The recent elections for the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly were a landmark. The 40 percent-plus voter turnout, while low by Indian standards, was considerable under the circumstances. Also, the polls were remarkably fair, although, being held in the shadow of the gun, not entirely free. Nevertheless, it takes enormous optimism to imagine India now easily converting the opportunity thus presented into a resolution of the Kashmir problem – one of the thorniest territorial and state-formation disputes in the world.
Consider the developments that immediately followed the elections. The Indian National Congress, which with 20 won the largest number of the assembly’s total 87 seats, was loathe to share power with the group with second largest showing of 16 seats, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). All 16 of the PDP’s elected representatives came from the largely ‘Muslim’ Kashmir Valley, which accounts for 46 of the 87 seats, the remainder 41 being divided between the predominantly ‘Hindu’ Jammu region, which accounts for 37, and the mainly ‘Buddhist’ Ladakh, which has four. Since the electoral makeup is such, state-level parties rarely have a pan-state presence. As much was reflected in the election results, with no party being able to claim a majority of the seats in the assembly.
Following this result, the PDP staked a claim to the chief minister’s post on the basis that it represented the ‘problem’ region, the Kashmir valley. Small parties from Jammu made their claims too but with an opposite argument centred on the ‘neglect’ of their region. With the Congress putting in its own claim, via a Kashmiri-speaking chief ministerial candidate from Jammu, the situation got truly enmeshed in realpolitik; nobody was willing to budge, and the deadlock hardened.
Ironically, after the people of J&K turned in a mandate to change an incumbent government for the first time ever, on 17 October New Delhi imposed central rule on the state because the exercise seemed to be headed nowhere. The Congress and the PDP continued to bicker and everyone seemed poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The situation changed quite dramatically in the last week of October. The Congress, with uncharacteristic generosity and foresight, suddenly decided to give up its claim to lead the coalition, hammered out a Common Minimum Programme with the PDP, and settled on a formula whereby the chief ministerial position would switch to its candidate after three of the assembly’s six-year tenure. The new coalition nominated the PDP’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as its first chief minister.
This opens up an unprecedented opportunity for J&K, undoubtedly the greatest one since the azaadi (freedom or self-determination) movement broke out in 1989. The election has generated some euphoria in New Delhi, but a realistic assessment would require us to be considerably more cautious. J&K is not out of the woods, which are indeed deep, and what happens there will be determined not only in Srinagar post-election, but in New Delhi, Islamabad and other capitals.
Forsaking its claim to lead the coalition from the chief ministerial position was a major policy shift for the Congress, which has ruled India for all but eight of its 55 years of independence and is notorious for its aversion to serious coalition-building. This move on its part, in the “larger interests” of Kashmir and the nation, as the party put it, has sent out the message that Indian politics can sometimes rise to unexpected heights in response to issues and situations of an exceptional nature.
The Congress was not entirely altruistic though; it drove a hard bargain with the PDP over the common programme. Many PDP manifesto formulations were diluted, such as those demanding an unconditional dialogue with all currents of opinion, including the separatists and militant jehadis, the disbanding of the dreaded Special Task Force-Special Operations Group of the police, which consists of former militants, and a virtual amnesty for prisoners languishing in jail under J&K’s super-repressive laws.
The PDP’s anxiety to offer a ‘healing touch’ is clearly rooted in its social base, mainly in the militancyprone southern part of the Kashmir valley. Its election campaign had stressed the ‘wounds’ inflicted by state repression and the need for a dialogue with Pakistan. The Congress’ caution is explained partly by its ‘national’ (contra, regional) character, and partly by its vulnerability to criticism from its principal rival, the Hindu-communal and hawkishly nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the coalition government at the centre.
The two parties’ disparate orientation need not necessarily make the coalition unviable, but it enhances the potential for friction and tension in all-too-probable moments of crisis. Such as, a terrorist attack which would likely precipitate a ferocious retaliatory response by the New Delhi government, whose rightwing leadership feels emboldened by the success of the J&K elections and by a recent shift to the right in India’s public discourse thanks to a remarkably vile campaign of abuse by the extremist Hindutva associates of the BJP. These include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal who direct their abuse at the Atal Behari Vajpayee leadership, no less.
Even if the J&K coalition runs relatively smoothly, at least one major determinant of its success will lie in India’s capital. Such is the relationship between J&K and the centre, with some 400,000 armed men of the security forces present in the state, and financial grants accounting for the bulk of the state’s development budget, that a hostile government in New Delhi can at will sabotage anything a popular state government sets out to do. This means that in the long run, there can be no breakthrough on Kashmir unless there is a paradigm shift in the way New Delhi looks at the Kashmir situation and its own policies, beginning with the nature of the J&K electoral mandate.
Neither the election results, nor the perceptions and motivations of the voters, warrant euphoria on the part of the Indian state. They do not represent the voter’s approval of the official Kashmir policy, ‘anti-terrorist’ measures, nor disillusionment with or rejection of azaadi. All ground-level evidence, including that collected by NGOs and Western observers, suggests that the Kashmiri people voted largely out of local considerations, and their urge was to replace the incumbent National Conference with a less unresponsive and corrupt administration. They did so without prejudice to their preferred long-term solutions to the Kashmir dispute. This was definitely not a vote for “full-scale integration” with India, as Vajpayee interpreted it in his first reaction to the media.
There is obviously a need to curb the euphoria, curtail the complacency, and rethink the Kashmir policy in its entirety. The Congress, which fathered it for long years, itself implicitly admits the policy has inflicted wounds on the Kashmiri people. However, it is unclear if the BJP-led central government, now shaky, feuding and in an advanced stage of crisis, will be willing to rethink policy in the absence of international pressure.
Yet, in the short run, several changes are possible within J&K’s boundaries, which could impel the BJP-led national alliance to shift its stance. If, over the next three to six months, the Congress-PDP-led coalition is able to stop and roll back troop deployment and the repressive laws, especially the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, restore human rights, and launch economic development schemes that address burning problems such as unemployment, it could seriously begin the process of winning the hearts and minds of Kashmir’s alienated people.
There are firm indications that indigenous support for militant jehad is now at an all-time low. The All Party Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella platform that hosts a range of views from autonomy to independence, has pushed itself into a corner by declaring the elections a “farce” and an “affront” to the people, but not being able to rally much support for this position. It now feels somewhat chastened. But there remains overwhelming sentiment in the valley in favour of a dialogue with Pakistan. The range of support for this sentiment goes well beyond only those who for historical reasons have harboured ‘pro-Pakistan’ sympathies.
It thus makes eminent sense for the Indian government to start a dialogue with all currents of opinion within J&K and also open unconditional talks with Pakistan – under the much-vaunted bilateral Simla Agreement of 1972. There is growing international pressure to resume full diplomatic relations with Pakistan following the de-escalation of the 10-month long enhanced troop deployment at the India-Pakistan border. But there are other sound reasons for expanding the scope of discussion on Kashmir.
New Delhi has agreed in any number of legal forums and documents that Kashmir is a ‘dispute’. There is a strong moral case for beginning the process of resolving it between the states of India and Pakistan, besides with the people of Kashmir, so that the bleeding of the entire Subcontinent – and even the undermining of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – is stopped. The involvement of the Kashmiri people in the process is imperative. There can be no democratic resolution of the issue without consultation with them. What is outdated is not so much the United Nations resolutions of the 1940 and 1950s, but the notion that states can determine the fate of people while bypassing them.
The time has arrived for a bold new Indian initiative. This is also the most propitious moment to get the international community to exert pressure on Pakistan to stop encouraging and supporting militant jehadi activity in Kashmir. If New Delhi takes the initiative, Islamabad will find it hard to play ducks and drakes there. But can Vajpayee muster the courage?