PDP-BJP coalition: A botched experiment

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Kashmir Violence - by Abid Bhat (39)Every time the situation in Valley worsens, a section of public opinion in J&K and the rest of India start relitigating the rationale of the ideologically antithetical PDP-BJP coalition. The existing unhelpful state of affairs is traced more to the very act of their coming together than the ill-conceived policies and the poor governance the coalition provided.

But the truth is when the coalition was forged in 2015 following a painstaking negotiation of three months between the BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav and the PDP leader Haseeb Drabu, it seemed to have some sense of possibility. People expected the coalition to be a continuation of the harmonious state-centre ties during the time of the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The period had not only witnessed the centre acting more obliging towards the development needs of the state but also embarking on some serious action on the front of resolution of Kashmir issue with Pakistan.

What is more, the then Mufti Mohammad Sayeed headed PDP led coalition government with Congress was given a long rope to ply a soft separatist politics centred more or less around the contours of the four point proposals advanced by the then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. There was a reason for it. The Vajpayee government then negotiating the self-same proposals with Pakistan saw little wrong in the PDP’s radical agenda.

Vajpayee illusion

In 2015, when going for an alliance with the BJP, the PDP invoked the nostalgia of this very period. And the people in Kashmir, albeit sceptical about the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did buy into it. There was an expectation that Modi would pick up from where Vajpayee left off, having already committed himself to his predecessor’s policy of “Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat” on the state.

In fact, the expectation from Modi was more. Unlike Vajpayee who headed a broad coalition government, Modi had an absolute majority, giving him more manoeuvring space and enabling him to take bolder decisions on the state. For a while, contrary to his popular image, people saw in Modi a more resolute and empowered Vajpayee.

The subsequent Agenda of Alliance between the parties whereby the BJP agreed to hold dialogue with Hurriyat, gradually withdraw AFSPA and also  take steps to return the power projects only lent further credence to these expectations. One of the priority demand in Kashmir was the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of the unprecedented 2014 flood affectees. This too was agreed. In fact the alliance with the BJP backed by the party’s government at the centre was seen as the only hope under the circumstances for the early release of flood aid.

The coalition was, thus, a blend of compulsion, convenience and some tentative optimism: It was seen as the best possible political arrangement for the state with BJP almost sweeping the Hindu majority Jammu. A new state government, it was argued, could only leave the BJP out at its own peril. For, this would not only have kept Jammu out of its legitimate share in political power, a trigger for a destabilizing regional discord, but also alienated a resurgent BJP running a majority government at the centre. More so, when the prevailing political trends in the country pointed to BJP getting only stronger by the day and becoming more influential on the national scene, a scenario which has since largely come to pass with the BJP winning a succession of the state elections including the one in all-important Uttar Pradesh.

Rude awakening

But once the coalition was in place in March 2015 with Mufti Sayeed as new J&K Chief Minister, it didn’t take long for the possibilities to shrink and the optimism to unravel. First hope to be betrayed was expectation of an early flood package. It took the centre 14 months to release it. And as for the other commitments, centre didn’t even pretend to honour them.

The biggest betrayal, however, was the quick realization that Modi-led government was no continuation of the Vajpayee regime on Kashmir but its exact opposite. The drift of Modi’s policy towards the state was not resolution of the issue but the further integration of the state into India, something that goes against the core of the Valley’s longstanding political sentiment. The political talk by some BJP leaders made no secret of such an attempt. Some official statements and steps like the search for the land for exclusive Kashmiri Pandit and Sainik colonies, and the successive court petitions filed by the RSS allied NGOs against the Article 370 created a sense of paranoia in Kashmir.

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But Mehbooba Mufti who took over as the Chief Minister following her father’s sudden demise in January 2016, offered little sense of reassurance. For all her Kashmir-centric political credentials shading at times into soft-separatism, she proved a weak defence against this perceived nationalistic overreach. Instead, the pressure of a coalition with BJP forced her to vacate the political middle-ground her party had come to occupy since its founding in 1999. She played down her pro-Kashmir resolution agenda and offered little counter-narrative to balance her partner’s shrill Hindutva noise.

This triggered a deep anxiety about their political identity among the people in Valley. And it is this anxiety which hit its critical mass with the killing of the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July last. The paranoia about a perceived hostile centre allegedly conspiring “to dilute Valley’s Muslim majority character” has redrawn the discourse in Valley like never before. It has brought into full play the issues of land and identity, hitherto more or less dormant elements of the ongoing conflict which operated so far largely along political and militant dimensions.

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Two years on, this perceived relentless onslaught on Kashmir’s own idea of itself and its place in the country has more or less been collectively internalized in Valley. Far from being a representative of the Valley’s political mandate, the PDP is at best seen as complicit in the BJP’s political project on the state and at worst an extension of RSS. Coupled with a lingering struggle for Azadi, a powerful factor animating the current sense of dead-end in Kashmir is that the coalition government with all its might is seen arrayed against the interests of the majority community in the state and their political self-conception.

And the toll that this has taken on the situation in Valley is grim. In the time that this government has been in power the situation has completely transformed. South Kashmir, once the PDP’s stronghold, has become the hub of the current revolt. According to a security estimate, from a little over 15 militants in 2014, some of them foreigners, the South Kashmir saw more than 200 local youth join the militancy, many of them have since been killed. This, for the first time in a decade, has redrawn the ratio between the foreign and the local militants in favour of the former.
What is more, far from being a dampener for jihad, killings of militants have driven more recruitment. After the killing of Burhan in July last, around 104 local youth have joined the militancy. There are now a total of 114 militants in South, a few of them foreigners, which includes the Lashker commander Abu Dujana who has been responsible for some deadly ambushes on the security convoys.

In comparison, the North Kashmir being nearer to the Line of Control is predominantly home to foreign militants. Among the 141 militants in North, only 23 are local. At 32, the central Kashmir has the lowest number of militants, with 14 of them foreigners.

There are thus a total of 285 militants active in Valley. In 2014, a year before the PDP-BJP coalition was formed, the number of the active militants was just 142 — 88 of them local and the rest from Pakistan or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The doubling of the number underlines a steady deterioration in the situation.

If the individual stories of the fresh militant recruits are anything to go by, families of the most of them attribute their decision to take up the gun to either some personal episode of harassment by security personnel as was the case with Burhan or to a personalized collective grievance against New Delhi.

In fact, the expectation from Modi was more as he had an absolute majority, enabling him to take bolder decisions on the state

But the hurtful personal experiences, the intermittent incidents of security excesses and the perceived injustices by the state and central government have been disproportionately magnified by a disempowering political state of affairs ushered in by the PDP-BJP coalition, creating conditions for an impulsive resort to gun.

“As a standalone, militancy is not a problem. It can be effectively tackled over a period of time and curbed. What has drastically changed the ground situation is the renewed overwhelming public support for the militancy,” said a police officer on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to press. “So, loss of public support for the militants would be a game changer”.

The officer has a point. Unlike early nineties when around 10,000 militants roamed the Kashmir landscape, the existing around 300 militants are a miniscule number. But a small number of the militants now is more than compensated by the endemic public support for them: A support that remains selfless, uncritical and uninhibited.
Unlike the nineties, when the funerals for the militants were hardly a massive affair, now several villages compete for the honour of burying the “martyr” in their respective graveyards. And unlike the nineties, when people strictly stayed away from the encounter sites, now they not only march towards such sites in protest but even try to help the trapped militants escape. So far, around 16 people have lost their lives in such attempts over the past year including Adil Ahmad Magray, 19, who was killed on June 6 Ganapora, Shopian.

Again unlike the nineties, when the militancy and the protests were largely concentrated in urban areas like downtown Srinagar and the towns like Sopore, Baramulla, Anantnag, Kupwara, now both the militancy and the civilian resistance have radiated out of the urban centres into the countryside, reaching even its deepest interiors.
What is more, an all-out fearlessness has gripped people. The youth now are not afraid to disrupt the encounter sites, nor flinch from stoning the Army convoys. In the now routine street confrontations with the police and the paramilitaries equipped with rifles and pellet guns, the protesters don’t run for their lives but stand their ground and at times advance towards the forces with little more than a stone in hand, daring them to kill them.

And all this transformation is largely the function of the last two years. Even though the previous coalition was by no means redeemingly different, its saving grace was that it was not hemmed in by the suffocating ideological straitjacket of the existing combination. The BJP has ensured it has a stranglehold over its functioning and the PDP for want of a better alternative and the fear of having to face political wilderness out of power has docilely played along.

Where to go?

The scenario doesn’t look promising at all. Though the onset of protest fatigue may usher in a period of calm, the fundamental issues underpinning the current turmoil could lead to a recrudescence of the anger on the streets. One recurrent source of tension with a potential to tip Valley into a yet another extended unrest remain the militant cordon and search operations and the attendant attempts to free the trapped militants followed by a massive mourning and the large funeral processions.

But except for a security centric approach, the centre has very little to offer. This, in turn, has reduced the state government to a little more than a spectator to the prevailing ferment.

The PDP has been the worst affected. Its politics has been evacuated of any ideological, political or for that matter even a development function in Valley’s public life.

“Between the coalition partners, PDP seems to have shelved its supposed political agenda while the BJP has been free to ply its own. But the governance provided by them is pits,” says the commentator Gowhar Geelani. “It took the coalition more than a year to distribute flood relief. Leave alone some visible development on the ground, it is difficult to experience that there is a government in place”.

Not that the development would have made any large difference — albeit its importance can hardly be over-emphasised. In Valley, a good governance is synonymous with an assertive political articulation of what people feel. But this is where the PDP has been found sorely wanting. So has been the opposition National Conference which has failed to fill in the political vacuum created by the PDP’s silence.

“One of the reasons that the mainstream parties are nowhere to be seen is that it has become increasingly difficult for them to hold public rallies,” says the columnist Naseer Ahmad. “The political space in which mainstream operated has drastically shrunk, so much so, that none of the mainstream parties were able to campaign in the recent Parliamentary by-election in Srinagar and Anantnag, the latter of which was indefinitely deferred”.

Can the situation be salvaged? Partially so. While for a durable peace in Kashmir and also between India and Pakistan, settling Kashmir will be important, a more responsive state government and a local mainstream party can address the identity issues in part underpinning the ongoing turmoil.

But this is a onerous task that the current coalition seems too politically unfit to accomplish. The PDP and the BJP inhabit two ideological worldviews on Kashmir. The alliance’s raison detere is an uneasy political trade-off to make their coming together possible. There are, no doubt, some nods in their Agenda of Alliance to some political engagement with Kashmiri separatists to resolve issues but there is no alignment on the contours of the resolution. There is a fundamental divergence here. It would need no less than a leap of the BJP’s political faith on Kashmir and much more nuancing of its understanding of the state’s longstanding problems to persuade the party to produce a politics and the policies that reassure Kashmir as to the perceived integrationist onslaught on the state.

Says Naeem Akhter, the powerful PDP minister and J&K Government spokesman. “The PDP can’t do much on its own. But the centre can,” says Akhtar. “On paper, our Agenda of Alliance offers a blueprint for addressing the uncertainty in the state. The need is to execute it. And we are hopeful it will be”.

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