By Pradyot Lal
The toss-up is between hope and hype. Will the ongoing elections in Jammu and Kashmir to elect 87 members of Legislative Assembly and 6 Lok Sabha MPs herald a new era of effective governance? Will it be a punch on the nose of separatists trying to subvert the democratic process or yet another media hype?
It seems like an unequal fight – out of total 87 seats – Kashmir valley dominates a majority i.e. 46 seats, Jammu region controls 37 seats, and Ladakh gets just four seats.
Will the state’s voters mandate the saffron brigade’s ‘Mission-44’ with a majority in 87 member state assembly? Kashmir’s political history is testimony to the servile attitude of the local people who submit to anyone who seems more powerful. Much depends on who gains electoral supremacy or the magical half-way mark in the state. Many crucial issues like people’s participation, political legitimacy and future of the electoral system as a whole are at stake.
Kashmir’s political and electoral history has many landmarks and milestones of farcical and bad governance. New Delhi has been an active participant in this horse-trading gambit by propping dummy chief ministers or overlooking electoral malpractices. Hopefully, the elections this time in 2014 will be different.
When it comes to politics, Kashmir has never seen representative elections and fair play. Politics in the state always revolved around personalities. Sheikh Abdullah the charismatic self-styled “Sher-e-Kashmir” was the principal dramatis personae and nuclei around whom the policy in the state revolved.
In the first elections in the state in 1951 after signing the instrument of accession (1947) India wanted to legitimize its stake in Kashmir. So Nehru lent his weight behind Sheikh Abdullah, a friend of his and a promising leader of the masses in the state. Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference (NC) played along and formed a government in the state. It is a different story though that on at least 73 out of 75 legislative assembly seats the NC candidates were elected unopposed as none of the opposition parties could file a nomination. There was an electoral contest for just two seats. But Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru couldn’t care less.
A woman helps an aged man outside a polling booth as others stand in queue to cast their vote in Devsar south Kashmir Photo Muneeb Gull
In a way, this set the trend for the events to follow. In less than a year, Sheikh Abdullah’s became such a big pain in Nehru’s neck and a thorn in India’s side that he had to be arrested and incarcerated for good twenty years.
If Nehru though that with Sheikh Abdullah away he could dictate terms in Kashmir, h was mistaken. Sheikh Abdullah’s successor Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed too ignored his suggestions to ‘lose’ a few seats in 1957, ostensibly to create the façade of fair game. Bakshi played spoilsport and instead bagged 68 seats, half of them uncontested. In 1962, the score was 70, with nearly half uncontested.
Things started to change when Indira Gandhi took over as prime minister of India after Nehru’s death. New Delhi reportedly ordered Bakshi’s imprisonment. GM Sadiq, his pliable successor, decided to merge the party with the Congress. The elections in 1967 saw Congress win 61 seats- 22 uncontested.
Sheikh Abdullah built his bridges with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and returned to mainstream politics in the mid-1970s. The National Conference participated in the 1977 polls which saw the largest voters turn-out. The 1977 elections just after the Emergency consolidated the NC’s position as the predominant political force but antagonized the congress that imposed a President rule. The Congress chose to fight on an overtly Hindu agenda in the 1983 elections and ended up infecting the atmosphere with seeds of separatism. The National Conference gravitated towards the Muslims. It resulted in a communal polarization in J&K, and much of what is disagreeable in the state’s politics came to the fore during this time.
This however did not prevent Sheikh Abdullah or his son Farooq Abdullah from winning a landslide victory in 1983. But something went wrong in the very next year, and an upset Indira Gandhi dismissed Farooq Abdullah.
Wiser from his experiences from the past, Farooq Abdullah decided to ally with the Congress. And the 1987 elections was rigged in his favour. Political pundits recall how many losing candidates were declared elected adding to the big façade.
It was the onset of separatism and insurgency and uprooting of democracy in the state. The people’s disenchantment led to decades of armed struggle. It is but natural that these reoccurrences didn’t strengthen people’s faith in elections. Virtually all elections have been nothing more than a charade in Kashmir. In almost all the elections, the voter turnout has remained small- not more than 25 percent. People in many places like Anantnag, Pulwama, Karnah, Lolab, Ganderbal, or Kangan don’t even get a chance to vote.
The 1996 elections was an important watershed in Kashmir’s history. The National Conference tried to recast its old magical spell but by then more water had flown under the Jhelum bridge and the part had lost its electoral appeal. The 1996 elections saw dismal 10% cent polling in Kashmir after the separatists decided to boycott the election till the fundamental issues of Kashmir were resolved.
Ironically the crest and trough of democracy in Kashmir has been looped with the fate of National Conference in the state. There was a stage, when Kashmiris had high expectations from National Conference, but it too no different from the others later. The National Conference’s fluctuating political fortunes — triumphs and setbacks, successes and failures, have made a significant difference on democracy and governance in the state.
Be that as it may, the 2002 election was a landmark in Kashmir’s history the NC was trounced by chaired by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Sayeed’s new found Peoples Democratic Party. In the beginning, PDP’s emergence and triumph seemed to herald a new wave of democratic governance and new hope in the state. But along the way, the PDP too fell into a cesspool of nepotism and corruption. PDP’s miscalculation proved costly and allowed the Omar Abdullah and his National Conference to stage a comeback in 2008.
Omar Abdullah started off as a well-meaning Chief Minister, materially different from the run of the mill politicians in the valley. But a variety of factors placed him in a tight spot where he does not find it safe to contest from his traditional Ganderbal seat, once considered to be an impregnable political fortress. He has instead decided to contest from Sonawar and Beerwah constituencies.
If the Modi magic also works in Kashmir, BJP expects to rewrite history in Kashmir through its much-trumpeted ‘Mission 44’ formula. The BJP’s ploy is to capitalise on the Hindu vote in the plains that are not likely to go the Congress way. The PDP is a strong contender that could play spoil-sport in the valley. With as many as 46 seats Kashmir valley – not Jammu or Ladakh region will determine who forms the government in Kashmir.
The current elections are yet another opportunity for New Delhi to turn the tide and ensure proper and efficient pro-people governance in the sensitive state. Jammu and Kashmir also deserve a strong and vibrant democracy, which they almost never had. Truly this is a crucial, litmus test for all stakeholders.