J&K Election Verdict An Assertion Of Regional Diversity & A Call For Genuine Power Sharing
Those who think Modi acted like Don Quixote in announcing Mission 44 Plus for J&K, should understand that Modi works with a long term vision even when he is fighting a here-and-now battle
I fail to understand why the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) electoral results are being called a “fractured verdict”. I see this as a very determined verdict by all three regions of J&K—each has voted in a resounding manner to drive home a clear message that the regional diversity of J&K needs to be respected, that the three regions have distinct problems that demand equal attention which has been denied thus far.
Even more disappointing is media’s undermining of BJP’s impressive sweep in the Jammu region as proof of the communal polarization engineered by the BJP. Those who think Modi acted like Don Quixote in announcing Mission 44 Plus for J&K, should understand that Modi works with a long term vision even when he is fighting a here-and-now battle. Thus far BJP had been acting on the assumption that Muslims are never going to vote for it and the Kashmiri Muslims will not let the party even set foot in the Valley. Modi proved this assumption wrong by first winning over a substantial percentage of Muslim votes in Gujarat and then making a pitch for the Muslim vote in the rest of India, not through Congress style minority pandering but by promising inclusive politics and good governance encapsulated by the slogan—“Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.”
That prepared the ground for his reaching out to voters in all three regions of J&K. Modi is the first BJP politician to have realised that Atal Bihari Vajpayee has left an indelible and positive imprint on the Kashmiri psyche, by his open hearted approach to Kashmiris. As Prime Minister Vajpayee had extended generous support to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s PDP government even though it was in alliance with the Congress Party in the state. This was an important reason why Mufti could deliver on many of his promises during his brief three year tenure. Vajpayee’s promise of finding a solution to the vexed Kashmir problem within the framework of “Insaniyat”, resonates deeply in Kashmir even today.
The level of respect commanded by Vajpayee can be gauged by the fact that senior PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig openly declared in a public meeting that if Vajpayee were to fight elections from any of the constituencies in Kashmir, he would win hands down. In my meetings with various separatist leaders, including the extremist Syed Ali Shah Geelani, I have heard them repeatedly say that if Vajpayee had won another term as Prime Minister, the Kashmir problem would have been resolved for good to the satisfaction of all.
It is a great pity that after Vajpayee faded out of public life due to ill health none of the national leaders of BJP tried to occupy the place left vacant by Vajpayee in Kashmiri hearts. What is worse, some of them encouraged a very harmful and divisive politics by BJP leaders of Jammu. The Jammu unit of BJP was in utter shambles till Narendra Modi stepped on to the scene. He not only laid claim to Vajpayee’s positive legacy in the Valley by reiterating the “Insaniyat” framework as a guide to his Kashmir policy, along with a rapid job oriented economic development program for the youth of Kashmir, but he also energised the Jammu unit of BJP with his Mission 44+ slogan which told the hitherto neglected Jammu region that the time had come for them to claim their rightful due of political power in the state.
Significance of BJP fielding candidates in the Valley
The BJP may not have secured more than 2.2 per cent vote in the Valley but the significance of the following developments cannot be underestimated:
- This is the first time BJP dared put up candidates in the Valley with some well-known Kashmiri Muslims keen to fight on BJP ticket. They campaigned openly without much security. The importance of BJP flags being openly carried by Kashmiri Muslims in 2014 can be appreciated only if we compare it to the situation in 1992 when Narendra Modi accompanied Murli Manohar Joshi on the Ekta Yatra with the mission of hoisting the national flag at Lal Chowk. At that time, they had to abandon plans of going to Lal Chowk in a rally and instead carried out a token hoisting of the national flag amidst exceptionally high security cover.
- This is the first time that former separatist leader Sajjad Lone’s party won two seats in the Valley, despite his having openly embraced Modi as his elder brother and making no secret of the fact that he is willing to work closely with the BJP. This indicates that neither BJP nor Modi are considered untouchable by Kashmiri Muslims any more. What is more, known Kashmiri public figures were seen defending their joining BJP in TV debates and in print media. All this seemed unthinkable a year ago.
- Even in the run up to the May 2014 Lok Sabha Election, Kashmiris were listening to Modi’s speeches very carefully because most of the issues he raised resonated deeply with their own concerns. He handled even the contentious issue regarding article 370 very deftly by saying all he wanted was an honest discussion on whether this provision had actually done good to Kashmir or damaged its growth potential. He went on to add that if on balance it comes out that it had been of positive worth, he had no objection to it being retained. When I visited the Valley just before the May 2014 election, I found Modi was being discussed with a lot of curiosity and interest—most of it not negative. Kashmiri children had invented their own version of the famous “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar” slogan. For instance, during power cuts, school-children would spontaneously shout in unison—“Aaj bijli gayi chauthi baar, abki baar Modi Sarkar”.
The BJP may have fared very poorly in the Valley but Modi has made his intention very clear that the BJP is not willing to accept that Valley based Kashmiri Muslim dominated parties have a total monopoly of speaking on behalf of Muslims of the Valley. Modi seems determined to establish a direct line of communication with the Muslims of J&K, including the Valley. This is what has created real panic among parties of the Valley as well as the Congress. As per media reports the separatists did not give a call for the boycott of elections this time because they were afraid that the BJP candidates might actually win some seats from the Valley. This benefit of the consequent higher turnout went in some part to the National Conference which got many more seats than it dared dream of. The separatists favour NC because they have thrived under the lawless regimes of the Abdullah family. However as pointed out by Ahmed Ali Fayyaz in The Times of India of December 30, 2014, even the 13 segments where the BJP did not contest witnessed heavy polling. Clearly, higher percentage of voting was not all due to the Valley’s desire to keep BJP out. In fact, BJP’s entry added new life into the election process. In the Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout was 49.72 per cent while in the December 2014 assembly election, it rose to 65.23 per cent.
2014, among the few free & fair elections in J&K
An important reason for high voter turnout is that the ruling National Conference was not allowed to rig the elections, as it is in the habit of doing. By all accounts, the May 2014 Lok Sabha election and the December 2014 assembly elections were among the few free and fair elections in the state. To quote Fayazz again, “The 2014 elections are arguably the first when central agencies and security agencies stood aloof…BJP’s failure to win a single assembly seat in the Valley…have shut up those mouthing skepticism and cynicism.” This is important considering that one of the reasons for the strength of the secessionist movement was the legitimate charge that the state and Central government invariably sabotaged free and fair elections by facilitating rigging in favor of NC.
But, hardly anyone in the media has given Modi due credit for restoring people’s faith in Indian democracy by giving the state one of its few free and fair elections—the other one being in 2002 when Atal Bihari Vajpayi likewise made it clear to state agencies that he would not tolerate any rigging or messing up with the election process.
BJP sweep in Jammu counters domination by Valley
It is disappointing that our self styled secular liberals in the media have interpreted BJP’s dramatic entry into the Valley’s electoral fray and its stellar performance in the Jammu region as an attempt to polarise the election on communal lines. If the BJP doesn’t field Muslim candidates, it is accused of being anti-minority. If it does, it is tarred with the charge of seeking communal polarisation. This is a typical case of “Heads I win, tails you lose” logic. In fact the charge is more fitting for some of the Valley based politicians who worked hard to polarise Kashmiri Muslim votes by responding phobically to BJP’s presence in the electoral fray because they feared an end to their monopoly over J&K politics. The statement of one of Jammu BJP’s leaders that it’s time J&K got a Hindu Chief Minister was likewise widely interpreted in the media and by the Valley politicians as an attempt to inject communal poison and an assault on the “secular character” of J&K politics.
It is well known that in the last six and a half decades since independence, the citizens of Jammu and Ladakh have felt aggrieved at being consistently neglected by the regimes in Srinagar. The politics of the Valley has dominated other regions of the state in a manner that people of Jammu and Ladakh regions feel they have been relegated to the status of second class citizens. This despite the fact that the Kashmir Valley occupies no more than 15948 sq.kms of J&K territory whereas Jammu is spread over 28,293 sq.kms and Ladakh over 59146 sq.kms. Even if we take the population into account—as per the 2011 census, Jammu region with 39,96,516 persons is only 13,686 persons less than the 40,10,202 of the densely populated Kashmir Valley. Laddakh is far behind the two regions with a mere 1,59,709 population. The political preponderance of Kashmir Valley is in part due to the fact that even though it covers a much smaller geographical region and its population size is almost at par with Jammu’s, yet it has 46 assembly seats whereas Jammu’s share is just 37 and poor Ladakh is allocated only four.
Because of Sheikh Abdullah having wrested a “special status” for J&K, the Valley people assume it is their birthright to have a Kashmiri Sunni Muslim as the state’s Chief Minister and that this post can’t be claimed even by a Shia from the Valley or Kargil, leave alone a Gujjar Muslim from Jammu. The thought of a Hindu from Jammu region or a Buddhist from Laddakh being the state’s Chief Minister appears blasphemous to Kashmiri Muslims.
Despite the fact that 80.5 per cent of India’s population is Hindu, the majority community graciously accepted Muslims as Presidents of India in Dr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Dr Abdul Kalam Azad. Likewise there was no angst when Dr Zakir Hussain was appointed India’s education minister or Salman Khurshid as external affairs and later law minister. Abdul Rehman Antulay became Chief Minister of Maharashtra even though Muslims constitute less than 10 percent of the state’s population. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s appointment as home minister in the V.P. Singh led government also did not raise anyone’s heckles—at least not until he released dreaded terrorists to get his abducted daughter released from the captivity of the JKLF’s terror brigade. These are not solitary examples of Muslims being accepted in high offices without much fuss. One can provide a long list of Muslims in key portfolios. But Kashmiri Muslims consider the possibility of a Hindu or Buddhist Chief Minister as a terrible outrage and a sinister design to rob them of what they consider is their non-negotiable right. Even Congress party’s Ghulam Nabi Azad’s appointment as the chief minister for half a term was not taken too well in the Valley because though a Muslim, he is from the Jammu region.
The entire state of J&K has a 34 per cent Hindu population while Hindus account for 66 perc ent in Jammu. Yet, even expressing the desire to see a Hindu Chief Minister in J&K is treated as a crime against the sacred tenets of secularism. Given this mindset it is not surprising that the Sikhs, Dogras and Punjabi Hindus of Jammu as well as the Gujjars and other Muslim communities of Rajouri, Poonch, Doda, etc. in the Jammu region as well as Shias of the Valley and Kargil plus Buddhists of Ladakh feel they remain second class citizens in their own state. Most of these regions have been neglected even from the point of view of economic development. It is noteworthy that only a section of the Sunni Muslims of Kashmir Valley has been votaries of “azadi” and or secession from India. But they have imposed this agenda on the entire state.
In this election both Jammu and Ladakh voted in a determined manner against the political domination of the Valley. Congress won seats in Ladakh because it promised union territory status for that region. BJP winning 25 out of 37 seats in Jammu has come as a big morale booster for Jammu because it means for the first time people of this region will have a decisive say in government formation. Clearly, it is not just the Jammu Hindu vote which resulted in a rich electoral harvest for BJP. A section of Jammu Muslims have also contributed to its unprecedented victory. It is a happy sign that in the Muslim majority constituency of Kalakote in Jammu region, a Muslim candidate Abdul Ghani Kohli won on a BJP ticket. Now that BJP has made a serious start in fielding Muslim candidates—that too in the most politically volatile Muslim dominated state of J&K, the self appointed guardians of secularism are outraged and unhappy.
BJP-PDP coalition the only viable & desirable option
Given this context a PDP-BJP coalition is the only viable and desireable combination for government formation because it will ensure a healthy balance of power between Jammu and Kashmir. However, the two will have to ensure that the interests of Ladakh are not neglected. Those skeptical about this alliance point to the longstanding conflicts and irritants between the two parties such as BJP’s opposition to article 370 and commitment to bringing about a Uniform Civil Code. Similarly, PDP’s demand for soft borders between Indian Kashmir and PoK or its proposal to operationalise a dual currency economy between the Indian Kashmir & PoK are not going to be acceptable to the BJP or even the Congress for that matter. In theory it may appear like a good idea but given the dangerous domination of jihadi elements in Pakistani politics and establishment and its continuing policy of bleeding India through endless terror attacks, asking for soft borders between the two countries amounts to ballooning in cloud cuckoo land! As far as PDP’s revocation of AFSPA goes, the two sides will have to find an acceptable via media. This demand did not find favour even with PDP’s erstwhile alliance partner—namely the Congress Party.
These differences notwithstanding, the PDP and BJP have a lot more in common than has been acknowledged in the contentious environment inevitably created during elections. By contrast, partnering with the National Conference can be a major liability for the BJP.
To begin with, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has a clean image and past record. His tenure as chief minister did not witness any notable scam or scandal. Like Modi, Mufti is also development oriented—not in a rigid bureaucratic sense but by involving the people in the process of unleashing new vibrancy in the economy. Despite serious security threats both Mufti and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti maintain close contact with the people. This too contrasts dramatically with Omar’s insular style of administration. He can’t even speak the Kashmiri language and is not comfortable with his own people. That’s why he is known to spend most of his time in Lutyen’s Delhi rather than in Srinagar.
Mufti as CM tried to plug various sources of corruption by bringing in a measure of transparency in recruitment for government jobs and issuing government contracts in sharp contrast to the NC leadership which literally auctions jobs and uses government contracts as patronage racket that too to loyal party men, unlike Omar Abdullah who has been accused of various crimes including involvement in the notorious sex racket busted by the CBI in 2003, humungous scams and even murder of a senior NC leader Shoukat Chowdhary.
By contrast, neither Mufti nor his daughter Mehbooba has ever been accused of any criminal activity or wrong doing. Mufti also established his credentials as a man who delivers what he promises. I have personally witnessed him at public meetings in various regions of the state where local representatives would present him with a list of demands—be it for a high school or a new college or hospital. In each case, he would carefully go through the list—sift and accept the doable ones and explain why certain demands didn’t seem practical. After that he would announce deadlines for the accepted demands and projects and ensure that the deadlines were met. Within three years of his tenure, he created three new fully equipped universities—one in Jammu region, one in the Valley and one in Ladakh. Due to his active engagement with the people and serious attempts to provide them responsive governance, Mufti ensured that participation in municipal elections shot up dramatically going up to 88 per cent in several areas—all this in a state where voter apathy and boycott of elections had become the norm. His “healing touch” policy after decades of lawless rule by the National Conference included swift response by the government to complaints of human rights abuses by the state police and other agencies.
Mufti also gave free hand to the media including Doordarshan Kendra of Srinagar, so that opinions critical of his government were allowed to be freely aired. That acted as an important feedback mechanism and safety valve for people’s grievances. By contrast, Omar Abdullah is known to be extremely vindictive towards journalists and media houses who dare criticize his regime. Homes and offices of media persons are raided and papers threatened with closure if they don’t fall in line. Mufti allowed any number of small district level TV channels to mushroom which NC regime cracked down on and forced their closure through various means. Most important of all Mufti’s governance style quietly and systematically weaned away the support base of separatists especially among the youth. The secessionists had become thoroughly marginalized during his years because he worked to restore people’s faith in India’s democracy and acted as an emotional bridge builder with the rest of India. To give a personally observed example, in almost all his public meetings he would begin by emphasizing the constructive role being played by the then prime minister Vajpayee in backing the “healing touch” and development oriented policy of PDP led government. His message, “na bandook se, na goli se, baat banegi boli se” (Neither guns nor bullets can solve our problems; they can be constructively addressed only through dialogue) cut at the very roots of militancy. That’s why secessionists boiled in rage against Mufti.
I personally heard several Kashmiris tell me, “NC regime is favored by separatists because their high handed and corrupt regime provides a very fertile ground for the growth of militancy. NC leaders pretend to attack secessionists but they actually encourage such groups because it gives them greater bargaining power with the Centre by making it out as if this party alone stands as roadblock to Kashmir’s secession to Pakistan. But history is witness to the fact that secessionism and rabid form of Islamism raise their heads and gain strength every time NC has been in power in the state. It’s a common joke in Kashmir that the Abdullah family, starting from the once venerated Sheikh Abdullah himself, always carries three flags in their pocket—Pakistani, Indian and the Azad Kashmir flag. They take out any one of these depending on what suits their purpose at that moment. They speak one language in Delhi, and quite another in Srinagar or London. Same duplicity is at play when talking to Ladakhis or Jammu region. In his recent term as CM, Omar Abdullah challenged the accession of J&K to India while his uncle & senior NC leader Mustafa Kamal has time and again advocated that Kashmir should merge with Pakistan. But on national TV Omar projects his party as a martyr to India’s cause in Kashmir!
NC’s high handed ways of putting down even democratic dissent with brute force played a vital role in legitimizing anti-India sentiment in Kashmir because the Congress government in Delhi lent full backing for those policies. Whenever the Central Government doesn’t unconditionally back the political shenanigans of the Abdullah dynasty, they begin stoking pro-Pak sentiments in the Valley. Worst of all NC is addicted to winning elections through rigging. This is not a recent development on account of NC’s losing popularity. Even during Sheikh Abdullah’s time when the NC was certain of sweeping the elections, Sheikh Sahib would opt for rigging so that the party did not have to deal with even token opposition. Opposition candidates were often physically beaten out of the fray through strong arm tactics. Unfortunately, the Congress Party at the Centre overlooked this totalitarian tendency in NC leading to the estrangement of Kashmiris from Indian democracy. It is important to remember that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as a former Congressman was among the few who consistently challenged Sheikh’s authoritarian politics and NC’s game of breeding estrangement with India. For this he faced incredible amount of abuse and persecution. He left the Congress Party because he felt his party high command allowed Sheik Abdullah to get away with murder of democracy.
Even militancy in Kashmir erupted in 1989 due to a series of brazenly rigged elections by NC backed by the Congress Party. Even as recent as 2008, NC organized a poll boycott through stone pelting mobs in the 8 seats in Srinagar in order to rig the assembly election by preventing PDP voters from casting their ballot. Secessionist groups lent full support to this rigging exercise by warning people of dire consequences if they cast their ballot.
BJP may find a more pliable alliance partner in NC with a mere 15 seats as opposed to PDP with 28 seats. But the NC will bring instant discredit to Modi’s claim that he stands for good governance and intends to bring an end to siphoning off of public funds by the ruling establishment. By contrast, the relatively clean track record of PDP along with experience of providing responsive development centric governance—makes the alliance appears far more attractive to the people in the Valley.
J&K is not just another state. Since it borders a hostile and troublesome neighbour decisions cannot be based only on electoral arithmetic—which too favors a PDP-BJP alliance. The security and geopolitical concerns must play an important role in BJP’s choice of an alliance partner. Mufti blundered just once on this score when as home minister in VP Singh’s government, he agreed to release four militants in return for his abducted daughter. But he has publicly acknowledged that was a blunder and has since then done a lot to make amends for it by weaning away youth from terrorist politics in the state.
The other blunder was Mehbooba’s when she went overboard during the Amarnath land row agitation originally ignited by NC but later adopted by separatists as well as PDP. Her party has paid a heavy price for permanently estranging Jammu region on account of the unwise and inflammatory moves she made at that time. During the last six years Mufti has tried hard to undo the damage caused to PDP’s poll prospects in Jammu region. But the recent election results clearly indicate that Jammu region has not yet come to repose enough trust in PDP. If Mufti now forms government with BJP and works amicably with them, he may be able to win the confidence of Jammu Hindus in good measure.
BJP-PDP tussle over CM’s post
BJP may have a tough task convincing Jammu MLAs that they have to wait for another time till they have a CM from Jammu region. But this is a small price to pay for political stability in J&K and for installing a regime that can better ensure geopolitical security. The astute among them can well appreciate that Mufti is better equipped to handle the secessionists in the Valley than someone from Jammu region. The moment a Jammu Hindu is installed, the trouble makers in the Valley will create mayhem which an inexperienced politician from Jammu region may not be able to manage, leave alone control. But Mufti has deftly managed such situations and never let the secessionists gain upper hand while he was CM.
If the PDP-BJP alliance works well and fulfills its promise of turning J&K into a “Super State”—an economic power house in the next six years, the two together may be able to create an atmosphere whereby people stop judging the worth of a CM by religion or region and instead focus on the actual record of performance in governance. But for that Modi will have to discipline the lunatic fringe of Hindutva who are forever itching to embarrass BJP by their hoodlum tactics in raising contentious issues. They have the potential to tar BJP and Modi’s name far more than their political opponents in Congress or left parties.
Responsible elements within both BJP & RSS are well aware that amicable relations between PDP and BJP as partners in J& K governance will send a very powerful message not just to Muslims in the rest of India but also to Muslims worldwide as well as silent BJP’s critics in the global community.
(The author is editor, Manushi, where the article first appeared)
By Madhu Kishwar