December 31, 2008 1:06:38 am
Who are the winners and losers in the recent elections in Jammu & Kashmir? The headlines focus on the BJP’s unexpected success in Jammu and the possibility of a National Conference-Congress coalition government. Most election post-mortems have proceeded on the basis of the seats that each party has won, assuming modest gains for the PDP, modest losses for Congress, no change for the National Conference, and a milestone victory for the BJP. While the seat shares tell part of the story, the actual vote shares reveal a far more complex reality.
The National Conference has emerged from these elections as the largest party in the assembly, while Congress now plays the role of king-maker. Yet, based on vote shares, these are precisely the parties that lost ground in 2008. Together, the two parties lost more than 10 per cent of the vote from 2002 to 2008 — a drop of about 5 per cent for the National Conference (from 28 per cent to 23 per cent) and more than 6 per cent for Congress (from 24 per cent to under 18 per cent). In spite of these losses, both parties appear set to take power in the state. But they may well be losing the proverbial war for state-level political dominance. In past elections, Congress and the National Conference together won well over 50 per cent of the vote, and as much as 75 per cent in 1983. In the recent election, they could barely muster 40 per cent. These elections may well mark the redefinition of party competition in Jammu & Kashmir as across the state, Congress and the National Conference have lost much of their prior advantage over their competitors in their respective strongholds and no longer constitute each other’s primary electoral threats.
In 2002, in the districts comprising Kashmir, with 36 per cent of the vote to the PDP’s 25 per cent and Congress’ 15 per cent, the National Conference could plausibly hope to keep both its opponents at bay and remain Kashmir’s dominant party. Meanwhile, Congress enjoyed a similarly comfortable position in Jammu’s Hindu-dominated districts with 29 per cent of the vote to the 14 per cent won by both the National Conference and BJP. Finally, in Jammu’s Muslim-majority districts of Doda, Poonch, and Rajouri, Congress and the National Conference were neck and neck.
With the recently concluded election, a new dynamic has emerged. The two traditionally dominant parties in the state are now locked in a dead heat in their respective strongholds, but not with each other. The National Conference and PDP in Kashmir won nearly identical vote shares, while the BJP and Congress were just as evenly matched in Hindu-majority Jammu. The National Conference now has far more to worry about from the “soft separatist” PDP than from Congress, while the Hindu-centric BJP now poses a greater threat to Congress’ current position. Although the National Conference’s loss of 8 per cent of the vote in Kashmir and a 7 per cent decline for Congress in Jammu may seem relatively small, losses like these can prove highly consequential. Seven or eight percent of the vote can mean the difference between a legislative majority and a hung verdict. Previously, the National Conference and Congress were well ahead of their rivals in their respective strongholds. Today, those rivals have pulled even and are approaching the point in some districts where now they can sweep elections. For instance, the PDP dominated (undivided) Pulwama district, winning all six seats and more than 30 per cent of the vote, while the National Conference’s vote share trailed by more than 15 per cent.
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However, the forecast is not necessarily all smooth-sailing for the PDP and BJP even if they continue to gain ground at the expense of their main rivals. Both the PDP and BJP should have much to fear from the incipient rapprochement between Congress and the National Conference. A long-standing NC-Congress alliance could potentially keep both parties out of power for the foreseeable future. Ironically, National Conference weakness in Jammu’s Hindu-dominated districts and Congress’ increasing impotence in Kashmir may enable the two parties to come together in a stable alliance without stepping on each others’ toes. But a durable alliance between the NC and Congress would entail tricky seat-sharing negotiations in the Poonch-Rajouri belt and the erstwhile Doda district, where both parties vie for dominance. It would also require that Congress accede to playing junior partner to the National Conference in state government. Can a long-term alliance of this kind succeed? We can only wait and watch.
The writer is a Cambridge-based political scientist
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