Speculations and implications on the Lok Sabha elections from Kashmir

Consider the following political comparison.

The population of Turkey is just under 80 (eighty) million and it has 550 elected members of parliament. India has a population of more than 1.2 billion (that is ‘billion’ with a ‘b’) and has 543 elected members of parliament. That is, New Delhi has seven less members of the legislature than Turkey’s, despite the latter being one-tenth the demographic size of India.

My point is this: the prolongation of the seventy-year old crisis that is the State of Jammu and Kashmir has resulted not only because of political injustice but also due to administrative impracticality, despite the claims of India’s successive Election Commissions, which, this time around, has been spectacularly silent in response to claims of maladministration from various parts of the country.

This thought enters one’s mind as one tries to make sense of how completely “normal” it is to ignore General Elections in Kashmir. The elected have not delivered, and this memory comes into sharp relief as India enters the final phases of an electoral process involving a staggering 900 million voters. One need not speculate much for reasons why, in Kashmir, interest during general elections is somewhere between muted speculation and confident disinterest.

This unconcern is because elections for the parliament in New Delhi have had little political credibility in Kashmir for more than half a decade. However, over the years, we have also imbibed, perhaps subliminally, that India’s general elections lack administrative reliability because of the sheer size of the country.

These facts raise the question: is India just too big to succeed? Especially given the operational bias towards the unitary (read ‘centralizing’) foundations of its constitution rather than that document’s federalizing characteristics.

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The above observations are worth pointing out because the Kashmiri today is accused – when it comes to elections – of being disruptive, uncooperative and cynical. That narrative needs to be rebuffed, because it is a false representation. Kashmiris, like any society, are not monolithic or collectively ignorant. If those who consider the parliamentary elections to be unimportant are very large in number, those who consider the assembly elections marginally relevant are greater and those who consider local elections as more relevant are perhaps greater than the latter number. Whether such participation gives any agency to the people apart, people have voted for administrative reasons, even if it be with buckets of doubt and, increasingly, with diminishing hope of even administrative delivery, in the local balloting opportunities.

That said, speculation about all tiers of polling do exist in Kashmir. This parliamentary poll and the expected assembly elections are no exception to this rule.

As anticipated, voter response to the Lok Sabha has been very sparse in the Valley, so there is little to analyze. There is a high probability that the usual suspects will return to occupy the seats Delhi reserves for central and south Kashmir. The radical alienation of the PDP, however, may yet spring a surprise in South Kashmir. Meanwhile, the “real contest” taking place is in north Kashmir. But the pertinent analysis vis the valley is deciphering how slender voter participation has been.

In Ladakh’s parliamentary seat, there is no incumbent because Thubstan Chhewang, a very popular leader, resigned some time ago from both the BJP and his parliamentary seat because of the BJP’s double-talk. Surprisingly, the BJP apparently still stands a chance despite this rebuke, because the Congress vote has splintered in both Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh. In Leh, because the Buddhist vote is divided between the Congress and the BJP, and in Kargil because the Muslim vote is divided between Islamia School’s independent candidate and the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust’s Congress candidate. Given this scenario it appears, ironically, that the minority Muslim vote in Leh District and the minority Buddhist vote in Kargil District, may ultimately determine the winner in Ladakh.

In Jammu, although no cakewalk for the BJP was expected, the inexplicable abdication by the Congress central command of any real campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in Jammu (or Ladakh, for that matter) has brought the Hindutva party back into the picture. So, again ironically, although the BJP had managed to alienate itself in Jammu, acts of omission by the Congress, are helping to give the BJP some hope.

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The assembly elections are still distant, but that does not rule out some speculative reasoning about it.

To begin with, the BJP regime clearly postponed holding the state assembly elections because it was uncertain about its own fate in the Lok Sabha elections. It gambled, on the one hand, that if it returned to power in parliament with reasonable clout it could delay elections indefinitely as it toyed with its laws and tinkered with its demography. On the other hand, even if its parliamentary fortunes were significantly reduced, it could, with a governor of its choice, hope for some play in the fate of the state’s immediate future.  And in either case, the role of cash in politics, which the BJP is expert in, can be used to greatest effect in any delay in the Assembly elections.

Regardless of the scenarios that play out, the citizen in J&K state is sanguine about the prospects depending on whether the BJP returns to power or not. If it does return to power, the supposition is that its catch and kill policy will continue apace. The reaction of the Kashmiri to that scenario is frightening; youth action, almost certainly, will translate into larger protests, greater state repression and a South Asia on edge. If the Lok Sabha election replaces the BJP or even the current Prime Minister in a restructured formation of the NDA, it may translate into some relief from the brutality but little movement forward on addressing the dispute that is the State of J&K in its entirety. In the latter setting, the critical constituencies to effect change will be the local and the international ones.

Locally, all parties within the State of J&K must be prepared to articulate the need to somehow break the status quo in the political abdication surrounding the state in its entirety. The international community, in its turn, would do well to remember that almost exactly three months before May 23rd, 2019, South Asia got ever so close to going to war – over Kashmir.

If the setting is one in which the BJP returns to power unhindered, all bets are off in J&K, as to the future behavior of that party given its beliefs in hard nationalism, military muscularity and civilizational zealotry. The worry then will not be just about the state of J&K, but the future of India, South Asia and the world, keeping in mind that South Asia, collectively, is home to close to two billion human beings.

Or more a quarter of humanity.

In the event, the question raised at the start of this column is worth considering in New Delhi and by the international community. Is India just too big and complex to succeed? After the last five years, the implication of this seemingly anti-national query is that New Delhi needs to consider structural changes to its polity, its institutions and its territory.

For Kashmir, it would be some light at the end of the dark tunnel that we have been witness to.