The (un)saddled dark horse?

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Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference Chairman Sajjad Gani Lone.Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi

As a strong votary of the “third party alternative” in Kashmir, Sajad Lone might be following the old script, but his direction is curiously crafted.

By Bilal Handoo

A wild word about 21th November’s dramatic dusk has it that a wary intelligence alerted Kashmir’s new dark horse back on time and put him on a striding saddle in a flash. The ensuing political turf war between the grand grouping and the BJP’s Lone ally saw the “Northern Alliance” resorting to some out of box desperate moves — even staking claim on government formation on WhattsApp. But Raj Bhavan—otherwise sitting on the JK Assembly’s suspended animation for months—responded with the house dissolution decision filled with intrigue and vintage feel.

Those who frequent Handwara and Sanat Nagar recall it a rush hour for Sajad Lone. The man who had relinquished the resistance camp years back for trying his luck in unionist politics in Kashmir, the Grand Alliance and brain behind it indeed marred his ‘much-awaited coronation’. Even Delhi wanted Sajad on saddle, as Governor Satya Pal Malik makes one believe.

But once the “selected” man derailed the “elected” man’s march, Kashmir’s political theatre assumed a new pitch.

“Here was the flag-bearer of BJP in Kashmir watching his chance going down the drain,” says a National Conference leader, whose brushes with Sajad are well known. “In his so-called dynastic politics bashing, the late Abdul Gani Lone’s son forgot that politics is all about timing, rather than numbers.”

The NC leader doesn’t sound entirely muddled.

 

Ever since the fall of the “unholy alliance” between PDP and BJP this past summer, Lone had emerged a new face of Kashmir’s unionist politics, at behest of its ally, and on the basis of numbers he claimed to sweep from fractured PDP camp.

Growing infighting in late Mufti’s party—that became alternative to National Conference in 1999—projected the suave man known for his spontaneity as the alternative to Abdullahs and Muftis in Kashmir.

But a Cardiff alumnus largely kept cards close to his chest, even as he was the obvious face of the Third Front.

Sajad Lone’s rise on Kashmir’s political landscape took off as per the old script.

In Picture – Sajad Gani Lone and Imran Ansari

Back in the day, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah became nemesis of New Delhi in Kashmir, he was replaced by someone with the Lone feature: Ambitious.

In the long run, however, one after the other Delhi’s man in Kashmir was replaced to keep the defiant region in check and balance.

“Kashmir’s last seven decade politics is fraught with New Delhi’s installed yes men on the regional throne,” says a senior journalist, reporting from Srinagar since Sheikh Abdullah’s second-coming as chief minister. “I see the emergence of this third front as an extension of the same ‘use and throw’ legacy.”

But Sajad Lone believes otherwise.

The argumentative politician cites the political misadventures of the “twin dynastic” parties as the need for alternative in Kashmir. He even sought votes in 2014 assembly elections “against the tyranny and enslavement” rendered by Abdullahs and Muftis.

He gives the same explanation for aligning with the BJP—the party largely reviled in the valley for its “anti-Kashmir agenda”—as Muftis gave to justify their “unholy” alliance: “Weren’t others part of the same camp!”

‘What sticks to them sticks to me’ clarification is now making Sajad an overt “Sangh socialite”. Unlike others, he doesn’t see any ideological difference Congress and BJP in Kashmir context. Even his pictures with BJP’s who’s who now freely make it to social media and hardly leave anything for imaginations.

“But taking a jibe at a man for being a BJP ally is simply unwarranted,” says a Lone fan, known to frequent Srinagar’s Press Enclave as a matter of routine. “There’re no holy cows in Kashmir politics. At least, Sajad Lone is honest about his affiliation and had the courage to evolve as a politician. Others are simply fooling people by calling the BJP as pariah when they themselves were their partners.”

Even Peoples Conference’s rank and file validate their chief’s decision through this reasoning now. Despite seen as a ‘mirror image’ of the rightwing outfit, they justify everything with developmental agenda.

“Our chief wants to work for development of Kashmir without touching its political aspect,” says Sameer Ahmad, a PC member from Handwara. “Unlike other parties, he’s clear about his mandate. He doesn’t want to fool people by talking about Kashmir Resolution and other things. He knows it well that such things are beyond his—and that of J&K chief minister’s mandate.”

Lone himself makes no bones about it.

“When I was separatist,” he said during 2014 assembly polls, “I would just say one thing that calling for boycott is getting more and more stupid. But equally stupid, if not more, is that if you think voting is an end to all problem in Kashmir.”

That’s how the local unionist camp has been seeking votes in Kashmir for years now. But the moment they end up facing the same political backlash on ground, they become votary of Indo-Pak dialogue. PC, however, wants to break that tradition.

But the way Lone is pushing his party as the “third party alternative” in Vale is already making his detractors to cry foul. He’s largely seen as the party disintegrator—a sort of political iconoclast—‘who’s out there to build his castle on the vestiges of his opponents’. “But those joining our [PC’s] growing tribe, especially from other parties, aren’t kids,” Lone tried to set the records straight lately. “They’ve their own will and vision to choose the best for themselves! Why should I be accused for breaking the parties?”

Mehbooba Mufti, however, saw political pressure being mounted on her party members to shift their loyalties. But then, there’re likes of Muzaffar Hussian Baig—PDP’s cofounder and the former deputy chief minister of the state—now expressing willingness for the homecoming, in case his “pampered brat” comes up with the third front.

As a former PC man, Baig was always seen as the late Abdul Gani Lone’s protégé.

These stirring events in an otherwise ‘drab’ unionist camp of Kashmir did make Sajad some type of “showstopper”—at least, for his supporters.

But to understand Sajad Lone’s sudden stride in Kashmir politics, one has to understand both his method and madness. Beyond his sharp writings and articulation, he “pleads guilty of being a politician but aspires to be a leader”.

As a ‘leader’, Lone lately invested in urban pockets—when he placed his former party man Junaid Mattu as Srinagar’s mayor, with his ally BJP’s backing. Besides the NC deserter, PC’s covert support to many independent counsellors in the lately concluded urban bodies election has apparently provided some urban strength to PC now.

“The municipal poll was the big political investment for us,” says a PC worker. “Boycott by NC and PDP further gave leeway to us. Now, watch out for us in the next assembly election!”

The very assertion might sound an overambitious on part of Sajad’s party worker, but given how his chief himself is trying to capitalise on the northern Kashmir already makes him a new Abdul Gani Lone of Kashmir politics—at least for his people.

And this is exactly the growing worry for the traditional twin unionist camp of Kashmir, which as New Delhi’s old assets stand shielded today.

“But the problem with Lone’s rising political graph is its BJP background,” says Mushtaq Ali, a political commentator. “He may not acknowledge it but he is indeed riding the wrong wave—for which history will judge him badly.”

Back in the day, however, when he was still a struggling businessman, Lone was hardly into politics.

It was November 2000, when the 1967-born Lone became a major Indo-Pak social interaction, for his marriage with Asma Khan, daughter of late JKLF fountainhead Amanullah Khan in Islamabad. As per some wedding attendants, the groom and the youngest son of Abdul Ghani Lone couldn’t contain his rage after his wedding became a political event.

It became the first introduction of the man known to wear bile up his sleeve. Even some scribes recount their own trysts with it.

Two years later, in 2002, as his father was assassinated by the unknown gunmen, he along with his elder brother Bilal Lone joined Hurriyat. “But he could never fit in the shoes of a resistance leader,” says a senior Hurriyat leader of Mirwaiz group. “Although he was a popular face, he couldn’t do much in a star-studded camp and soon left to revive his father’s party, the Peoples’ Conference.”

Years later, he would come up with his own roadmap for Kashmir’s political problem.

It was January 2007, when Lone came out with his 268-page “vision document” for Kashmir. Naming it “Achievable Nationhood”, it attempted to achieve an economically single boundary-less Jammu & Kashmir Economic Union with India and Pakistan jointly managing defence and foreign affairs of their respective portions of Kashmir.

Although Lone’s K-model was denounced as a “half compromise and half truth”, the PC chief became the third party man—after NC’s Autonomy and PDP’s Self Rule—to have a Kashmir roadmap.

By then, his style of politics would make Hyderpora his staunchest critic. After being accused of fielding his proxy candidate during 2002 assembly election from Handwara, Hurriyat patriarch Syed Ali Geelani accused Lone of supporting three candidates in Kupwara constituency in 2008 assembly polls.

In response, Lone swore on the holy Quran to rebut Geelani’s assertions in a press conference on November 26, 2008. The event further gave away his growing resentment against Geelani.

Soon the expressive politician known for taking part in TV debates decided to fight elections as “a shift in strategy, not ideology”.

In 2009, Lone fought his first election from Baramulla Lok Sabha seat, on grounds of “taking his vision document to Indian Parliament”. As he finished third, he worked to restore his father’s legacy by building his party base back in Kupwara.

Five years later, when BJP under Amit Shah started working on its long-term K-strategy, including its Mission 44, Sajad Lone fared on a sudden political limelight.

Soon as BJP leader from Himachal JP Nadda arrived at his Sanat Nagar residence, Lone, for the first time, became an obvious ally of BJP in Kashmir. He subsequent meeting with his “big brother” Narendra Modi even left the BJP’s state camp intrigued.

Many of them believed that Lone’s proximity with RSS leaders Indresh Kumar, Ram Madhav and Nadda made his meeting with Modi as the ‘Nagpur arrangement’. But there was more to the development that what simply met the eye.

“Sine BJP’s long-standing agenda is to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution that gives special status to J&K, Lone became its go-getter,” believes a senior journalist. “What further made this Lone-BJP camaraderie credible was the statement of Dr Jitendra Singh, a RSS man and junior minister in PMO, who soon after the 2014 assembly polls said that BJP was already in talks with Kashmiris on Article 370.”

Sajad Lone’s polemic politics further makes him BJP’s best bet in Kashmir.

When NC and PDP tagged him “outsider” during 2014 assembly elections, he would stick to his gun and hail the Army’s apology in Macchil fake encounter case as a sign of coming “change”.

For a change, BJP felt ‘heart-warmed’; and reckoned that they were betting on the right man — who unlike his contemporaries wasn’t getting hoarse on their “brave soldiers”.

He went on wooing voters by telling them that he would get his constituency a central university, medical college, expressway and a large share in central government sponsored funds with ‘Modi’s blessings’.

“What Hurriyat called ‘betrayal’ [Lone’s meeting with Modi] became the foundation for the power politics of Sajad Sahab in Kashmir,” says his party supporter from Srinagar. “Being a ground level crusader, the whole town rallied behind him in 2014.” It was after 1987 elections that faction of Abdul Gani Lone’s PC led by Sajad had contested the elections.

After winning two seats—Handwara and Kupwara, Sajad Lone finally walked in the J&K Assembly as Handwara lawmaker. But he continued to stay as a different ‘defector’ for his detractors.

“When I was a separatist,” he responded to his cynics, “people would cast aspersions saying he has mainstream tendencies. When I joined mainstream they say he has separatist tendency.” Out of this political fault-line trajectory, Sajad Lone rose to become Kashmir’s dark horse — whose stride was lately cut short by the grand alliance and the Raj Bhavan.

 

This story first appeared in December Print Issue of The Indus Post.

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