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Politics in Jammu & Kashmir: Assessing new opportunities for change


The outcome of the recent assembly elections in Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir has set in motion the predictable yet ground-breaking pattern being witnessed in Indian politics at both the national and regional levels for the past several months. While the power politics that shapes political alliances and equations among political party elites is a usual visible factor, the changes visible through the various assembly elections go much beyond these factors and are unleashing permanent system-wide changes. One of the most prominent of such changes is the near inevitable demise of regional parties and the politics of fragmentation, based on identity and social divisions, which they fostered.

This is clearly demonstrated by the BJP stellar electoral performance in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and J&K, its elaborate strategy to trap the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the near pitiable state of attempted patchwork alliances to which regional parties in UP and Bihar have been reduced. In this regard, the BJP’s strong performance in J&K by mobilizing majority of the votes in Jammu too has left the traditional parties in the region shaken. While the Congress and National Conference (NC) were reduced to 12 and 15 seats respectively, the BJP secured 25 seats to the PDP’s 28, making the Hindu nationalist party a significant player in post-poll negotiations.

The electoral verdict in J&K presents a clear window of opportunity to the BJP to consolidate its power further in the sensitive region in the years to come. While regional parties like PDP and NC and separatist formations like the Hurriyat Conference and the JKLF have ruled the politics in the Muslim-majority state and have largely excluded Jammu and Ladakh from political bargains, their power has not always reigned supreme among the people of this state. As an erstwhile princely state under the leadership of a Hindu ruler, which had acceded its substantial autonomy to the then reluctant Nehruvian government at the Centre, J&K had not always been an open field for separatist presence. It was the administrative mismanagement and disinterest displayed by the central government over the years and its relationship with the dynastic Abdullah family-led NC in the state, which contributed to the ever-worsening alienation of Kashmir over the years and precipitated in the prolonged insurgency in the late 1980s. Combined with disruptive infractions from Pakistan, the politics in the state has become fertile ground for separatists since then and has been motivated primarily by sentiments of identity and demands for Independence, which were particularly strong during the 1990s and the early 2000s. While the Vajpayee government attempted to regain credibility for the Indian position, the Congress party has seldom gone beyond alliance-formation to gain seats in the state. It was under such conditions of turbulence and in order to leverage electoral advantage out of popular unrest that the PDP was born in the late 90s and finally managed to gain foothold in the state in the 2002 state elections, with the help of Congress. As is clear from the expedient nature of coalition alliances, the Congress-PDP bonhomie lasted only till 2009, after which the PDP was replaced by NC as the Congress’ partner.

Given the conditions of PDP’s separatist ideological outlook on core issues like Article 370 and the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), it is not surprising that the PDP is reluctant to ally itself with the BJP to form the government in the state. A combination of considerations of both power and ideology have created uncertainty in the state, despite the fact that the BJP’s impressive performance does not at all represent the Kashmiri mandate. While the BJP has been exploring alternatives to form the government in the state, the final decision on the nature of the alliance will clearly rest with the PDP, and has been complicated by two contradictory factors. On the one hand, the PDP would ideally like to pursue an alternative which would guarantee it its ideological independence on core issues, where its separatist positions completely diverge from those of the BJP. It has even been offered support by both the Congress and the NC to form a ruling coalition and exclude the BJP. However, on the other hand, for the PDP this would be an undesirable outcome, since it wants to secure the Chief Ministerial post and benefit from cordial centre-state relations and also realizes that it will risk its own credibility by excluding a party that won the second-highest mandate of 25 seats and the highest vote share in the state. Even though a PDP-BJP alliance is the most likely outcome, the deadlock does not seem close to resolution, especially in the aftermath of the PDP’s unfavorable actions like its consultation with the separatist Hurriyat leaders. With the separatists opposed to a PDP-BJP alliance due to the fear of the spread of the Hindu nationalist organizations in the state, the likelihood of Governor’s Rule in the state has finally become a reality, after Omar Abdullah refused to continue managing the caretaker government.

Going by the bloody history of the Governor’s Rule in the state, its continuation may have unforeseen ramifications for both the unionist or the separatist forces. In the past, the Governor’s Rule has been imposed several times in the state – in 1977, 1986, 1990, 2002 and 2008. Interestingly, not a single time was the Governor’s Rule imposed for the convincing constitutional reasons of internal disturbance or insurgency. Right from 1977 to the present electoral escapade, the Governor’s Rule was imposed mainly because of mismanagement of coalition governments in the state, and every time the Congress party has been adversely implicated. But this was precisely what the state could not afford to suffer. Being one of the most sensitive regions of the Indian Union, the imposition of Governor’s Rule, unlike in other states, has had implications reaching far beyond party politics. It provided a fertile ground to foster separatist activity. This was especially the case from 1986 to 1996, where the two spells of Governor’s Rule due to the tensions between Congress and the Abdullahs, coincided with the worst ever insurgent influx that the state had seen. Separatist activity from external quarters also led to worsening internal issues within the state as the conflict between the Indian army and the people intensified.

Many analysts are predicting that this may hold lessons for us today also, for two reasons:

First, just like during the late 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan is back to its policy of attempting to internationalize the Kashmir issue.

Second, in a state like J&K, any vacuum in the absence of a stable government can always provide space to fuel separatist activity.

However, while based on historical evidence, these arguments do not hold good in the present scenario. This is because:
First, Pakistan may try to internationalize the Kashmir issue, but its appeal will likely fall on deaf ears. The international political scene has changed vastly from what it was during the 1990s. Not only are the US and other major countries now more allied to India than to Pakistan, but even the multilateral machinery of the UN that held sway over the Kashmir issue during the early years of the conflict is no longer there; it is especially redundant in issues of international security. Moreover, the international social scene is also changing drastically. There are mounting protests all over Europe against radical Islam, China’s increasing mistrust of the same and the USA’s inability to shield Pakistan any longer as seen from the decision to cut back economic aid and the rise of conservative far-right parties everywhere in the world. These movements reflect a changing mindset that is no longer sympathetic to religious terrorism and separatism in the name of glamorous phrases like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘self-determination’ that were in vogue, and were widely misused, during the dark decade of the 1990s, in both journalism and academia.

Under such changed conditions – both political and social – the internationalization of the Kashmir issue can no longer produce the same detrimental effect on India, as it may have done during the 1990s.

Second, can Governor’s Rule, under the present conditions, really become fertile ground for terrorists? This is highly unlikely. We are, after all, no longer living in the 1990s. Admittedly, there were good reasons for the fostering of insurgency during that time and a political vacuum in the state contributed to it. The 1990s was a decade of unstable coalition governments at both the centre and the states, with the central governments being characterized by managerial ineptitude and inaction. That is not the case today. Not only is the central government today highly stable and master of its own decisions, but a Governor’s Rule may also provide more space for the centre to institutionalize its policies in the state. Given the unfavorable ideology of the PDP and its obvious slavery to the Hurriyat separatists, it is unlikely that a BJP-PDP government would have achieved much in the state, except entrench their vote-banks further, since ideological conflict would have prevented action. At least, in the present case, the Governor’s Rule clearly offers more stability and opportunities for the Indian government than an alliance with the PDP would have.

When the government will eventually be formed in the state after the end of Governor’s Rule, it is imperative that the BJP be a part of it. Even if it’s an alliance with the PDP, there may yet be something to be gained – not on the policy action front, but on the social and cultural front. What Kashmir needs in order to ground political stability and rid itself of the separatist ideologues is a socio-cultural change. This is precisely what the Hurriyat separatists are afraid would happen if the BJP were to come to power, even in an alliance. The RSS cadre are well-known for their grassroots mobilizational and organizational skills, being the force behind BJP’s victory, and often yielding transformative change. Even in the run-up to the recent elections in J&K, the party was able to gain support of a number of independent candidates and even former separatists like Sajjid Lone. With Modi at the centre and BJP in majority, and seeing the trend of political appointments, the RSS will be given more freedom under this government than ever before. For now, it is necessary, especially in J&K, that this should happen.

Finally, contrary to the general perception of the strength of pro-separatist parties like PDP in J&K, it must be noted that PDP is little more than a transitional political formation belonging to the moment and limited ideologically by the conditions of its emergence, while the politics of separatism is something that was not original to Kashmir’s political history and can be changed with ideological and administrative leadership, as well as the greater involvement of the Jammu region in the politics of the state. The BJP-RSS combine is, thus, urgently needed in the state to bring about this change.

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