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BJP-backed councillor becomes mayor in NC-PDP bastion of Srinagar

BJP-backed councillor becomes mayor in NC-PDP bastion of Srinagar

BJP-supported independent councillor Junaid Azim Mattu has become the first mayor in the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) after Jammu and Kashmir was created as a Union Territory in August 2019.

After his education in Michigan, Mattu had a brief tryst with the secessionist ecosystem. His exit had come amid sharp protests from his friends about a decade back. Omar Abdullah picked him as the NC’s spokesperson.

Mattu dissented NC’s decision to boycott the Urban Local Body (ULB) elections after the downfall of Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP-BJP government in 2018. He joined Sajad Lone’s unrecognised Peoples Conference (PC) and was returned as that party’s nominee from two wards in the summer capital traditionally monopolised by the NC and the PDP.

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With the support of the BJP and the PC, as also a number of independent councillors controlled by the two parties, Mattu was elected as mayor in the 74-ward SMC on November 6, 2018, when J&amp;K existed as a State with special status.

The NC and the PDP had boycotted the much-delayed elections in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and the ULBs in 2018 in protest of the Centre’s perceived plan to withdraw J&amp;K’s Statehood and the special status which was ultimately executed in August 2019. Leaders of several political parties, including the NC, the PDP and the PC—as also the former Ministers and legislators who subsequently joined Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party—were arrested in apprehension of a political turmoil and detained for six to fourteen months. Leaders of the BJP and the Congress, however, were not detained in this crackdown.

Mattu continued as the PC’s spokesperson but he was not arrested. On June 16, 2020, he was removed through a no-confidence motion which was supported not only by the BJP but also its rivals, the NC and the Congress. Affiliated to the NC, an independent councillor Parvaiz Qadri was elected as deputy mayor.

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Weeks after the political detainees were released, Mattu regained proximity to the BJP. In September, 2020, he announced his resignation from the PC as Sajad Lone’s party had become a key constituent of the pro-370 Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD).

After deferring elections several times for one or the other reason and affecting changes to the law and its pertinent rules, the Department of Housing and Urban Development on November 19 notified the polling to fill up the post of the mayor in SMC. Three candidates filed the nomination papers. The Congress nominee, Aijaz Rasool, withdrew at the eleventh hour as the party issued a whip, binding its members to vote for Imran in his direct contest with the BJP-backed Mattu.

In the last two years, a number of independent councillors have switched affiliation to different political parties. At the beginning of the polling on November 25, the Congress had 17 members, the BJP 9 and the Lok Janshakti Party one in the 74-member House which has four wards vacant. Besides, 11 independent councillors were controlled by the NC and 7 by the PDP. In addition to them, there were 25 independent councillors with no party affiliation.

As soon as an officer declared the polling open, deputy mayor Parvaiz Qadri raised objections to the procedure. He contended that he alone was by law competent to notify the election and preside over the polling. Nevertheless, he said, he would not do this job for the notification had been issued ‘wrongfully’ by the Secretary SMC.

The officiating mayor claimed that the process was ‘illegal’ also for the fact that the notification had been issued in the midst of the elections for the District Development Councils (DDCs) and over 13,000 vacancies of Panches and Sarpanches in the Panchayati Raj Institutions besides the four vacant wards in the SMC.

Qadri claimed that conducting elections for the post of mayor in such circumstances was ‘violation of the model code of the conduct’, revealing that he had written his note of protest to the election authorities and the divisional commissioner.

Thereupon, a councillor, Ghulam Nabi, presided over the polling. Forty-four members (including 10 of the Congress, in defiance of the party whip, and 9 of the BJP) voted for Mattu. Seven of the Congress went by the whip and voted for Imran.  Remaining 19, including all from the NC and the PDP, abstained. Under the rules, attendance of 53 members was a must to fulfil the quorum.

While alleging that the protesting councillors were “dragged out” by the Police, Qadri said that he would be challenging the mayor’s election through a writ petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. He conceded that in a dissent of two-third, the Congress dissidents had a right to defy the whip and vote for the BJP-backed candidate but pointed out that the Congress councillor Shaheena Bhat had disowned the purported note of dissent on the floor.

The SMC officers said that a writ petition seeking to stall the elections had been already dismissed by the J&amp;K High Court on Monday, November 23. They maintained that there was “nothing amiss” in the procedure adopted by the authorities.

On November 27, Mattu joined Apni Party which the PAGD has been sarcastically calling as “the king’s party”.

Election of a BJP-backed councillor as mayor in the UT’s most important ULB—the stronghold of the NC and the PDP—will be seen as a setback for the PAGD as well as the Congress ahead of the UT’s first Assembly elections, which are expected anytime next year. That’s the beauty of democracy..