NC And Congress Hold The Key To Divided House In J&K

27 December 2008
The Indian Express

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir elections involved every section of society in the state, and the same inclusiveness was reflected in the verdict today. For the first time, the entire ideological and political spectrum will be represented in sizeable numbers in the 87-member House: from the Hindutva-centered BJP to the soft-separatist PDP, from a resurgent National Conference to the potential kingmaker Congress. Along with the separatist rethink of Boycott and the silence of militantsí guns, it is a development that has the potential to redefine mainstream politics in the state. The National Conference is the single-largest party in the new house with 28 seats, and is likely to form the Government in alliance with the Congress, which has won 17 seats. The PDP has improved on its 2002 tally of 16, securing 21 seats. The BJP, riding the Amarnath wave, has made spectacular gains in Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu, winning 11 seats. The Panthers Party has won three seats in Jammu, while the Kashmir-based Democratic Party (Nationalist) and Peoples Democratic Front have won a seat each. The CPI(M) has won a seat, and Independents, four. The surprise emergence of the BJP has a formidable player has made it difficult for the Congress and PDP to get together to keep the NC out. Together, the parties have 38 seats, six short of the halfway mark. It will be difficult for the Panthers Party to overcome political compulsions in Jammu to join a Congress-PDP coalition, and the three members of the smaller parties in the Valley favour an NC-Congress alliance. Late on Sunday night, NC president Omar Abdullah was being tipped to be the next Chief Minister, even though his father, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, had made a statement that appeared to queer the pitch somewhat. In an indication of a simmering cold war between father and son, the senior Abdullah told a TV channel that he would be the NCís chief ministerial candidate, retracting from a statement made earlier in the day, that his son would lead the new government. The PDP is reconciled to sitting in the opposition. Soon after the trends became clear, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti said, ďIf there is no agreement on any programme, we will prefer to sit in opposition,Ē hinting towards the difficulty in forming a coalition. Omar Abdullah on the other hand, has shown his keenness to have the Congress as an alliance partner. The unprecedented peaceful and popular elections have thrown extraordinary challenges before the potential coalition partners. The task is more difficult than in 1987 when the two parties came together - mainly because the 2008 elections have been free and fair and are thus credible, and the winners therefore, carry a greater burden of expectation. Todayís verdict has also given rise to apprehensions of polarization of J&K along communal lines. It has pitted political ideologies revolving around the future of Jammuís Hindu heartland in potentially direct confrontation with the Kashmir valley and Muslim-dominated districts of Jammu. For the first time since the emergence of separatist militancy in Kashmir, Jammuís Hindu-dominated districts have voted massively for the BJP. The clear message is in favour of BJP politics that includes the scrapping of special status and Article 370. The BJP has replaced the Congress at nine seats and the NC at one, and retained Nagrota. Jammuís Muslim areas, however, have voted completely differently. The PDP - pivoted on soft separatism and Muslim-centric politics - has made its first inroads into the area, winning Mendhar and Darhal constituencies in the Poonch and Rajouri districts. Other constituencies have been won by the NC and Congress. The Valley has been divided almost equally between the NC and PDP. The NC has won 20 seats and the PDP 19, the rest being taken by smaller parties and Independents. While good governance was an inalienable part of the poll campaign for both the NC and PDP, a soft separatist agenda was at the centre of the electoral politics of both parties. The establishment of the PDP as a potent force in Kashmir is directly linked to its radical politics. The resolution of the Kashmir dispute within the Indian Union but outside the ambit of the Indian Constitution, self-rule, and a constitutional, political and economic confederation with Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir have been the key aspects of its political agenda. The party has sought demilitarization, a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an elected Governor, lesser control from the Centre, and a dialogue with militants as part of the roadmap for the return of peace to Kashmir. The partyís exclusive Muslim-centric plank allowed it to attract varied separatist voices, and this was manifested in the voting pattern for the party, especially in the support it received from Jamat-e-Islami activists. The NC too returned vigorously to its autonomy agenda, and distanced itself from its recent alliance with the BJP at the Centre. It abandoned the hawkish line it had taken towards separatists and Pakistan after the 1996 elections, with Omar Abdullah engaging directly with Islamabad and repeatedly pleading the case for a resolution of the Kashmir issue. The party also campaigned against human rights violations by the security forces, and organized sit-ins to push its new political face. After the unveiling of PDPís self-rule document, the NC went a step ahead to propose autonomy and a roadmap for Kashmir, and constituted a special committee to incorporate Kashmirís relationship with Pakistan in its autonomy document. Should the NC and Congress form the new coalition government, it will keep two powerful and contradictory political voices in the opposition. In Kashmir, the PDP represents a substantial chunk of moderate separatist voices within the mainstream. In Jammu, the BJP has emerged as the representative of a significant chunk of the Hindu minority. For entirely political reasons, neither is likely to make any effort for regional and ideological reconciliation across the state. In a way therefore, a Congress-NC coalition will mean that Jammu and Kashmirís opposition will actually be stronger than its government. Politically, the partners will be occupied with different enemies. The NCís biggest rival is the PDP, and it will try to push it to the fringes of politics in Kashmir before the next elections. The Congress has to fight the BJP in its political turf of Jammu. It is not immediately clear how this manoeuvring will pan out over the next six years. Yet, despite the hung verdict and the many questions it has raised, there is one clear consensus across the state: that this is a golden opportunity to put Kashmir back on the road to peace and prosperity, and end its pain once and for all.