By Swapan Dasgupta
The encouraging 71 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll plus the violence-free atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted is a thumbs-up for Indian democracy. Whether the active engagement of voters with the democratic process was a result of widespread anti-incumbency will be known once the votes are counted on December 23.
In the absence of opinion and exit polls, the analyst is obliged to rely on media reportage and anecdotal evidence. These indicate three broad developments. First, it is likely that the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his feisty daughter Mehbooba will be the principal gainer in the 46 seats of the Kashmir Valley. It is entirely possible that the National Conference led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his Congress ally may experience a total rout in the Valley. Secondly, it seems that the fear of an ascendant BJP and the possibility of a Chief Minister from the Jammu region have motivated many of those loosely associated with the parties of the Hurriyat Conference to break ranks and participate in the voting. Finally, it appears that the BJP has made huge inroads in the state where it won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the general election. The BJP gain in Jammu will primarily be at the cost of the Congress and NC. In addition, the BJP has forcefully registered its presence in Ladakh and may even be in the running in six constituencies in the Kashmir Valley.
The spatial distribution of seats in the 87-member J&K Assembly does seem to negate the likelihood of the BJP achieving its 44-plus target unless, of course, it wins every seat in Jammu and Ladakh and score surprise victories in the six seats of the Valley. However, regardless of the scale of its performance, there is no doubt that the party has injected a new dimension in state politics. A reporter from Delhi who toured the Kashmir Valley told me of her astonishment that BJP candidates were actually canvassing for votes in Muslim-dominated localities: “A few years ago they would have run the risk of being attacked, even shot.”
There are some who attribute the non-hostility to BJP campaigners to the good work done by defence personnel during the devastating floods a few months ago. Others suggest that, like the rest of India, there is a willingness to give Prime Minister a chance to repair the economy and reinvigorate India. I personally found it interesting that Mehbooba Mufti chose to highlight the importance of smart cities in her campaign while berating the NC-Congress coalition for mis-governance. This is not to say that the familiar alarmism over the BJP repealing Article 370 and effecting a demographic transformation of the state were absent. Certainly the Delhi media did its bit to prey on imaginary insecurities. Yet, what is interesting is that the BJP’s all-too-familiar position on the complete integration of J&K in the Indian Union did not generate an outpouring of Islamic identity.
For too long, J&K has been a hostage to political ambulance-chasers with spurious crisis-resolution agendas. Some of them are only concerned with the Pakistan dimension of the problem. This preoccupation, curiously, is not terrorism-centric but centred on multinational solutions to national problems. Others imagine that there will be a miraculous change if the process of governance becomes more sensitive to the violation of human rights.
It is not that all their observations are spurious. However, it is important to bear in mind a few facets of J&K. First, the Kashmir Valley is neither underdeveloped nor poor by Indian standards. By contrast, the Jammu region is relatively more neglected. There is a perception in Jammu that the paucity of resources for development is entirely a result of Delhi taking the unflinching loyalty of its people for granted. Secondly, it is worth recalling that J&K is among the largest recipients of central subsidies in the Indian Union. The state has not generated any meaningful revenue from inside; its people are under-taxed and over-subsidised.
This special status for a border state is written into the Finance Commission’s brief and the people of the state need not have fears of abruptly experiencing a heavy dose of taxation or withdrawal of development funds. What is necessary, however, is for both the Centre and State governments to insist on a rigorous audit of the quality of expenditure. For too long, in both J&K and in many states of the North-east, the approach to national integration has been based on perverted pragmatism. In essence, this amounts to a policy of coopting a local elite through an indulgence of corruption. The havoc this immoral statecraft has done to India is incalculable.
This election, it is widely acknowledged, is different from other exercises in the past. It is the presence of the BJP and the absence of any meaningful boycott campaign that have made all the difference. The new government has a chance of building on a changed mood and walking along a different road. Yet, an extra push may well be required. To my mind, a phased withdrawal of the army from all policing functions and its gradual replacement by well-trained and sensitive central para-military forces could well be a step worth considering. The Indian army should be on active deployment only along the Line of Control. Counter-insurgency should be the business of other arms of the state.
After the election results have been digested, the approach to J&K both from Srinagar and Delhi could do with some revision.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, November 27, 2014