March 2004 News

It Will Be A Test Of Indian Democracy

25 March 2004
The Hindu

New Delhi: The contests for the six seats in the State of Jammu and Kashmir are unlikely to make a difference to the outcome of the coming Lok Sabha elections. But what happens in this election is going to make a lot of difference to the future of democratic politics in the State. For, this election could mark the take-off of truly competitive politics in the State, a privilege that has been taken for granted in the rest of the country. If that happens, the Assembly elections held in 2002 could prove to be a political watershed. Previous elections, especially but not only the 1987 elections, were tainted by allegations of widespread rigging and other electoral malpractices. There are many who believed that all elections held in the State were rigged, with the sole exception of the 1977 poll. Whatever the truth, the fact is that the reasonably free and quite fair 2002 election came as a pleasant surprise for the people of the State and has opened the way for routines of competitive politics. This election is about testing if the opening is for real and about establishing the basic patterns of political alignment, at least in the Kashmir Valley. The opening of competitive politics will play itself out in different ways in the three regions of the State - the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh. These three regions have varying ethnic and religious configurations as well the differing patterns of political competition. For all political purposes the three different regions have three different political systems with their own trends and patterns. In that sense, the coming Lok Sabha election is actually three different elections being fought by three different sets of players on three different sets of issues on three different lines of alignment. The beginning of competitive politics in the State is likely to have its inevitable consequences in the form of the politicisation of the ethnic and religious cleavages. The Kashmir Valley, that has three of the six seats in the State, is the most homogenous region in ethnic and religious terms. An overwhelming majority - more than 95 per cent after the exodus of the tiny minority of Hindus - of its inhabitants are Muslims. An overwhelming majority of these are Sunnis and are Kashmiri-speaking, with a small minority of Shias and the Gujjar and Pahari communities. The existing ethnic divisions here have no political salience. The National Conference had been the dominant political force in the Valley for decades. The NC was to the Valley what the Congress was to the rest of the country. This dominance was broken for the first time by the newly formed People's Democratic Party (PDP), led by the former Congress leader and current Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in the recent Assembly elections. It needs to be remembered that the PDP's victory was very marginal and if one looks at the parliamentary constituencies, the NC has more votes than the PDP in two out of the three constituencies, even in the 2002 elections. Although the PDP is largely a breakaway from the Congress, it is not identified with the Congress and by association with the Central Government at Delhi. Furthermore, it has also emerged as a credible alternative to the NC by espousing the cause of the Kashmiris. Mehbooba Mufti has played a crucial role in ensuring that the cause of the Kashmiris is no longer the political and electoral monopoly of the NC. At the same time, Omar Abdullah is working hard to re-build the NC and rescue it from the legacy of his father. His bold decision to contest from Srinagar will boost the moral of his party workers. So, for the coming Lok Sabha elections, in the Valley, the major contestants will be the NC and the PDP. The Congress is a third player and is likely to settle for an electoral alliance with the PDP, its partner in the State Government. The People's Conference, a constituent of the separatist Hurriyat Conference that had secured one seat in the 2002 Assembly elections, is likely to be another major player. In contrast to the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh have intra-regional ethnic and religious variations. In Jammu, Hindus are the dominant community but are concentrated in the districts of Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur. However, their dominance is nowhere near the one enjoyed by Muslims in the Kashmir Valley. Hindus constitute 66 per cent of the region's population, with Muslims accounting for 30 per cent and the Sikhs making up the rest. Among the Hindus, there is a sizable proportion of Scheduled Castes, who make up for about 18 per cent of the population. The Bahujan Samaj Party has been making steady inroads among the Dalits in the State and, as a result, won one Assembly seat in the region in the 2002 election. The BJP has long enjoyed a significant presence in this region. It has always positioned itself as the protector of Hindu interests in the State, with occasional electoral success. The last Lok Sabha election was one such successful moment when the BJP picked up both the Lok Sabha seats in this region. It later lost one of these to the NC in a byelection. The NC draws its support from the Muslims of the region, while the support for Congress is spread across both the communities. The Congress scored a spectacular victory her in the 2002 Assembly elections. Then the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had backed a new political outfit, the Jammu State Morcha, advocating the separation of Jammu from the Valley. It won one seat in the Assembly and contributed to the BJP's dismal performance in the Jammu region. The other significant players in this region are the Panthers Party and the BSP. The BJP will be lucky to save one of the two seats that it won last time. Ladakh presents a completely different scenario of sharp ethnic polarisation. The population is more or less evenly balanced between Buddhists and Muslims. But the Buddhists are largely concentrated in the Ladakh district while Muslims are concentrated in the district of Kargil. Interestingly, Kargil's Muslims are Shias, unlike those in the Valley. Here, the main contest is likely to be between the NC and the Ladakhi autonomists. In the 2002 Assembly elections, the Ladakhi autonomists had got the local units of all parties to dissolve themselves. As a result the candidates of the front for getting Ladakh declared a union territory won both the seats uncontested. The Ladakhi autonomists have their support base among the region's Buddhists, while Kargil's Muslims tend to support the NC. All this makes Jammu and Kashmir sound very much like the routine electoral politics in any other part of the country. The real question is whether the State will be allowed to stick to this routine. Analysts of elections in this State tend to spend more time looking at the turnout figures than at the vote percentages of the various political parties. If there is no interference from outside, one would expect the turnout to go up in the State marked by an unusually high level of political awareness and interest. The militants and groups such as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference would not like this to take place. It remains to be seen if the Hurriyat calls for a poll boycott and whether the call will have the same effect in the Kashmir Valley as before. The position of the Ansari faction of the Hurriyat Conference would depend on the nature of progress of its talks with the Central Government. The militants have tended to intensify violence on the eve of elections that might affect both the Valley and the Jammu region. But as the 2002 elections in the State demonstrated, the fear of the bullet and indifference cannot stand in the way of the basic urge for democratic expression, provided the democratic space remains genuinely open. This election is as much a test of Indian democracy as it is of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.


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