Jammu and Kashmir must have a new assembly in place by January, but this is unlikely to happen. Unusually in India, and because it has its own constitution, the state is going to the polls every six years instead of every five. The last election was held in 2008 and the next one should have been held in the next couple of months.
This week the election commission cancelled its visit to the state to see whether it was prepared to hold elections. The floods in the state and the difficulty in rescue work means that the administration will be occupied with disaster relief for many weeks. After that the winter will set in, making it difficult to work in and even access many parts of the state. The most likely thing that will happen is that there will be governor’s rule for a few months, and then elections in spring or early summer in 2015.
Kashmir has had regular elections for about 20 years now. In the first few years of this phase, complaints about citizens being forced to vote by the army were common and Indian media was often sympathetic to this. In the last few years, the complaints have gone.
The number of Kashmiris who voted in the assembly elections was 54 per cent in 1996, 43 per cent in 2002 and 61 per cent in 2008. Generally speaking, the voter in Kashmir has accepted the legitimacy of the democratic process. There are, of course, parts of the valley where the residents are sullen and try what they can do to delegitimise the elections, but these are pockets and they are getting smaller.
Democracy in the valley has been pushed along by a decline in militancy, particularly after 2002 when former president Pervez Musharraf banned the Lashkar- e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad following the attacks on India’s parliament. The dip in voting in 2002 can be attributed to the fact that 2001 was the most violent year in Kashmir’s history. A total of 4,507 people were killed, including almost 600 soldiers, meaning that there was a great deal of fighting. In 2002, the deaths fell to 3,022 and they have fallen sharply every year since.
Support for secessionist violence has now more or less ended and Kashmir has not seen more than 200 deaths in any year after 2011, after almost two decades when the toll was in the thousands each year. When voting was held for legislative council (which has indirect elections) seats a couple of years ago, the number of representatives who showed up was 90 per cent, despite calls for a boycott.
It should be accepted now that the Hurriyat Conference tactic of pushing for independence through a boycott of elections is not effective. The body should look at participating in elections, because it is certain to do very well in the valley.
Though voting has improved, it is not as if the Kashmiri in the valley has suddenly come to love India. When I visited Srinagar in 2013, I noticed that there were about two dozen daily Urdu newspapers published out of the city, more editions than in any other place I have seen. I asked the Mumbai Mirror’s correspondent Anil Raina, who is a Kashmiri with excellent contacts in the administration, what explained the presence of so many dailies. Raina told me these were papers that were “paid for by the MHA”. He meant the ministry of home affairs in Delhi, which tries to keep the news on its side. Often this is an exercise in failure. India defeated Pakistan in a match in that period and I noticed that most of the papers headlined the cricket story “Pakistan ko shikast (Pakistan loses)”, rather than India wins. There was extreme interest in Pakistan and the sports page of one paper, Nida-i-Mashriq, had two stories on Shahid Afridi, one on the Pakistan Cricket Board, one on bowler Mohammed Asif’s biography and one on Pakistan’s victorious hockey team. There was nothing on India.
The Bharatiya Janata Party believes that it has a good chance of forming or helping form the government this time. It certainly hopes to pick up most of the seats in Jammu at the expense of the Congress and will likely succeed in this.
The DNA reported a couple of days ago that prime minister Narendra Modi plans to “turn this adversity (of the floods) into an opportunity for the party as he has the experience of rehabilitation work undertaken after the 2002 earthquake in Gujarat. He already has PK Misra in the PMO as the additional principal secretary who is an expert in disaster management. He told members of a delegation of BJP’s Kashmir unit that he visualises creating smart villages and localities and refurbishing water bodies, which had been made extinct.” It is true that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has long decades of experience in this sort of thing, and it will be interesting to see how the BJP is able to use this positively in the elections. It will also be interesting to see if the Hurriyat, or parts of it, decide to finally bring their movement to the democratic platform.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2014.