The legislative assembly elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, with the highest voter turnout since 1987, have resulted in a regional divide and without giving any party a majority mandate. Two months later, on February 24 the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with 28 seats, almost all from the Kashmir Valley, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with 25 seats from the Jammu region, announced the formation of a ‘partnership government’.
PDP president, Mehbooba Mufti, was careful to point out that the new government was not about power sharing but was founded upon an agenda for alliance which goes beyond a common minimum programme. It was, she said, unlike other previous accords of Sheikh-Indira (1974), Farooq-Rajiv (1986), and Omar-Rahul (2009). While determining the agenda for good governance and peace, the new PDP and BJP partnership, according to Mehbooba, is premised upon fulfilling first and foremost the aspirations, interests and priorities of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Through this agenda for alliance, she asserted, India has an opportunity to win the hearts of the people by overcoming “the distance” which the people of the state feel from the country.
Irrespective of the broad ideological differences between the two parties, both the BJP and the PDP need to be congratulated for forming a representative government, for respecting the popular mandate given to each by both the Valley and the Jammu region, and for proposing a common agenda for governance which could push for the removal of corruption, enhance inclusive development and meet the daily needs of the population.
Mehbooba is quite right in her assertion that this is an excellent opportunity for the BJP as well as the PDP and the country to move forward the agenda of peace and security, on the one hand, while on the other hand, reconciling both the identity-based as well as economic development demands of the different regions of the state with those of the nation. Jammu and Kashmir’s story is a complex one and the responses of the population of the three regions of the state – Jammu, the Valley and Ladakh – are distinct. Within the dominant framework of the special status of the state within India and the overarching ‘Kashmiriyat’ identity, there are competing regional political narratives – the nationalist/secessionist/irredentist in the Valley; the pro-integration/autonomy/Hindu/secular in Jammu; and the nationalist- Muslim/pro-integration-Buddhist in Ladakh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was strategic during the election campaign by not mentioning Article 370, and for the first time in Kashmir’s nationalist/secessionist movement history, the army apologized for its excesses. Modi’s efforts to initiate a dialogue with Pakistan and send India’s foreign secretary on a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) tour along with his open assertion of religious tolerance have most probably played a positive role in the PDP-BJP negotiations.
Amongst the PDP’s six-point charter of demands, the three most important ones were: the protection of Article 370, on special status to Kashmir, the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan and the separatists. But most of all, the PDP needed to ensure the protection of the special status for the state, a make-or-break position for itself in the Valley, which it appears to have done.
The BJP would be well advised to understand the Jammu electorate which overwhelmingly supported the party in the 2014 parliamentary and the legislative assembly elections. Over the last six decades, Jammu region with its two-thirds Hindu population should be credited for supporting the secular character of Jammu and Kashmir’s government. One cannot deny, that since 1952, a minority Jammu’s Hindus has consistently remained committed to the Hindu nationalist symbols and to the BJP cause of complete accession of the state to India through the revocation of Article 370. Nevertheless, a much larger majority of Hindus in the Jammu region has traditionally voted mostly for Congress (only exceptionally for the National Conference) for its secular symbolism.
It is this preponderant majority that, in these two recent elections shifted its support to the BJP, not because of its religious agenda but because of the BJP’s promise of an inclusive development agenda. Modi’s campaign has worked for both these communities, particularly for the latter who, in addition to responding to his agenda for development and the removal of corruption, appear to favour his approach towards cross-border terrorism, dealing openly with Pakistan on the Kashmir conflict and the Western Pakistani refugees without citizenship rights in the state. If it wishes to remain in the governing position in the state, the BJP would need to understand the ground reality that its victory in Jammu cannot be simply reduced to religious reasons and rethink its polemical agenda about the revocation of Article 370. The regional electoral history shows that Jammu’s citizens are known to shift their political allegiances to ensure that they are not perceived as communal. The BJP cannot take Jammu’s Hindu voters for granted.
(Reeta Tremblay is Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a specialist on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations)
By arrangement with South Asia Monitor