In Jammu and Kashmir, political history isn’t the mere remembrance of a forgotten past; it is a constant reminder of important crossroads where political decisions became blunders with far-reaching implications. In these elections, history repeats itself in J&K as it seems to be returning to a situation resembling 1983, even though the political scenario has grown more complicated. While a Kashmir-centric PDP that advocates self-rule, a joint mechanism for the two Kashmirs and a porous LoC has emerged as a favourite in Kashmir and several Muslim majority constituencies in Jammu, the BJP has come up as the top contender in the Hindu heartland of Jammu, riding the Modi wave and a political agenda of complete integration of the state with the Indian Union. This election may be leading up to a divide in the state where different parties would represent “Muslim” Kashmir and “Hindu” Jammu based on different and opposing regional and communal aspirations. This could lead to a situation where J&K becomes ungovernable.
To understand how history may have come full circle after 31 years, it is important to look at the 1983 assembly elections and how the subsequent moves made by the major political players impacted the state.
In the 1983 assembly polls, Farooq Abdullah was riding a sympathy wave. His father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, had died and the Valley had rallied around Sher-e-Kashmir’s successor. The party won 46 seats, sweeping through the Valley and most of the Muslim majority areas of Jammu. Archrival of the NC then, the Congress could only win one seat in Kashmir.
With Sheikh Abdullah in the saddle, the Congress had built its vote base through an exclusively Hindu-centric, Jammu-oriented regional agenda. The Congress managed to win 26 seats, of which 24 came from Jammu.
Though the story of electoral battles in J&K was different in those pre-militancy days, the polarisation along communal and regional lines during the 1983 polls had led to a state government where Jammu was a bitter opposition to a party that represented Kashmir (the Muslim majority Valley, Muslim majority parts of Chenab valley and Pirpanchal region in Jammu).
The Congress was at the Centre and Indira Gandhi was the prime minister.
Aspiring to be a regional force, Farooq had been pivotal to the creation of a non-Congress front led by N.T. Rama Rao. Farooq held a conclave of 14 non-Congress regional leaders that included N.T.R, Ramakrishna Hegde and Chandra Shekhar in Srinagar. But taking on Indira and Congress at the national level had a price.
Farooq’s government could last only 13 months as the Centre orchestrated a split in the NC and the Abdullah family and a new government was formed, led by Sheikh Abdullah’s son-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, with outside support from the Congress. At the time, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the Congress’s J&K chief. Incapable of winning a single election after Sheikh Abdullah returned to electoral politics, Mufti had outsmarted his young son, Farooq. This election had an impact on Farooq’s understanding of electoral politics in the state. Farooq concluded that power in J&K flowed from Delhi and his aspiration to come up as a strong regional player in an anti-Congress alliance in national politics would only result in the fragmentation of the NC and the ouster of the Abdullahs from power in the state.
This is why Farooq shelved his dream and befriended Rajiv Gandhi when he became PM after Indira’s assassination. Farooq even drew closer to his party’s ideological opponents within Kashmir and befriended Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father, Mirwaiz Farooq, to come up with the “Double Farooq” proposition in Srinagar. Mufti was removed as the Congress’s J&K chief and dispatched to Delhi. Subsequently, the NC joined the Congress in an alliance and fought the 1987 assembly elections, which demolished the NC’s Kashmiri nationalist identity. This void was filled by the Muslim United Front — a conglomerate of religious and political groups opposed to both the NC and Congress — and Abdul Gani Lone’s Peoples Conference. Worried about losing its grip over Kashmir, the NC-Congress alliance rigged the polls to disallow the new political formations to enter the assembly, even though their sway didn’t extend to more than 20 seats in Kashmir. This helped create a situation where “bullet not ballot” came up as a way to determine the destiny of the people of Kashmir. The opposition to the NC-Congress alliance in 1987 later became the founding members of the separatist Hurriyat Conference.
While separatist politics still plays an important role in Kashmir and continues to oppose participation in elections, the 2014 polls bear an uncanny resemblance to 1983. The NC has been replaced by the PDP in Kashmir and the Congress’s soft saffron and regional card has been taken by the BJP. Though the PDP’s performance may not be like the NC’s tally in 1983, it is riding an anti-incumbency and self-rule agenda to become the largest party in the next assembly. The BJP, too, has hardened its stance. In fact, senior BJP leader and finance minister, Arun Jaitley, recently outlined the party’s Kashmir policy. During a recent interaction in Srinagar, he invoked Vajpayee more than half a dozen times only to give a new Modi-esque meaning to Vajpayee’s ambiguous doctrine to hold talks on Kashmir “within the ambit of insaniyat”. He also ruled out the NC’s autonomy and the PDP’s self-rule, saying that the 67 year-old debate on the constitutional structure of J&K is obsolete.
Unlike in 1983, no party is likely to get an absolute majority in the next assembly. If the PDP emerges as a major player in the Valley, with a few seats from Muslim majority areas of Jammu, removing the NC from its areas of influence, and the BJP sweeps the Hindu heartland in Jammu, displacing the Congress from its traditional base, there are only a few propositions for the formation of the new government. The PDP can form a government with the Congress, which will no longer be seen to represent Jammu. The PDP can ally with the BJP, which would be political suicide for Mufti’s party, which has been built around a Kashmir-centric and soft separatist discourse. The BJP can join the NC and other independents to form a government. This last proposition is unlikely, especially because the NC cannot afford to further erode its base for power. In fact, every possible combination seems fraught with dangerous political consequences.
If the PDP manages to cobble together a coalition, the Modi government at the Centre will be a strong opposition within the state assembly too. This would make things difficult for the new government on two counts: it will not secure the support of the Centre and Jammu, not just the BJP, would be out of the government. If the Congress gets enough numbers to form an alliance with the PDP, it will be harder for the new government because the BJP will be its opposition in the state as well as at the Centre. If there are enough members outside the NC, Congress and PDP party folds and the BJP manages to cobble together a majority, it will leave Kashmir and Jammu’s Muslim regions outside the government in a Muslim majority state.
The only possibility for a stable government is if the PDP joins the BJP in an alliance, but that would be a repeat of what Farooq Abdullah did after his government was dismissed in 1984. That “pragmatic” political decision led to disastrous consequences. This time around, the stakes are much higher. Amid the current fragile calm, this political situation could add a new and serious dimension and lead to faultlines deepening along communal divides.
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