Mixed signals

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

SOMEWHERE along the way, politicians in Jammu and Kashmir forgot that elections are about the lives of people.

The 2004 Lok Sabha elections were cast as a referendum, one depending on who was making the speech; on opening the road to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir; on the Islamic character of Jammu and Kashmir; and on the fate of the State's Hindu minority. It turns out now that the voters are concerned more about the buses that take their children to school than the one that could take them to Muzaffarabad; about jobs, electricity tariffs and water. The Lok Sabha results show that while the voters in Jammu and Kashmir have special concerns, they too have issues of daily life to deal with.

All major parties in Jammu and Kashmir fought the Lok Sabha elections on a variety of grand themes. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), which rules the State in alliance with the Congress, put up billboards across the State indicating the distance to Muzaffarabad. The result? One seat, and that in south Kashmir, where coercion by terrorists backing the PDP intimidated voters who might have backed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the National Conference. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for its part, cast the election as a decisive test on greater autonomy for Jammu and the protection of its citizens against the Muslim-dominated valley. Without terrorists on its side, the BJP won no seats at all.

At first sight, it would appear that the National Conference is the major beneficiary of the elections. Some within the party see its twin victories as a political rebirth, a vindication of a new campaign strategy, which focussed on atrocities by Indian security forces and threats to revive a movement for a plebiscite on the State's future. Yet, a careful study of the data debunks such conclusions. First, a united PDP-Congress candidate would have defeated the party in Baramulla. Then, if the National Conference's Lok Sabha performance were to be translated into Assembly seats, it would have won 21 seats in the Kashmir valley, up only marginally from 18 in the 2002 elections. As such, the revival of the party is at best limited.

More worrying for the National Conference, the Lok Sabha results show that the PDP would also have improved its score from 21 to 25 had it been an Assembly election. In the three valley seats, the National Conference won 38.3 per cent of the votes, against 30.4 per cent in 2002. The PDP's improvement is more dramatic, from 20.2 per cent in 2002 to 39.1 per cent. The rise is, of course, misleading, since the party fought for two of the three seats in alliance with the Congress. At once, however, the combined vote share of the PDP and the Congress in the valley has grown to 48.4 per cent, against 33 per cent in 2002. It is worth noting that the PDP's spheres of influence remain confined to south Kashmir and parts of the north and the Congress to the north alone, so the increase in vote share need not necessarily translate into more seats.

As in Kashmir, the messages from Jammu are mixed. The BJP's failure to win either the Jammu or the Poonch Lok Sabha seat in fact masks a revival of the Hindu Right in the region. In 2002, a fractious BJP succeeded in winning just a single Assembly segment. This time around, BJP strategists built their hopes around the anger over the Permanent Residents Bill, through which the PDP controversially seeks to deny women who marry outside the State some inheritance rights. The BJP's efforts to represent itself as a defender of Hindu interests against the politicians of the Valley won the party a majority in 15 of the 37 Assembly segments in Jammu-Poonch and Doda-Udhampur. It is worth noting, however, that the BJP got nothing like a trans-Jammu endorsement of its communal platform from Hindus at large.

Nonetheless, the Congress succeeded in beating off the challenge in both constituencies. One reason was the disappearance of the National Conference from the region, which claimed seven seats here in 2002. In a sense, the National Conference's efforts to recast itself as an ethnic Kashmiri party cost it the support of its Muslim constituency. In the Jammu seat, for example, the National Conference backed a Rajput candidate, infuriating its traditional Gujjar and Bakkarwal supporters who defected en bloc to the Congress. Gujjar and Bakkarwal leaders have been protesting against the State government's efforts to grant Scheduled Tribe status to upper castes in the hills, a group that has considerable ethnic-Kashmiri affiliations.

Politicians could draw several conclusions in the weeks and months to come. For one, the Congress could conclude that its victory in five seats in the Kashmir Valley in 2002 was no fluke. If so, a PDP-Congress showdown over influence in the region could be in the offing. Second, the National Conference will realise that it needs an alliance partner, particularly in Jammu. Party president and Srinagar MP Omar Abdullah has announced that the National Conference MPs will sit in the Opposition, a possible sign that the party's uncomfortable relationship with the BJP could be revived, albeit sotto voce.

Most important of all, politicians from all parties may realise that there is little dividend in narrow, chauvinist platforms - a lesson which, if learned, could be the best news out of Jammu and Kashmir in years.

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