Peoples speak, but the state wins

The elections of 2014 and its second installment in 2019 will be remembered in Kashmir as a turning point. It was one in which the Indian peoples spoke, but the Indian state won.

What, then, are the reasons for the arrival of Modi 2.0? The answer cannot be in lazy analyses. To wit: just blame a dithering Congress, believe that voters are easily swayed, succumb to the trope that it was Pakistan in Pulwama or submit to the BJP’s self-serving explanation that the already marginalized, jobless and destitute are willing to ‘sacrifice’ more for national security. These are fragmentary observations. The answer lies elsewhere.

In one of the more atypical and succinct analyses by an Indian commentator, Sanjay Srivastava, argues that the woolly-headed romantic belief that modern territorial India has a “biological proclivity” to be inclusive and plural is a false narrative; that a colossal collective like India does not change within five years and that for the last seventy years India, at best, has managed only to cobble a “fragile civility and tolerance”. To explain, Srivastava argues that the ideology of the early Indian state was dominated by a liberal intelligentsia which has now been replaced by a conservative one. In other words, both liberal and conservative intelligentsia are propagandists for state power. His convincing conclusion is that it is not “the people” that have changed in the last two general elections, it is the state apparatus.

There is a lot to be said for this line of argument. It speaks to the centrality of a more basic political reality – the categorical importance of seizing state power. After all politics in practice is about capturing power, which Bertrand Russell forcefully argues is the central ingredient of all social dynamics. The BJP fought the elections with a focus on seizing power, using the mawkish appeal of a majoritarian Hindu rashtra. The opposition fought the elections with a focus on the stomach, using the emotive appeal of affectionate secularism. In the short term, simple infatuation was victorious over complex emotion.

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What does all this mean for the disputed state of J&K?

In brief, the BJP’s repeat of the 2014 victory confirms a revolution more than a ‘transfer of power’, which is what a mature democracy is supposed to reflect. In concrete terms, it implies space and room for the BJP’s redoubled struggle for a redefinition of state and nation. At best this will mean a complicated immediate future for India. But, paradoxically, it brings clarity to the festering dispute over the State of J&K with the Indian state’s articulation of an overt, proactive and coherent policy.

In the first phase of Modi 1.0, the BJP’s utterances, policies and actions have clearly demonstrated that it considers the dispute over the state a civilizational one between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan; discards any charade about the need to consult the peoples of the state; and argues an unapologetic territorial irredentism for its claims to the J&K state. It is a combine of positions that supersedes conciliation, dialogue or negotiations.

How are we to respond to this reality which is not new but now better defined, one which puts Kashmir between a hard place and a rock? To constructively answer to that question we must believe that there are constructive options that we can exercise. I believe we do, even as we are caught between fear and defiance.

When fear dominates, we grasp at straws. Succumbing to this futility are puzzling speculations after the BJP’s margin of victory became clear. Namely, that it may induce that party to start talks; that a delegation of politicians should meet the prime minister to apprise him of the dangers of a continued policy of muscularity and no negotiations; and an irrational hope from the impact of fear stoked in western capitals after the Balakot rhetoric and scare. But nothing in the BJP’s ideology, policies or actions suggests that they will resort to moderation, especially after the size of its 2019 win. This is “the rock” that stonewalls us.

There is also a mood of defiance by Kashmiri youth that is politically educated enough to know not to pin any hope in Delhi. The belief has been vindicated by the new government’s steps of promoting the National Security Advisor (NSA) to cabinet rank and the appointing the party’s primary wielder of power as the Minister of Home Affairs. Indeed, the two offices have driven the BJP government’s Kashmir policy for the last five years. The problem with this principal of defiance is that we are up against a military and paramilitary force that is not only legally empowered but morally emboldened to harass, torture and kill at will. It is getting excruciatingly tough to lose our youth. This is “the hard place” we find ourselves in.

So, what should our constructive and life-affirming responses be?

The foremost need is unity. This is not going to be easy, because garnering unity within Kashmir is tricky. This is not because disunity is “natural” but because it has been Delhi’s relentless policy over seven decades to diffuse and factionalize the state’s polity between regions and cultures, values and vocations. Equally difficult to overcome is the attitude of sundry groups within Kashmir to claim a monopoly over the political truth about the state. But these obstacles must be overcome. Not only as an act of pragmatism, but with the understanding that the young dying and old overseeing death betrays a fatalistic, hope-surrendering, streak in us. It will dismantle us as societies blended and traditions received over millennia.

In the face of these negative options, two positive options must be contemplated. The first is a change in our usual policy of boycotting the assembly elections. A successful boycott this time around will be suicidal for all constituent parts of the state. To be sure it is an uphill battle given habit and, ironically, the path of least resistance that this position accommodates. But there is a window of opportunity that can translate into an advantage. For one, the BJP faces a slight dilemma in determining the timing of the elections. Too long a delay may give time to the factions in, and the regions of, the state to question the BJP’s declared red herrings of plans to abrogate of Article 370 and annul of Article 35A to enable the unity it dreads. On the other hand, elections held too soon, may not give the BJP enough time to consolidate its position even in the valley where it has become dangerously ambitious with money power, thanks to the PDP’s clumsy ineptitude and the Hindutva use of proxy parties. The political class of Kashmir, including the separatists, the regional and progressive pro-India parties and the sundry other political cliques of Kashmir, should calibrate their strategy in both sensible idea and quick time, to form a prepoll unity under a single banner that will exclude the possibility of BJP as a partner in any coalition.

A second chink in the BJP armor is international opprobrium. The final days of Modi 1.0 witnessed unprecedentedly more international criticism for its human rights violations in Kashmir than any Indian government so far for its human rights violations. The brinkmanship with Pakistan was a dangerous play after the Pulwama blast and a catalyst that made Pakistan look the adult. While authoritarian governments are not wont to care about external criticism, it appeared to sober the BJP perhaps because of apprehensions of it having a negative influence on India’s flagging economy. Furthermore, international concern is heightened by the fear that upheavals in South Asia could easily involve China and would make the already fragile geopolitics of the world even more so. The unrelenting criticisms by the foreign media including Time magazine and The Economist, the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, cannot be overlooked. It is an Achilles heel that must not be discounted.

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The suggestions just made will not be easy to implement. Nor are they only ones possible. We should welcome others. But we live in an age in which states are depoliticizing their citizenry – that is the authoritarian’s method. In our case, the citizen is deluded into thinking that power somehow belongs to them because they vent and vote. Nothing could be further from the truth. To remind ourselves, we need to recall Sheldon Wolin’s sharp observation that “Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.”

Endemic suspicion, reflexive naysaying, habituated boycotting, Hamletian doubt and losing hope are signs of our depoliticization. To resist is to be political at our core, whether in action or inaction, depending on the circumstances. Today, the adversary wants inaction from us, in the form of boycotting elections. We need to do the opposite of what the BJP is counting on.