The understanding reached between the Congress and the People's Democratic Party means that a Congress Chief Minister should take over from the incumbent in November. But will that really take place through a painless process?
FOR the first 32 years of his life, the road to Mohammad Yusuf Khanday's small village near the south Kashmir town of Tral was a scarred strip of earth, swamp in the rain and dust-bowl in the heat, the last remnants of the tarmac that once overlaid it having disappeared into history.
During the past two and a half years after Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party-Congress government took office, the road has been surfaced thrice.
Sometime before November, the Congress' central leadership will decide on whether to cash in on its 2002 power-sharing agreement with the PDP, which gave both parties a three-year stake in the office of Chief Minister - half the life of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, which unlike other States in India has a six-year term. Until recently, most commentators believed Sayeed, whose government had successfully advertised its developmental record and adroitly capitalised on the decline in the levels of terrorism in the State, would remain in office. As the Assembly's half-life nears, however, such certainty is giving way to renewed speculation.
For many analysts in New Delhi, Sayeed's continuation in office would mark a valuable concession to what they represent as sub-nationalist sentiment in Kashmir, as well as an opportunity to consolidate the dialogue process. The argument that Sayeed is a representative of an ineffable `Kashmiri sentiment' is of course untestable, but does not have a sound empirical foundation. Despite its electoral defeat in 2002, the National Conference remained the most popular political party in both the Kashmir Valley and in the State as a whole, polling 28.18 per cent of the vote for the 87-seat Assembly. By contrast, the PDP took 14.64 per cent of the vote in the seats it contested, and just 9.28 per cent State wide. For its part, the Congress won 24.24 per cent of the votes in the seats where it contested and 24.24 per cent State wide.
Stories such as that of Khanday, like the evident improvement in power supply or tourism, are more powerful arguments for continuity. It is not hard, though, to choose other stories that illustrate very different realities. Corruption, as the PDP's critics have pointed out, continues to be rampant. Nor, the decline in violence levels notwithstanding, does the Sayeed government's counter-terrorism record inspire confidence. On September 14, terrorists shot dead 48-year-old Ashu Begum, injuring her children Naseera Akhtar, Salim Ahmad and Anjan Ahmad in the process, after the family resisted an attempt to kidnap their father, Mohammad Rafiq Kashmiri, from their home in the remote village of Kotranka. Such killings, like the earlier massacre of six civilians by Hizbul Mujahideen members at Dharmari in the district of Reasi, are not new: what is remarkable, though, is the State government's failure even to condemn them in strong terms.
But prospects of power, not issues of principle, will define the Congress' handling of Sayeed's future. Hindu voters in Jammu and its adjoining districts lie at the heart of the Congress' concerns. Having decimated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2002, the State Congress unit believes that giving Sayeed another three years in office - and thus repudiating promises to Jammu voters to bring in a Chief Minister from the region - would lead to its decimation in the region. Apart from the State-level Congress' understandable concern about being sacrificed for national interests, the all-India party is also acutely conscious that the region's two Lok Sabha seats, as well as a third from Ladakh, are of no small consequence in times when they could be decisive to power in New Delhi.
One unhappy consequence of the fraught political atmosphere has been the growing communalisation of political discourse. In August, the trust that governs Jammu's famous Raghunath temple cancelled an annual procession, part of a 150-year-old tradition, after the authorities denied it permission to pass through the Rajinder Bazaar area. The procession was re-routed some years ago after it provoked communal clashes, but this year the authorities first agreed to its passage through Rajinder Bazaar before waking up to the risks. Temple clerics, for long allied to right-wing Hindu causes, promptly accused the Congress of failing to defend their faith - and the local Congress, with equal speed, threw its weight behind the clerics' cause.
In the Kashmir region the PDP's opponents have been using similar tactics. In August, the State government felt compelled to proscribe the use of Waqf Board-managed mosques for political speeches. Most of the vocal criticism of the decision came from secessionist leaders such as the Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, for whom mosques have been focal points of mobilisation. This is true of their critics as well: the People's Conference leader Sajjad Gani Lone, who was pushed out of Farooq's APHC, uses the services of a rival cleric, Qazi Yasir. Like Farooq, Yasir is a Mirwaiz - a cleric who inherited leadership of a religious order.
The August mosque-speech ban, though, was driven in no small part by the growing use of religious places by National Conference (N.C.) leaders to campaign against the government. Apart from seeking to grab the religious high ground, the N.C. has also sought to ally itself ideologically with the Hizbul Mujahideen, and has energetically defended the campaign of the Islamist leader Asiya Andrabi, describing her campaign against restaurants and liquor stores as a laudable move to bring about "social purification". Mosques had traditionally served as a central platform for N.C. mobilisation, but the party had been driven from its religious strongholds during the ongoing jehad which began in 1988.
How will the Congress respond to this political ferment? Much depends on the intentions of Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad - and he is not talking. In July, Azad led the first public meeting of the Congress in three decades to mark Martyr's Day, a commemoration of the 1931 uprising that is widely read as the beginning of the freedom movement in Jammu and Kashmir. His decision not to share a platform with Sayeed that day could mean nothing, but also signal intent. Within the Congress, many would like to see Sayeed head off to New Delhi at the end of his three-year tenure, and see Azad running the government with the current Chief Minister's daughter, Mehbooba Sayeed, taking over as Deputy Chief Minister. Whether Sayeed himself would find such an arrangement acceptable, however, is unclear. Mid-level Congress functionaries have been exploring the possibility of splitting the PDP should the need for such action arise.
One thing is clear amidst the clouds of political uncertainty: the last thing Jammu and Kashmir needs is one more crisis. Whether its politicians will succeed in making change - or continuity - as painless as possible remains to be seen.