The announcement of the election results has justifiably generated enormous excitement, both in the state as also the rest of the country, since the formation of a coalition government is proving to be a daunting proposition. With a turnout of 65 per cent-the highest in two decades-the people have voted overwhelmingly for change. It is a loud cry for basic amenities, people-sensitive governance, development, more jobs and justice. The results have been fragmented. In the 87-member House, the People’s Democratic Party is the largest with 28 seats. The National Conference, expectedly headed for a drubbing, has done better with 15. Its former coalition partner, the Congress, has escaped being fully singed and retains 12. Smaller parties and independents, having won seven seats, are now much sought after for support in forming a stable coalition. It is the BJP, the second largest party (25 seats), that has emerged as the belle of the ball.
Having been inconsequential for long in the fractious politics of the Valley, the BJP, without even winning a single seat, has occupied political mind-space there, and emerged as a major player in the politics of the state. Its unsuccessful forays across the Pir Panjal range augur well for the democratic health of the state as all the ideological impulses of the political spectrum would now find traction. But on the flip side, it is the polarization of the Hindu vote in Jammu and the counter-polarization in Kashmir, to keep the BJP at bay, which has resulted in a vote palpably on religious and regional lines. Here lies the danger to the internal coherence of the sensitive border state, said to be a microcosm of India as an idea.
Leaving the acrimony of electioneering behind, this is perhaps not the time to reheat the bubbling curry of recriminations in the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new coalition government would need to understand the looming dangers of fragmentation, and grapple with the highly complex challenges the state faces. For J&K is central to India’s vision of a truly secular, diversified and decentralized Union. It has consumed enormous political, economic, diplomatic and military resources, and remains to this day one of our national security pre-occupations. Post-elections, Narendra Modi and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-in the event he heads the coalition – would have been cast in historic moulds. Modi must rise above his party’s Hindutva agenda, being pursued elsewhere in the country, and fulfill his promised commitment to Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s vision of “Insaniyat, Jamhooriat and Kashmiryat” to build a future for the youth of the state. The Mufti’s statesman-like and sagacious political attributes would help provide the psychological-emotional ‘healing touch’ for the much-needed youth engagement.
Externally, India would have no truck with major powers taking initiatives to help address the Kashmir issue. Nor for that matter would it countenance the United Nations. The problem can only be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan. This track remains blocked. For even after the recent barbaric and heart-rending Peshawar school killings, it is unlikely that Pakistan would end its terror doublespeak any time soon.
As Nida Fazli laments:
Khoon ke napaak yeh dhabey Khuda se’ kaise chupaoge’ Masoomon ki kabron’ par chad kar Kaun se ‘jannat jaoge’?
It is the internal New Delhi-
Srinagar/Jammu/Leh pathway that offers myriad opportunities. First, in Kashmir, over a quarter of a century, the sense of alienation, notably among youth, runs deep. Their move from victimhood to grievance to resistance, with possible temptations of armed fighting is discernible. Afzal Guru’s hanging and the shoddy handling of the episode exacerbated the angst. Prime Minister Modi would need to encourage and empower regional sentiments and voices, and help provide political space rather than dilute regional identity. This is an important consideration to achieve greater cohesiveness of the three regions and dilute the consequential impact of religious identities and regional orientations affirmed by the vote.
Secondly, equitable development of the three regions and promotion of a deep inter-regional (in effect, inter-faith) dialogue would dilute belligerence, and bridge the gap between Srinagar, Jammu and Leh. Simultaneously, layers upon layers of mutual inter-dependence, in a rising economic trajectory, would help create countervailing resilience against disruptive trends.
Lastly, Wahabi-Salafi impulses have generated trends of religious radicalization among youth and its offshoot of willingness to take up arms, fanned by social media networking. This challenge is best met politically. Also the state’s inherently tolerant society, its elders, and community leaders, would need to draw upon the wellsprings of the sub-continent’s famed Sufi Islam which still envelops Kashmir, like the rest of India. Significantly, over 71 per cent of those elected are known to be committed to inclusive, secular and pluralistic sentiment.
The important issues of Article 370, Armed Forces Special Powers Act
(AFSPA) and return of Kashmiri Pandits need imaginative and creative handling. It would be instructive to recall that J&K is the only Part B state that negotiated its membership with the Indian Union, leading to its special status, legally sanctified by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. It is a special identity marker the Kashmiris deeply cherish, and it would be unwise to seek to revoke it.
As to AFSPA, people see it as one of the anti-democratic draconian statutes in force for decades along with the Disturbed Area Act and the Public Safety Act. Yet if the Army has to perform under tough conditions and circumstances, such powers are necessary for effective counter-terrorism operations. The answer perhaps lies in a discerning and gradual lifting of AFSPA from select areas, in consultation with the Army, along with stricter adherence to the guidelines, rules of engagement and standard operating procedures.
The return of the hapless Kashmiri Pandit community, circumstantially clawed out from their geo-cultural moorings, has wide-ranging support in the Valley. But their proposed housing in ghetto-like conclaves would fly in the face of Kashmir’s inclusive and secular credentials, and give rise to a feeling of ‘otherness’. A dribble rather than mass flow needs to be encouraged through provision of liberal financial assistance, attractive employment packages and improved living conditions. Such initiatives would serve to create a congenial environment for the dignified return of a proud community that has for millennia been the cultural pivot of Kashmir.