India is in the throes of its most fateful election, one that will decide the future shape, if not the fate, of Indian democracy. So, surprisingly, is Kashmir. At first sight, this may appear counter-intuitive. Traditionally, the Lok Sabha polls have evoked little interest in the strife-torn Valley. Kashmiris know that they send only three MPs to the 543-member Lok Sabha. These representatives have seldom had an opportunity to speak on, let alone raise, Kashmir-centric issues there. The lack of interest has become more marked as alienation has deepened. But this time, although the change is fairly small in the aggregate, it has been in the opposite direction.
In south Kashmir, the voter turnout has risen from 27.09 percent to 29.03 percent. In central Kashmir, which includes Srinagar, it has also risen fractionally from 25.55 percent to 26.09 percent. In Srinagar city, the turnout has increased in six out of eight Assembly segments, and declined in only two. In south Kashmir, in particular, the increase has occurred despite a no-holds-barred effort by separatists to enforce a poll boycott. This began with the pasting of posters urging people not to vote, but escalated rapidly to impassioned appeals made in mosques, telephonic and physical intimidation, and climaxed in the cold-blooded killing of a Returning Officer in Shopian, and the deaths of two soldiers in the encounter with the killers that followed.
This alarmed New Delhi, and made it issue stern instructions to the DGP via the state government to prevent a repeat in central Kashmir. As a result, apart from one death at the very end of polling day in Srinagar, the voting remained peaceful and free from interference by either stone-pelters or the government.
Voting is going on in the northern constituency even as I write, but preliminary reports suggest that except in traditional boycott-prone areas such as hardline Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s hometown of Sopore, and the old town on the left bank of the Jhelum in Baramulla, the turnout is substantial.
The reason why Kashmiris regard this election as crucial is that it is taking place only five months before the Assembly election. It is, therefore, universally seen as a harbinger of what will happen in October. At present, all the cards seem to be stacked against the ruling National Conference, and in favour of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Although the counting will only take place on 16 May, Kashmir is a small Valley riddled with clan and kinship networks. Everyone, therefore, talks to everyone else, so most people have a pretty good idea of which way the wind is blowing. In south Kashmir, journalists, intelligence agencies, the army and the separatists are all of the view that Sayeed’s daughter Mehbooba Mufti has won. In central Kashmir, the result is likely to be close, but most observers believe that former chief minister Farooq Abdullah is going to lose. This is because in two Assembly segments where the PDP is strong — Charar-e Sharif and Kangan — the turnout has increased very sharply, whereas in the two segments of Srinagar where the National Conference is strong, there has been a substantial drop in the vote. Most analysts have, therefore, concluded that young voters are turning out for the PDP, while some of the National Conference cadres are staying away. In north Kashmir, similarly, the betting is in favour of the PDP’s senior leader and distinguished lawyer, Muzaffar Baig.
Needless to say, the prospect of victory is making the PDP’s rank and file cautiously jubilant, but their joy is tempered by a fresh dose of anxiety. For they know better than everyone else that, sensing the danger it faces, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference government has pulled out all the stops in a desperate effort to swing the vote its way. Shortly before the General Election, the government announced that it was dividing Jammu & Kashmir’s 20 districts into 300 administrative sub-units and devolving huge sums upon them for local development. And in south Kashmir, they soon concluded that while the boycott was being enforced by cadres of Yasin Malik’s Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the funds for the exercise had come from the National Conference. They came to this conclusion because the JKLF’s cadres seemed to be enforcing the boycott mainly in Assembly segments where the PDP was known to be strong, such as Anantnag, Pulwama, Tral, Shopian, Rajpora and Wachi.
Whether it is well-founded or not is besides the point. What cannot be doubted is that the more effective a poll boycott is, the more it will work against the PDP and in favour of the National Conference. In the 2008 Assembly election, which was held with Kashmir’s separatist leaders in house arrest and the Valley locked down in curfew for days before the voting, the PDP had swept the countryside and obtained 4 percent more of the vote than the National Conference, but had ended up with fewer seats because in the urban constituencies, very few people turned up to vote. PDP supporters, therefore, fear that the results in the General Election will increase pressure on the National Conference to create a crisis in Kashmir before the Assembly election is held.
There may be a tinge of paranoia in this fear, but it cannot be taken lightly. For what cannot be denied any longer is that if the National Conference loses in this election, it will realise that it is on its way out. Its interests in Kashmir will then become diametrically opposed to those of India as a whole. India not only needs a totally free and fair election in Kashmir, but one that is held under as normal conditions as possible. Only then will the separatists’ boycott call be treated as routine and largely ignored.
No matter who comes to power, India desperately needs a high turnout in the Assembly election. For only when a government comes to power that most Kashmiris have participated in electing, will the political process in Kashmir revive again. This has been moribund ever since more than a hundred stone-pelters were killed in 2010. Since then, Kashmir has been under despotic rule by a National Conference government that lost whatever legitimacy it had enjoyed until then.
The hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for the 2001 Parliament attack, forced the National Conference to crack down on the public even harder and killed whatever chance there had been to revive the political process without a fresh election.
That was the end of the political dialogue. Since then, the mantra of the Centre and of the state government has been ‘good governance’. But Kashmir’s administration has been too deeply corrupted to permit any instant change for the better. So ‘good governance’ has not been delivered. Instead, it has become the justification for the complete repression of dissent. This has created boon conditions for the rise of a new, dangerous form of separatism that combines all-pervasive rural unemployment and all-pervasive urban disenchantment with a creeping rise of Salafi Islam.
Kashmir has thus been reduced to a simmering cauldron under which a fire is being studiously kept burning until it blows its top. This is a threat that only a democratically elected Kashmiri government can hope to tackle.