Jammu and Kashmir is covered in an unusual profusion of political buntings, election canopies, posters and banners. Every previous election since 1996 had been been held in the shadow of a separatist boycott, with talk of the Army and police forcing people to vote. Tuesday’s election seemed, by contrast, to be among the mainstream political parties alone.
The BJP’s serious entry into the fray with a forceful campaign has put the boycott constituency in a dilemma. The BJP stands to gain from a boycott in Habakadal in Srinagar, which has 17,000 Kashmiri Pandit migrant votes. Besides, the party’s presence across the state, including in the valley, has had an impact on the way these polls are being perceived. Voting and boycotting both seem to be losing choices, hence the dilemma.
For the first time, people in even traditional boycott strongholds are discussing the elections through the prism of the BJP’s entry. The energetic political activity of the RSS, especially of its affiliate Muslim Rashtriya Manch, and the Jamaat-e Ulema-i-Hind, an organisation of Daryaganj-based clerics, has ensured the lotus is visible everywhere. The number of BJP leaders has risen so fast that even they don’t know one another.
The stigma associated with participation in the elections is not visible. Women are openly participating in rallies, singing and dancing for candidates. Workers and supporters of parties have not been hiding their faces, or waiting for night to put up banners. Party flags are seen at homes of supporters, a rarity earlier.
The campaign has been subdued in Srinagar city and major towns, but the story has been completely different across rural Kashmir. Even in Srinagar city, posters of mainstream parties pasted on walls have been left intact. Parties have held roadshows in the city, traditionally a stronghold of the boycott constituency.
The boycott call has not been forceful also because most separatist leaders have been arrested, and people picked up for posting on Facebook. While separatists have been distributing leaflets at public places, candidates have for the first time been using social media to campaign.
Unlike earlier, the PDP does not talk about self-rule or peace process. The NC does raise the BJP’s reported plan to abrogate Article 370; they don’t speak about their traditional poll plank of restoration of autonomy. While the NC-Congress alliance’s miserable handling of the floods has put the PDP in the driver’s seat in Kashmir, the question of the party helping to resolve the larger Kashmir issue is not on the table.
In 2008, when an all-round boycott was a real possibility, a high turnout in Bandipore in the opening phase set the tone for the entire election. While a successful election in the fall of 2008 had mysteriously followed an equally strong pro-azadi agitation in the summer, the election was followed by pro-azadi agitations in 2009 and 2010. This time too, Bandipore voted in the first phase. Neither the mainstream parties nor the security agencies are ruling out a rerun of the bizarre pattern of an azadi groundswell following Tuesday’s high turnout.