Kashmir’s fractured mandate

“People’s Democratic Party leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed is likely to provide a ‘healing touch’ to the Kashmiris if he becomes Chief Minister.” Picture shows him at an election rally in south Kashmir. Photo: Nissar Ahmad   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD;NISSAR AHMAD -

The recently concluded State Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been historic for a number of reasons. First, the number of people who voted in these elections — an estimated >65 per cent of the electorate — has been the highest since the onset of insurgency in the State. Second, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finished second, closely behind the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), winning its highest ever tally in the country’s only Muslim majority State. Third, and most importantly, the BJP and the PDP, ideologically poles apart, have not ruled out an alliance to form the government in the trouble-torn State even as other combinations are being worked out by various political formations there.

BJP’s spectacular performance

This has been the BJP’s best-ever performance in the history of elections in Jammu and Kashmir. While much of this was due to the so-called ‘Modi wave,’ the Jammu region favoured the saffron party in the recent elections. The BJP and various Sangh affiliates have been making significant inroads into the Jammu region ever since the Amarnath Land transfer controversy of 2008. However, this historic performance of the BJP needs to be put in perspective: it has managed to win only from the Hindu-majority region of Jammu. While religion was a major factor that ensured the BJP victory in Jammu, the long-standing feeling of neglect in Jammu — that Srinagar-based Kashmiri politicians dominate politics in the State — has also contributed to its electoral performance.

> Read: BJP keeping all options open in J&K

The BJP’s ‘ >Mission 44’ was a powerful rallying point in Jammu, but it worked against the party in Kashmir as it generated fears of a ‘saffron invasion’ in the Valley. Kashmiris were also miffed with the Modi government for its unwillingness to give adequate financial support after the floods. Moreover, although the BJP limited the ‘Kashmir needs a Hindu Chief Minister’ campaign to the Jammu region, the communal nature of the slogan (considering 40 per cent of the BJP candidates were Muslims) did not go unnoticed in Kashmir.

Riding on the Modi wave, the BJP also put together an impressive election campaign in Jammu and Kashmir fielding candidates in 70 out of 87 Assembly constituencies. The BJP’s stated goal of ‘Mission 44’ and Prime Minister Modi’s many visits to the Valley clearly motivated its cadre in the State and made the people of Kashmir sit up and take notice.

>Read: Will the Modi wave work in J&K?

While for the BJP it was a crucial test of the ‘Modi magic,’ it was a fight for political survival for the Kashmiri separatists and Valley-based mainstream parties. As a direct result, the boycott calls issued by the various Kashmiri separatists were intentionally feeble and that partly explains the high voter turnout in Kashmir.

The BJP also realised that it had to tone down its right-wing rhetoric in order to fulfil its mission. So it softened its stand on Article 370 and reached out to former separatists such as Sajjad Lone. Mr. Modi also emphasised that his party will remain true to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s vision for Kashmir.

The return of Mufti Sayeed

Whatever the composition of the next government, it is amply clear that the PDP’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed will be the State’s next Chief Minister. He is likely to hold that position for six years, unlike in 2005 when he had to hand over the Chief Ministership to the Congress halfway through. The PDP’s success is a result of its ability to creatively engage the pro-azadi sentiments in Kashmir.

Mr. Sayeed is likely to revive the popular policies he had adopted during his first term as Chief Minister, including attempting to provide a ‘healing touch’ to the Kashmiris and positively influencing the India-Pakistan peace process by insisting on implementing crucial intra-Kashmir Confidence-Building Measures. Indeed, at a time when Indo-Pak relations have touched a new low, a seasoned statesman like Mr. Sayeed will be best-placed to play a key role in reducing the differences between the two sides.

The potential alliance between the BJP and the PDP would indeed be the coming together of two ideological opposites and that could be a problem for both the parties. While the PDP swears by Article 370 in its undiluted form and has demanded self-rule for Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP is ideologically opposed to the special status and has demanded further integrating the State with the rest of India. The key question to ask then is whether a PDP-BJP alliance would have a tempering effect on the BJP’s traditional hyper-nationalist rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir. Neither of the two polar opposites can afford to be seen giving up on their traditional political positions and will be forced to agree upon a common minimum programme. This is likely to compel the BJP to focus on governance and development issues. And because the Kashmiris have decisively voted against the BJP, it will be difficult for the PDP to convince Kashmiris of the necessity for an alliance with the BJP.

The historic performance of the BJP needs to be put in perspective: it has managed to win only from the Hindu-majority region of Jammu

In such a scenario, the PDP will try and put together a coalition with the Congress — which has already expressed its support — and independents. While it would be arithmetically difficult to form such a coalition, it would be easier for the PDP to manage such a coalition.

If a PDP-BJP coalition comes into fruition in Kashmir, it will fundamentally alter the political discourse in the State. The biggest impact would be on the Kashmiri separatists. Various mainstream parties such as the PDP have steadily appropriated the political space of the Kashmiri separatists over the past decade or so, by consistently raising contentious issues and slogans such as self-rule, protection of human rights, demilitarisation, and economic integration between the two parts of Kashmir. If the BJP becomes part of a PDP government, these will be pushed to the wall even further. On the other hand, the alliance with the BJP could also help the separatists reclaim their political space arguing that the PDP has tainted itself by joining hands with a Hindu chauvinist party. However, if the BJP refuses to toe the PDP line beyond a point, the PDP will either have to give up on some of its founding principles or look for alternative partners.

A PDP-led government supported by the Congress and other smaller allies will provide Mr. Sayeed with a free hand to govern the State, which he is unlikely to get if his party allies with the BJP. In such a scenario, the PDP will be able to pursue some of the popular policies that have been part of its agenda since its inception in 1999. This will certainly have a calming effect on the persistent feeling of alienation in Kashmir.

Finally, it would be wrong to assume that the high turnout in the election means that the Kashmir conflict is a thing of the past. An argument propagating that view was made after the 2008 elections as well, but was falsified soon thereafter when massive anti-India protests broke out in Kashmir in 2008 and 2010. This means that while free and fair elections in Jammu and Kashmir will strengthen Kashmiris’ faith in Indian democracy, there is only so much that elections can and will do in restoring the people’s faith in the idea of India. For many Kashmiris there is no fundamental contradiction between voting in local or Assembly election and shouting anti-India slogans. The former ensures better governance and the latter related to the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Hence the electoral turnout should not be taken to mean the disappearance of separatism or resistance from the Kashmir valley.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail:

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 2:11:49 AM |

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