Peoples speak, but the state wins

A successful boycott this time around will be suicidal for all constituent parts of the state
Peoples speak, but the state wins

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

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

In one of the more atypical and succinct analyses by anIndian commentator, Sanjay Srivastava, argues that the woolly-headed romanticbelief that modern territorial India has a "biological proclivity" to beinclusive and plural is a false narrative; that a colossal collective likeIndia does not change within five years and that for the last seventy yearsIndia, at best, has managed only to cobble a "fragile civility and tolerance".To explain, Srivastava argues that the ideology of the early Indian state wasdominated by a liberal intelligentsia which has now been replaced by aconservative one. In other words, both liberal and conservative intelligentsiaare 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 thestate apparatus.

There is a lot to be said for this line of argument. Itspeaks to the centrality of a more basic political reality – the categoricalimportance of seizing state power. After all politics in practice is aboutcapturing power, which Bertrand Russell forcefully argues is the centralingredient of all social dynamics. The BJP fought the elections with a focus onseizing power, using the mawkish appeal of a majoritarian Hindu rashtra. Theopposition fought the elections with a focus on the stomach, using the emotiveappeal of affectionate secularism. In the short term, simple infatuation wasvictorious 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 arevolution more than a 'transfer of power', which is what a mature democracy issupposed to reflect. In concrete terms, it implies space and room for the BJP'sredoubled struggle for a redefinition of state and nation. At best this willmean a complicated immediate future for India. But, paradoxically, it bringsclarity to the festering dispute over the State of J&K with the Indianstate'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 disputeover the state a civilizational one between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan;discards any charade about the need to consult the peoples of the state; andargues an unapologetic territorial irredentism for its claims to the J&Kstate. It is a combine of positions that supersedes conciliation, dialogue ornegotiations.

How are we to respond to this reality which is not new butnow better defined, one which puts Kashmir between a hard place and a rock? Toconstructively answer to that question we must believe that there are constructiveoptions that we can exercise. I believe we do, even as we are caught betweenfear and defiance.

When fear dominates, we grasp at straws. Succumbing to thisfutility are puzzling speculations after the BJP's margin of victory becameclear. Namely, that it may induce that party to start talks; that a delegationof politicians should meet the prime minister to apprise him of the dangers ofa continued policy of muscularity and no negotiations; and an irrational hopefrom the impact of fear stoked in western capitals after the Balakot rhetoricand scare. But nothing in the BJP's ideology, policies or actions suggests thatthey will resort to moderation, especially after the size of its 2019 win. Thisis "the rock" that stonewalls us.

There is also a mood of defiance by Kashmiri youth that ispolitically educated enough to know not to pin any hope in Delhi. The beliefhas been vindicated by the new government's steps of promoting the NationalSecurity Advisor (NSA) to cabinet rank and the appointing the party's primarywielder of power as the Minister of Home Affairs. Indeed, the two offices havedriven the BJP government's Kashmir policy for the last five years. The problemwith this principal of defiance is that we are up against a military and paramilitaryforce 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-affirmingresponses be?

The foremost need is unity. This is not going to be easy,because garnering unity within Kashmir is tricky. This is not because disunityis "natural" but because it has been Delhi's relentless policy over sevendecades to diffuse and factionalize the state's polity between regions andcultures, values and vocations. Equally difficult to overcome is the attitudeof sundry groups within Kashmir to claim a monopoly over the political truthabout the state. But these obstacles must be overcome. Not only as an act ofpragmatism, but with the understanding that the young dying and old overseeingdeath betrays a fatalistic, hope-surrendering, streak in us. It will dismantleus as societies blended and traditions received over millennia.

In the face of these negative options, two positive optionsmust be contemplated. The first is a change in our usual policy of boycottingthe assembly elections. A successful boycott this time around will be suicidalfor all constituent parts of the state. To be sure it is an uphill battle givenhabit and, ironically, the path of least resistance that this positionaccommodates. But there is a window of opportunity that can translate into anadvantage. For one, the BJP faces a slight dilemma in determining the timing ofthe elections. Too long a delay may give time to the factions in, and theregions of, the state to question the BJP's declared red herrings of plans toabrogate 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 toconsolidate its position even in the valley where it has become dangerouslyambitious with money power, thanks to the PDP's clumsy ineptitude and theHindutva use of proxy parties. The political class of Kashmir, including theseparatists, the regional and progressive pro-India parties and the sundryother political cliques of Kashmir, should calibrate their strategy in bothsensible idea and quick time, to form a prepoll unity under a single bannerthat 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 internationalcriticism for its human rights violations in Kashmir than any Indian governmentso far for its human rights violations. The brinkmanship with Pakistan was adangerous play after the Pulwama blast and a catalyst that made Pakistan lookthe adult. While authoritarian governments are not wont to care about externalcriticism, it appeared to sober the BJP perhaps because of apprehensions of ithaving a negative influence on India's flagging economy. Furthermore,international concern is heightened by the fear that upheavals in South Asiacould easily involve China and would make the already fragile geopolitics ofthe world even more so. The unrelenting criticisms by the foreign mediaincluding 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 bediscounted.

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The suggestions just made will not be easy to implement. Norare they only ones possible. We should welcome others. But we live in an age inwhich states are depoliticizing their citizenry – that is the authoritarian'smethod. In our case, the citizen is deluded into thinking that power somehowbelongs to them because they vent and vote. Nothing could be further from thetruth. To remind ourselves, we need to recall Sheldon Wolin's sharp observationthat "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, habituatedboycotting, 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, inthe form of boycotting elections. We need to do the opposite of what the BJP iscounting on.

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