Why Kashmir is riveted on UP, Punjab poll outcomes?

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As the countdown begins to the all important polls in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, Kashmir is waiting with a bated breath. The reason: a majority of people are curious about the outcome and its impact on India. But more importantly, they are curious about its impact on Kashmir. The rise of BJP in the country in 2014 and subsequently the virtual sweep of Jammu province by the party during the Assembly polls fundamentally altered the politics of J&K. The final poll results for the 87-seat J&K Assembly gave PDP 28, BJP 25, NC 15 and Congress 12. And Sajjad Lone, the separatist-turned-mainstream politician, who brought some excitement to the campaign in Valley won two seats.

For the first time since 1947, it was not the NC and Congress which controlled the destiny of the state. They were replaced by PDP, now a vaunted Valley-centric political force, and the BJP, a newly ascendant party in Jammu. Congress, which had otherwise become a kingmaker party without whose support neither NC, nor PDP could form the government lost its invincible position. And BJP stepped into the breach.

PDP was left with no option but to form an alliance with BJP, its ideological anti-thesis — albeit after drawn negotiations whereby the parties worked for an ideological and political trade-off to take care of their respective constituencies. They formed an Agenda of Alliance which enshrined a mutual commitment to each other’s ideological positions. But no sooner the coalition government was formed, than things started to unravel. Barely a few months into its term, the political and ideological confrontation hurtled to the centre stage, almost hobbling the government while the governance didn’t make any headway.

The situation has since gotten worse. Not a single agreement in the Agenda of Alliance which favoured PDP has been implemented. BJP has gone back on some of them — one being the return of NHPC owned power projects in the state — while bluntly refusing to implement others. What is more, the party has also gone back on its commitment to the status quo on the Article 370 which gives the state its special status within the Indian Union. Not only has the BJP openly advocated the abrogation of Article 370, but in a spate of petitions filed by the party-allied NGOs in various courts, even challenged the state’s special constitutional status.

Mehbooba Mufti by Faisa Khan (9)What is more, when Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti in her speech in Assembly termed the opposition to Article 370 as the “biggest anti-national act,” the BJP members took serious exception to it and demanded that the speaker Kavinder Gupta, himself a BJP leader, expunge her remarks. And shockingly enough, Gupta quickly agreed to it, triggering uproar from the opposition NC, this time in alliance with the members of the ruling PDP. As a result, the speaker adjourned the Assembly seven days ahead of the schedule.

“Bolstered by its standing as a ruling party at the centre, BJP as an alliance partner in J&K Government has got an overriding say in how this state is run,” writes Kashmir Observer in a recent editorial. “A loss in UP on the pattern of that in New Delhi, Bihar and Bengal will certainly help loosen this stranglehold”

However, while it may not loosen it, the loss will certainty help slacken the tight grip. One of the likely outcomes could be that the PDP will become a little more assertive and expect some more accommodation of its concerns by a vulnerable Modi. PDP could also hope that BJP might take some grudging steps towards the implementation of its side of the political and development bargain: for example, the return of a power project and some engagement, or noises to this effect, with Hurriyat.

However, the political analyst and the Kashmir University professor Dr Gull Wani doesn’t expect a major shift in equations between PDP and BJP in case the latter loses polls. “Kashmir has more of an ideological than an electoral significance for BJP. So the party will be cautious of any political accommodation or a development concession that it fears will run counter to the expectations of its constituency in the mainland India,” Dr Wani told Tehelka. However, he adds that the loss will go some way to diminish Modi brand. “A loss in UP, follow as it will consecutively after the resounding defeat in New Delhi, Bihar and Bengal might force a rethink in BJP about plying minority hate as a handy tool for political mobilization”.

Dr Wani’s opinion about no change in BJP’s attitude to Kashmir is shared by Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “I doubt much will change in Kashmir in the event of a BJP defeat in UP,” says Ahmad. “But in case the party wins, I apprehend an increase in the party’s aggression and the effort to push ahead with its bid to integrate Kashmir into Indian Union. I don’t expect any concessions in both the cases”.

Naseer’s observation is borne out by the experience of the past two years. More so, by the BJP’s refusal to accede to Mehbooba’s demands after she declined to resume alliance following her father, the Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s death on January 7 last year. The demands were apolitical and apparently fulfillable without involving any political costs for BJP. These included the return of at least one power project, smart city status for Jammu and Srinagar, progress on AFSPA revocation, talks with the separatist groups, flood relief and rehabilitation besides a degree of freedom from adapting PDP’s politics to the BJP’s nationalist straightjacket – and incidentally, most of them have already been agreed in the Agenda of Alliance.

But BJP knowing Mehbooba had nowhere to go except back to people, dug its heels in and refused to give in. And ultimately, it was an alleged ultimatum to Mehbooba from the party to either unconditionally come on board or BJP will look for an alternative alliance arrangement, most likely with a split group of her own party. And ever since BJP has had a complete grip over the state government and PDP has resigned itself to playing second fiddle.

“One reason for it is that PDP sees in Modi a leader who as of now has no match in India. So BJP remains the only credible alliance coalition for the party,” says Naseer.“Another reason is that after forfeiting the trust in Kashmir due to the killings and blindings last year, PDP is now hopelessly dependent on BJP not only to stay in power but also to get the much-needed development concessions to rebuild bridges with people in Valley”. But this is a national political landscape that can dramatically alter if the BJP loses both UP and Punjab. And who knows, a re-invigorated secular opposition could also encourage PDP to wriggle its way out of the bruising BJP embrace.

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