The people have spoken

Issue 22 - Jan 2009
Sushant K Singh


AMONG THE plethora of despondent stories emanating from various parts of the country throughout the year, the last two months have brought a significant share of good news from the state of Jammu & Kashmir. It has left most political commentators astounded that not a single constituency in Kashmir valley has registered a voting percentage in single digits. The hardcore support base of the separatists in Srinagar district has recorded a voting percentage of over 20 percent, compared to barely 5 percent in 2002.

This faith in electoral democracy by the ordinary Kashmiri has demolished many myths about the sway of separatists in the state. The demonstrations earlier this year about Amarnath shrine land transfer were an emotive issue that touched a cord with local populace in both the Jammu and the Kashmir regions. In the Kashmir valley, the Hurriyat leadership was not the legitimate spearhead of the agitation although it had successfully created the impression of spearheading these demonstrations. It merely happened to ride on the crest of the emotional outpouring against the supposed ‘economic blockade’ of the Kashmir valley by the agitators in Jammu.

Many media analysts in Delhi were so taken in by the images and stories from the Valley that they began to support a Kashmir’s secession from the Indian state. They had predicted that these assembly polls would be a huge failure, with polling percentages unlikely to reach the levels attained in 2002. However, these elections have provided a resounding answer to the separatists and their undiscerning supporters in the Indian media. The leadership of the Hurriyat, including Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, which had issued a call to boycott the polls, has been forced to accept its failure to gauge the mood of the ordinary Kashmiri on the elections issue.

There is a tendency among commentators now to de-link the three issues—a sentiment for azadi, the separatists’ call for boycott of the elections, and the heavy voting percentages recorded in the state. These analysts portray the high voting percentages as a vote for local development that is totally unrelated to the call for azadi. But this is the hallmark of a democratic process where public grievance over a single issue does not adversely affect participation in the electoral process. As with elections in other parts of the country, there were many other significant stories at play in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

The 2008 elections have shown that there is a distinct rural-urban divide in the state, including in the Kashmir valley. Like other parts of the country, the rural population is a keen participant in the electoral process while the urban population has tended to stay away from the electoral politics. The downturn in the terrorist activity in the state has allowed rural voters a newfound freedom to cast their vote, away from the fear of the gun of the terrorists and coercion by the security forces. On the one hand, rural Kashmir seeks development, a process that has bypassed them since independence. On the other, urban Kashmir yearns for peace away from the fatigue of demonstrations, strikes and curfews—a peace that will bring back tourists into the state and create other opportunities for employment.

A new factor—albeit a small one—is a new generation of voters that has not seen life without militancy. Having been privy to the wages of incessant violence, this new generation is keen to explore the power of the ballot. It is this young generation that is seduced by India’s growth story. It believes that an elected state government can replicate the same growth story in a peaceful environment in the state.

None of this, though, diminishes the loss of credibility of the separatist leaders. The often overwhelming rejection their call for a boycott is a clear vote of no confidence in the separatist leadership. There remains no locus standi for the Indian government to negotiate with the Hurriyat or consider them as a legitimate party to the resolution of Kashmir dispute. There should be little doubt now that the political parties that participated in the polls are legitimate representatives of the people of the state. The Indian state must recognise and bolster this legitimacy through its subsequent actions. It is important for India to highlight this in its public messaging to the international community. 

While the electoral machinery, the security forces and the governor deserve praise for the success of these elections, it is important to quickly get past the celebratory phase—it is a good time to look ahead and leverage this opportunity to bring complete normalcy to the strife-ridden state. The new government should start with certain bold and signal measures that further deflate and marginalise the separatists. It could put in place a plan to reduce a component of security forces from internal security duties in designated regions of the state. More importantly, the new government should reward the regions that have witnessed higher voting percentages by putting them on a path of fast-track development, irrespective of the political affiliation of the elected representatives of that region.

The greatest challenge that the new state government faces in light of the events of the summer of 2008 and these elections is to reduce the overrepresentation of Srinagar in the affairs of Kashmir valley and the undue prominence of the Kashmir region in determining the policies of the state government. It should engage with other regions of the state and announce a time-bound plan for rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits. Members of the displaced Pandit community who are willing to return to Kashmir should be provided an opportunity to do so while others should be provided with facilities to help them settle in other parts of the state.

The central government should resist the temptation to provide another grand financial package for the state in wake of these successful elections. It should instead institute measures that facilitate integration of Kashmir with the rest of the Indian nation—physically, financially and emotionally. These elections have thrown up an invaluable political opportunity to move towards a political resolution. The new coalition government of Jammu & Kashmir must have the unstinted support of the central government—as indeed the international community—to chart a course towards peace, stability and prosperity.