This January 26, the government of India announced that it was awarding the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honours, to People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Muzaffar Baig . A month before that, a group of eight PDP leaders, led by Altaf Bukhari, spoke of the need for a “new political formation” in Jammu and Kashmir. The eight leaders were expelled from the PDP as they also met a group of visiting diplomats last month.
While the two events seem to indicate that there may be some effort to shore up whatever middle ground there remains in Jammu and Kashmir on the political front, it comes up against several obstacles from the get go.
The first big question to tackle is the one of political legitimacy. The continued incarceration of three former Chief Ministers - Mehbooba Mufti, Farooq and Omar Abdullah - apart from several other political leaders and activists hardly provides ground for any meaningful political engagement at this point. Those wishing to engage in political activity will have to first deal with the existing political parties and their cadre and support base, who will be loath to come out in support for a new formation while political leaders are still in jail. Any political activity without the release of these leaders, at the same time endorsed by New Delhi, will have to take into account that it will be viewed with a move from the Centre and not a spontaneous upsurge.
Quite apart from the rather diffused process through which political legitimacy is constructed, the purely administrative task of delimitation of Assembly constituencies, required as Jammu and Kashmir is now a Union Territory bereft of Ladakh and has a new Assembly provided under the States Reorganisation Act, has seen no forward movement till date. The delimitation exercise, even if it is undertaken within the next month by the Election Commission (no indication that it would be so, however) will take at least a year to be concluded satisfactorily and for polls then to take place.
Within this conundrum of administrative asks and questions of political legitimacy, the BJP is itself facing some anger from its Jammu unit. The party has a large support base in Jammu and feels that it has not been able to leverage the political dividends of reading down Article 370, a key ideological goal of the BJP because of no forward movement on just when the Assembly polls will be held. Jammu’s old plaint, that its own political character was dominated by events in the Kashmir Valley, still stands.
So for those watching Mr. Bukhari’s moves or the Padma for Mr. Baig as political tea leaves for what lies ahead, these are stand alone events, with the long game of political engagement at least 18 months away.