit, Dr Samir Kaul, as PDP general secretary was the first step in that direction. Since then, not a day goes by without an announcement of a new entrant from the area to PDP. For the People's Conference, the problem is self-created. Take for instance Engineer Rashid, the independent MLA from Langate in Kupwara. Rashid was with Lones before differences made him quit and fight as independent in 2008. He showed his mettle in the panchayat. On Saturday, Mani Shankar Aiyar addressed a gathering of new sarpanches at the agriculture university. Many of them expressed their loyalty to Rashid. Lone brothers' efforts to woo him back have failed. 'He left the party and fought on his own and won. Why should he now accept subordinate position in People's conference?' said a source close to Rashid and privy to the negotiations. Assembly elections are three years away, but if these developments are anything to go by, then voters in Kashmir could have three regional parties instead of two to choose from.