At the most difficult crossroads in Kashmir’s political history, challenges have come with rare opportunities. This is perhaps that moment for all major players in Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstream politics, when a single misstep would not just lead to consequences with implications far beyond the electoral calculus. For the first time, J&K’s assembly election has thrown up a result whereby political parties have to choose between options that Scottish general Robert Monro referred to as the devil and the deep sea.
Sharply divided between competitive narratives that have put Jammu’s Hindu heartland in direct confrontation with the Kashmir Valley and Jammu’s Muslim majority regions, these elections in fact mark a beginning of the end for the fragile unity that holds J&K together as a single state. For the first time since 1983, the state has voted along communal and regional lines in such a manner that the mandate has clearly exhibited the vast gulf between the political aspirations of Jammu’s Hindu electorate and those of Kashmir and other Muslim majority areas.
Unlike 1983, when the Congress was spearheading what was branded as an anti-Kashmir sentiment in Jammu’s Hindu heartland, this time it is the BJP. The Congress, which had controlled Jammu’s Hindu heartland with a soft saffron political discourse, had been strengthened after Ghulam Nabi Azad emerged as its leader to became the first ever chief minister from Jammu in a state where Valley politicians traditionally held that position. Azad’s emergence was advantageous for the Congress, especially as he belonged to Jammu and was a Muslim.
But the split along communal and regional lines is not new to J&K. In fact, its roots are in Kashmir’s struggle against the autocratic rule of Jammu’s Dogra maharajas. Even after Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah decided to make Muslim majority J&K a part of India and not Pakistan and changed his party’s name and character from Muslim Conference to National Conference (NC), he and his party could not shed either its Muslim or Kashmiri tag in Jammu’s Hindu heartland.
Sheikh Abdullah was confronted by the Praja Parishad in Jammu, a Sangh Parivar outfit whose politics and demands were the same as the core of the BJP’s Kashmir agenda. It was a Hindutva organisation sympathetic to the Dogra maharaja. In 1952, for the first time, the Parishad had also raised the slogan of a separate Jammu. Although there were elements within the Congress government at the Centre that were sympathetic to the Parishad, the steam was taken out of its political fortunes once Sheikh Abdullah was unceremoniously arrested in 1953.
The NC, meanwhile, turned into a plebiscite front and shifted its discourse towards separatist politics. This continued till 1975, when Sheikh Abdullah surrendered his political agenda before then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Over the years, the Congress played politics in the state in a way that did not change the larger political structure, but slowly brought about conditions wherein the NC was made to believe that its survival in power was dependent on New Delhi’s blessing. The final blow to the NC’s identity politics came when the Congress successfully planned a coup within the Abdullah family and the NC, splitting 13 legislators in Farooq Abdullah’s party to help form a government led by his brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, in 1984.
Farooq Abdullah subsequently joined hands with the Congress and fought the 1987 election in alliance with the NC’s archrival. The political vacuum created by the Congress-NC alliance led to the emergence of the Muslim United Front, which, along with Mirwaiz Farooq’s Awami Action Committee and Abdul Ghani Lone’s People’s Conference, became a precursor to the separatist Hurriyat Conference. Meanwhile, the Congress had taken over the political discourse of Jammu’s Hindu heartland and emerged as its representative in electoral politics, even though the Sangh Parivar was always strong in the region.
The Congress had also made inroads into Kashmir, the Chenab Valley and Pir Panchal regions through well-calculated electoral planning. The emergence of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as competition for the NC, as a Kashmir- and Muslim-centric party, made things easier for the Congress. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who had unsuccessfully led opposition to the NC for decades as a Congress leader, formed the PDP, advocating a soft separatism and self-rule platform that provided it with a chance to attract strong political voices that were beleaguered by the NC’s consistent dilution of its autonomy plank. With a clear mandate from Jammu’s Hindu heartland, the Congress emerged as a kingmaker between the new rivals, the NC and the PDP.
Jammu’s shift to the BJP’s real saffron from the Congress’s soft one took place in 2008, when the Amarnath land row sharply divided the state along communal lines. The BJP’s tally went up from two seats in 2002 to 11 in 2008, which in itself was a huge success. But the Congress still managed enough seats to forge an alliance with the NC, which had won in 28 constituencies. Although the NC had won 28 seats when it had lost the elections in 2002 as well, the bitterness caused by the PDP’s withdrawal of support to the Azad-led government brought the Congress closer to the NC.
Since the Omar Abdullah-led NC-Congress government ignored growing polarisation during its six years in power and did not make any effort to bring the two regions and communities closer, the Congress’s failure in Jammu was expected. The Narendra Modi factor, however, added another dimension to the BJP’s electoral calculus. Although the party tried to play two different political tunes in Jammu and Kashmir, hoping to win a few seats in the Valley to give it a pan-J&K character, it did not work.
The PDP has emerged as the major player in the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley. The BJP, whose political agenda is the complete opposite of the PDP’s, has come to represent the aspirations of Jammu. The challenge before Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who has been in electoral politics for 52 years, is to make a decision that will be impossible to get absolutely right. He has to choose between the bad and the worst for his party politically, as well as for his government administratively. He cannot afford to keep his party in opposition and allow the NC to forge an alliance with the BJP. He is 78 years old and six years later, he may not even be in the electoral contest. He knows that, without him, the PDP is little more than a house of cards. For his party, an alliance with the BJP would be political suicide in its traditional stronghold. But for his government to keep the BJP, and thus the entire Hindu heartland of Jammu, and the Centre, in opposition is bad for his administration.
But no matter what the composition of the new government is, the splitting of the state of J&K along dangerous communal lines has already begun. A miracle will be needed to stop this process, along with a political acumen that transcends electoral calculations in every player who matters after these results.