Assembly Elections: Jammu and Kashmir

Result of polarisation

Print edition : January 23, 2015

Mehooba Mufti, People's Democratic Party president, meeting Governor N.N. Vohra at Raj Bhavan in Jammu on December 31, 2014. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Omar Abdullah, outgoing Chief Minister, leaving the polling booth after casting his vote at Mehjoor Nagar, Srinagar, on December 14. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

NEW DELHI: ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS 2014 JAMMU & KASHMIR. PTI GRAPHICS(PTI12_23_2014_000266B)

A fractured verdict, that too along communal lines, makes government formation a formidable task in Jammu and Kashmir.

A 65 per cent voter turnout in the 2014 Assembly elections, a record for the past 28 years, had rekindled hopes of a definitive mandate and a stable government in Jammu and Kashmir. But the results, which were announced on December 23, did not turn out to be so. It belied the expectations of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), of getting at least a simple majority in the 87-member House, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which contested the election on its much-hyped Mission 44+ slogan. The mandate is fractured to such an extent that even a week after the results were announced, political parties had not reached any consensus on forming the government.

The PDP emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats and the BJP closely followed it with 25 seats. The National Conference (N.C.), which led the outgoing government, won 15 seats, and the Congress, its alliance partner, 12. The verdict has thrown up a challenge for ideologically opposite parties to hammer out a solution on government formation and has also brought to the fore the bitter reality that the State is divided along communal lines.

Of the 46 seats in the Kashmir Valley, the PDP won 25, the N.C. 12, the Congress four, and Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference two. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) got one seat and independents two. The Ladakh region voted decisively for the Congress, which won three out of the four seats.

The mandate in the Jammu region was resoundingly in favour of the BJP. Of the 37 seats in Jammu, the BJP won 25, all from Hindu-dominated areas. The N.C. bagged two seats here. Interestingly, of the six seats in the Chenab valley in Jammu, where Muslims have an edge over Hindus, the BJP won four.

Notwithstanding the fact that it drew a blank in Kashmir, the BJP did remarkably well in Jammu by opening its account in nine out of the 10 districts in the division except for the Muslim-majority Poonch. But it improved its tally here, from 11 seats in 2008 to 25 this time. The BJP had its presence here in only one seat in 2002.

Its campaign in both Kashmir and Jammu was more vigorous than that of any other party. It occupied most of the media space either through advertisements or through the coverage of its electioneering. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed nine election rallies in the State. For the first time, readers in the Kashmir Valley would wake up to front page advertisements in all the leading dailies along with comprehensive coverage of the BJP and its leaders.

To woo voters in the Valley the party was even silent on its core agenda of abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution, which guarantees special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and other contentious issues. In his December 8 speech in Srinagar, Modi himself did not talk about Pakistan, separatists, and other issues which are otherwise dear to the BJP.

But of 34 candidates the party fielded in Kashmir, 33 lost their deposits. The party did increase its vote share in the Valley, though. For instance, against 257 votes it got in Devsar constituency in 2008, the party’s candidate polled 3,892 votes this time. Likewise, in militancy-affected Tral, its candidate got 2,945 votes as against 338 in 2008.

What keeps the BJP from government formation is the fact that Kashmir is still out of bounds for it. Its core Hindutva agenda, which surfaced in the form of reconversions in recent weeks, is something that makes people in the region uncomfortable.

The N.C. and the Congress, which ruled the State for six years, find themselves relevant in the post-election situation that has thrown up a fractured mandate. The silver lining for the N.C. is that despite losing all the three Lok Sabha seats in the April elections, it made a comeback and registered its presence in the Hindu heartland of Jammu. The N.C. almost doubled its vote share of 10 per cent it got in the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress failed to win a single seat in the Hindu-dominated areas despite the fact that the Deputy Chief Minister and some other powerful Ministers were its MLAs from these areas. Its vote share, too, declined drastically. Though the PDP could not register as impressive a performance as in the Lok Sabha elections, it increased its vote share from 15.68 per cent in 2008 to 22.7 per cent. Its vote share was 9.04 per cent in 2002. The biggest and rather unexpected debacle was in its stronghold of south Kashmir where it lost four crucial seats. But it did well in Srinagar city by wresting five out of eight seats from the N.C. In north Kashmir also it improved its tally.

Government formation

The PDP, however, is struggling to strike the right balance vis-a-vis government formation. Its patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is keeping his options close to his chest. The BJP is ready to do business with the PDP, and the N.C. and the Congress too have offered it their support. But the voices in support of a non-BJP government are growing louder.

Much is at stake for the party in taking the final decision regarding the support of the N.C. and the Congress jointly or separately. Joining hands with either of them, whom the people had voted out, would mean disrespecting their mandate. The anti-incumbency sentiment was high during the elections. Moreover, the N.C. and the PDP getting together seems impossible given the inherent “ideological hate” the Abdullah and Mufti families harbour against each other.

The Congress owes its victory mainly to the personality of the candidates in particular constituencies. The party’s humiliating defeat in the Chenab valley, a Congress bastion and home turf of party stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad, speaks volumes about how people saw the party and its record of corruption.

Senior Congress leader Azad mooted a grand alliance of the PDP, the N.C. and the Congress, but what apparently comes in its way is that the majority of the people in the Jammu region have given their mandate to the BJP. The mandate is clearer than what is in the Kashmir Valley. The 10,000 to 45,000 votes by which BJP candidates won in most constituencies in Jammu clearly indicate how people threw their weight behind the right-wing party. In comparison, the margins in Kashmir were thin in the majority of the segments. So in the process of government formation, it is this mandate that is upsetting any permutation and combination based on “secular ideologies”.

Though there is an element of anti-Kashmir sentiment in the voting pattern in Jammu, to form the government without the participation of elected representatives from a region may not augur well for the State. An idea floating around of late has been that of a “grand alliance” of the PDP, the BJP and the Congress to ensure that all the three regions of the State—Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh—are represented. However, that again seems impossible. To cobble together such an alliance needs a “grand national interest” to emerge from within the political corridors of Delhi.

Though the PDP and the BJP are holding “serious” back-channel negotiations and have even exchanged papers on crucial issues, the PDP has to take the final call. It will be crucial for the party in its 15-year-old existence.

For the BJP it may still be easier to keep the contentious issue off the table. It had already toned down the rhetoric on issues such as Article 370, but for the PDP it is to do something against a political ideology. Having improved its tally from 11 seats in 2008 to 25 in 2014, the BJP is more concerned about being part of the power structure. Only by coming to power can it consolidate its base and further it in future.

For the PDP it is important to come to power and at the same time to ensure that its political ideology is not diluted. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has widened the spectrum of consultations with his MLAs and party leaders but is weighing the options of the fallout of such an alliance. He may become Chief Minister for six years, but the troubling question is about the future of his party.

One argument put forward for a tie-up with the BJP is that it will ensure development and free flow of funds. That, however, may not be tenable as there are many non-BJP ruled States in India that do not necessarily suffer on account of a lack of flow of funds. Also, during Congress rule there have been BJP governments in various States.

The larger issue the PDP will have to tackle is the political situation in the State. The Mufti has pushed forward the “Agenda for Alliance” centring on the engagement with Pakistan, separatists, cross-Line of Control (LoC) confidence-building measures, a secure environment and respite in the lives of the people. This may be anathema to the BJP, which has adopted a hard posture vis-a-vis Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi had unilaterally called off Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan in July.

But to the Mufti’s understanding, the route to reconciliation with Pakistan is through Kashmir and he would like to bargain hard on political issues rather than on development so that he and his party will be seen as “saviours” in the mainstream camp.

If at all this alliance comes into existence, it may throw up an opportunity for Modi to toe Vajpayee’s line which he has often invoked in the past few months. But for the Mufti, a shrewd politician, it may be difficult to join hands with a party that drew a blank in Kashmir.

There are voices that see the mandate for the PDP and the BJP as an opportunity to unify the State. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti made a veiled reference to this when she said that the mandate was “decisive though fractured”. She was referring to the PDP winning in Kashmir and the BJP in Jammu.

The political scientist Rekha Chowdhary discounts the fears that an alliance between the PDP and the BJP will prove suicidal for the former. “Everything is possible in politics. How the alliance fares will depend on the negotiability and flexibility that the two parties will exhibit,” she said in an interview.

But Gull Wani, who heads the Institute of Kashmir Studies at Kashmir University, has a different take. “The PDP-BJP alliance is not a workable option. The PDP lost certain seats even in their bastion of south Kashmir to the National Conference and the Congress. Jammu Muslims have not voted for the BJP. Ladakh has not voted for the BJP, the N.C. or the PDP. In postmodern times, every community and section of society is equal,” said Prof. Wani.

In case the parties fail to forge any alliance before January 18, when the term of current Assembly ends, there is every likelihood that the State will be placed under Governor’s Rule.

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