Assembly Elections: Jammu and Kashmir

Voting with hope

Print edition : December 26, 2014

An elderly person comes out of a polling station after casting his vote in the second phase of the Assembly election, at Devsar Kulgam district in south Kashmir, on December 2. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah at an election rally In Beerwah Budgam in central Kashmir on November 20. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Former separatist leader and chairman of the People's Conference, Sajjad Lone, in Handwara on November 30. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Despite the separatists’ call for a boycott, the people of Kashmir turn out in large numbers to vote. Have issues of governance taken priority over political aspirations?

THE ongoing election in Jammu and Kashmir is significant for several reasons. For the first time a former separatist has jumped onto the electoral bandwagon; the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making its presence felt in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley; and people have defied the militants’ call to boycott the election, which has resulted in a huge turnout in the first two phases. There is a perceptible urge among people for “change”. But it remains to be seen whether this will lead to the formation of a stable government in the State. At any rate, the election has the potential to restore the confidence of the people in a system that has failed them for over six decades.

This time, one must credit the BJP for infusing new life into the election by setting itself a goal of winning at least 44 seats with its Mission 44+ plan. This unnerved not only the ruling National Conference (N.C.)-Congress coalition, which has been in power for six years, but also the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has found it difficult to upset the BJP’s well-strategised campaign to “conquer” Kashmir. Buoyed by the spectacular victory in three seats in Jammu and Ladakh in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has fielded candidates in 85 of the 87 seats in the State. The party received a shot in the arm with the entry of young and educated youth from the Valley. Until a year ago, the party was represented only by former counter-insurgents in the Valley. The journalist-turned-politician Khalid Jehangir, who was the first to break this norm, sees Modi as a man for development. “People are fed up with the misgovernance of the N.C.-Congress over the last six years and are now turning towards the BJP,” he said. Khalid believes that the anti-Muslim stigma attached to the BJP does not hold good in Kashmir. “Kashmiris have so many grievances of their own that they do not have time for this,” he said, adding, “The BJP has no baggage like the Congress as far as Kashmir is concerned.”

BJP’s emergence

The BJP has gone all out on a media blitzkrieg. Every other day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are featured on the front pages of the local dailies, promoting Mission 44+. Because it already has a strong foothold in the Jammu region, it has been concentrating on the Kashmir Valley. A number of Union Ministers and top functionaries of the BJP have been camping in Srinagar to raise the morale of the candidates. It has also tactfully placed itself in the political and social milieu of Kashmir. A strong advocate of the abrogation of Article 370 in the past, it has toned down its position. From Modi to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, its leaders say that Article 370 is not an election issue. Instead of advocating outright abrogation, the party is putting forward Modi’s line, which he articulated in Jammu on December 1, 2013, at a public meeting. Underplaying the call for the repeal of Article 370, he called for a debate on whether the Article had benefited the State or not. Modi has made the regional parties engage in this debate, forcing them to forget their own political slogans.

While the BJP might be riding high on the Modi wave in the Jammu region, it has successfully polarised the State, a tactic that worked very well for the party in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha elections. In the Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu, the party’s strategy had led to the fragmentation of Muslim votes in many constituencies. According to party insiders, the BJP wants to win at least 27 of the 37 seats in Jammu. At least two seats in Ladakh and a few more in the Valley can put it in a position from where it can dictate terms in the formation of the government.

Earlier, the mantra was that it would try to consolidate the votes of migrant Kashmiri Pandits and try to win the seats, such as Habba Kadal, Sopore, Tral, Amira Kadal and Anantnag, where there was a near-total boycott of the elections. But, surprisingly, the BJP conceded the Sopore seat to the People’s Conference led by Sajjad Lone by not fielding a candidate there. Lone is believed to have a tacit alliance with the BJP and the rumours were lent credence when he met the Prime Minister last month.

The BJP has also not fielded any candidate against Lone in Handwara. Lone, for his part, has not ruled out an alliance with the BJP in case it is needed after the election. It is rumoured that the BJP is toying with the idea of supporting Sajjad Lone as a chief ministerial candidate in case he registers a significant win in the five constituencies in his native district of Kupwara. Lone has fielded candidates in other constituencies as well, but his party is unlikely to do well except in Kupwara district. Lone has come under flak from Chief Minister Omar Abdullah for “changing course from azadi [freedom] to elections”. The N.C. had fielded Chowdhary Mohammad Ramzan in Handwara.

Analysts believe that parties such as the People’s Republican Party (PRP), for which the actor Anupam Kher came to campaign, are mentored by the BJP only to divide votes.

Whatever the results, this election will be a defining one for the State, as it will lay the foundation for a genuine political system. With the N.C. and the PDP emerging as the largest regional parties, they hold the key to government formation. Since 2002, the State has seen only divided mandates, leading to coalition governments. One such could not complete its term when the PDP withdrew support to the government headed by Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress at the height of the Amarnath land row in 2008. The Congress, however, was able to emerge as a “kingmaker” in 2002 and again in 2008. Owing to coalition compulsions, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah could not take action against a single Congress Minister even when they faced serious corruption charges. This time, the BJP is likely to replace the Congress as the “kingmaker” in case no party gets a clear mandate.

The PDP may emerge as the single largest party, but it may not reach the magic figure of 44 (which is necessary for a simple majority in the 87-member House). The N.C. has been harping on “development” since 2008, but there are few takers for that. The N.C. is facing the worst-ever anti-incumbency wave since people believe that the government has failed to curb corruption and deliver on the promise of good governance. The hanging of Afzal Guru, the killing of over 120 youth during the 2010 political unrest, and the mishandling of the September floods have badly hit the N.C.’s prospects. This is clear from the fact that Omar Abdullah is contesting from the safer Sonwar constituency apart from the Ganderbal constituency. This and the absence of the N.C.’s star campaigner, Farooq Abdullah, Omar’s father, has demoralised the N.C. cadre. (Farooq Abdullah, who has undergone a kidney transplant operation in London, may not return to the Valley before March.) The die was cast during the parliamentary elections when the PDP wrested from the N.C. all its three seats.

The PDP is upbeat after its win in the Lok Sabha elections and has been harping on the “golden three years” under the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government. Sayeed was Chief Minister from 2002 to 2005 and is credited with improving the security environment and pushing for cross-Line of Control (LoC) confidence-building measures. But, both the N.C. and the PDP have locked horns with the BJP over Article 370. They are telling the people that the BJP is a threat in culturally and politically sensitive Kashmir. With new forces emerging on the scene, uncertainty faces the trio of Ghulam Hassan Mir of the Democratic Nationalist Party, M.Y. Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Hakim Yasin of the People’s Democratic Front, who are contesting from Gulmarg, Kulgam and Khansahib respectively. They have formed a loose “Third Front”. The Congress seems demoralised following the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and its failure to counter the Modi wave in Jammu. However, it may not do as badly as has been projected in the various poll predictions.

What has stunned Kashmir-watchers this time is the huge voter turnout in the first and the second phases of the election. In the first phase, the turnout was around 71 per cent, 7 percentage points more than in the 2008 election. In the second phase, it was 72 per cent. In the Kashmir Valley, where elections were held in the five constituencies of Gurez, Bandipore, Sonawari, Ganderbal and Kangan, people were seen standing in long queues in the winter morning chill, waiting for their turn to vote. The separatists, including the hard-liner Syed Ali Geelani, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah, had called for a boycott, though the moderate section of the Hurriyat Conference, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was non-committal. However, the leaders who had called for the boycott were not allowed to campaign and were put behind bars.

People who voted argued that voting for governance and the “struggle for a political settlement of the Kashmir dispute” were two different issues. “We need quality life, good roads, public infrastructure. How can these come if we don’t elect good representatives?” said Abdul Khaliq, a voter in Bandipore town, which has otherwise been at the forefront of anti-India demonstrations. Most of the voters believe that a boycott will only help vested interests who want to usurp “our rights”.

Analysts also attribute the rise in the turnout to the proactive campaigning of the BJP in Kashmir. “People strongly believe that the BJP is a threat to the cultural and political fabric of the Valley. So they wanted to keep it at bay and perhaps elect regional parties to power,” said an analyst. Geelani too echoed this sentiment, saying that “people have voted only to stop the BJP’s communal agenda from prevailing in Kashmir.”

But it is clear that the separatists have also been forced to rethink their strategy of calling for a boycott, which has left them red-faced. Despite having rigged elections thrust on them for decades, the people in Kashmir have once again voted to choose their representatives and set issues of governance in order. The urge to improve the quality of life, have better roads and public health and educational facilities have driven people to the polling booths, but their political aspirations remain the same. It is clear that the separatists need to rethink their strategy. By calling for a boycott, they are only making themselves irrelevant.