First Person | A Nobel for Mr Modi

With its aim of ensuring a saffron CM in J&K, BJP blunders on

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It’s no secret that Kashmir is an emotive issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). So emotive that when it comes to the Kashmir Valley, the supposedly nationalist and politically astute party loses all semblance of pragmatism. Starting with 5 August 2019, when it revoked the Constitutional Articles 370 and 35A, robbing Jammu and Kashmir of the illusion of being special, even when autonomy was a chimera, it has been blundering its way into a blind alley with a dead end.

The latest salvo by the BJP-led Union government is allowing the ‘ordinarily residing’ people of the now Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir to register as voters in the assembly elections whenever they are held. This category of ordinarily residing people would include security personnel (military and the central armed police forces) deployed in Jammu & Kashmir, government employees and their families, students, traders and casual labour. Anyone who lives there and desires to vote in the Jammu & Kashmir assembly elections can get themselves deregistered from their home state and register in Jammu & Kashmir.

There are two worrying aspects to this. From the Kashmiri perspective, this would amount to stealing of the election. The Kashmir Valley traditionally sees poor voter turnout in the urban areas, though more people vote in the assembly elections than in the general elections. But after the revocation of Article 370, there is a lot of uncertainty about the mood of the people and their trust in the local political parties.

While a certain class of people in the cities always dismissed them as ‘unionists,’ or those who stood with the government of India rather than with the people of Kashmir, they were still regarded as necessary for the delivery of basic administrative matters of ‘bijli, paani, sadak’. But now with the cover of Article 370 gone, the haplessness of the unionists has cast a shadow on their capacity to deliver at all. If all decisions have to be taken in New Delhi, might as well be on the good side of the party that is in power in New Delhi. At least, it will shorten the bureaucratic rope and may accrue short term benefits to select groups of people. And if that has to happen, what’s wrong with governor’s rule.

Besides, the only reason the outsiders would want to register themselves as voters here after going through the process of deregistering from the home state is because they expect a political objective to be achieved. Moreover, given the BJP’s will to power, there could be an effort to subvert local votes, either by dividing them or overwhelming them by fielding multiple non-serious candidates in select constituencies. While this may or may not happen, this is the perception. For instance, both the Apni Party and the People’s Conference are regarded as facilitators of the BJP in the Valley.

The second worrying aspect has national implications. If personnel from the military, police and the bureaucracy choose to take the trouble to vote in Kashmir because the government asks them to, then their complicity with a political party will get official sanction. The neutrality of the bureaucracy maybe an illusion, but as long as the illusion remains, the stakes in the system stay. Even today, Kashmiris believe that the central government has filled all positions in the Valley by bureaucrats from non-Kashmiri cadres, for instance Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, and that they have been chosen because of their closeness with the ruling party. This erosion of faith in the bureaucracy will only help push over the remaining fence-sitters.

Until the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, only permanent residents of J&K or those who held the domicile certificate issued by the state government could vote in the assembly elections. This was done so that the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir could believe that only they decided who would govern without any outside interference, read New Delhi. It’s another matter that New Delhi ruled the erstwhile state despite the notions of autonomy, either directly or in alliance with a local party.

The BJP also did the same when it entered into an alliance with the People’s Democratic Party in 2015 after emerging as the single largest party in the Jammu division. The PDP was the single largest party in the Valley. So, a partnership bridging the Pir Panjal range was formed between the two, with the PDP in the lead as it represented the majority community—the Muslims of the Valley. And that was the nub. Despite securing the position of the deputy chief minister and running the state from New Delhi, the BJP wanted its person in the driving seat in the only state in India where Muslims decide the outcome of the assembly elections.

Driven by pique or ideology, call it whatever, the BJP wasn’t content with merely wielding the remote control. It wanted total control. But more importantly, it wanted to be seen to be wielding total control over Kashmir; Jammu was immaterial. This was not merely the realisation of the vision of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founding father of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s forerunner, but also the desire of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be seen as bold. The subjugation of Kashmir was necessary to place him equal, if not a notch higher, than the iron man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who brooked no compromise in creating a one nation-state out of several princely states. Kashmir was the unfinished agenda for those who believed that Patel’s zeal was a consequence of his religion.

So in 2018, the BJP ended the partnership with the PDP and put the state under governor’s rule. In August 2019, a few months after winning the biggest ever electoral mandate in nearly two decades, the Modi government drew the curtains on the constitutional articles which guaranteed a special position for Jammu and Kashmir. And to legitimise the prolonged rule from New Delhi, the state was bifurcated into two union territories, with Jammu-Kashmir being clubbed together as one. Yet, the victory remained half-won. The Lt Governor’s rule does not have the same ring as an elected government.

Hence, the Modi government has since been working on shaping the electoral space in the UT to ensure a favourable outcome—a BJP-led government, with its chief minister in India’s only region where Muslims decide the outcome of the election. Despite the large Hindu population in the Jammu division, the Muslims remain the majority. To overcome this, the government started a two-prong action: encouraging Kashmiri Pandits to return and settle down in select ‘safe’ colonies in Kashmir, and the reorganisation of assembly constituencies in the UT.

According to the proposed delimitation of the assembly seats, six additional seats have been added to the Jammu division and one to Kashmir. The delimitation commission, which submitted its report in May this year, also proposed to reserve nine seats each for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. As has happened in other parts of the country, the seats which have greater Muslim influence are earmarked for reservation. The same will probably happen in J&K to lower the population impact of Kashmiri Muslims. In any case, the Prime Minister has made an outreach towards Scheduled Caste Muslims, distinguishing them from the traditionally influential communities. The Muslim Gujjars of Jammu-Kashmir are listed as Scheduled Tribes and have been unaffected by the separatist politics of the Valley, hence more susceptible to the Centre’s largesse.

Clearly, all this is falling short in ensuring that the BJP glides to the finishing line. Hence, ‘ordinarily residing’ people must be roped in too. Unfortunately, all of this is premised on the assumption that the only problem in Kashmir is terrorism and the proxy war by Pakistan, which needs to be crushed militarily. The denial of insurgency in Kashmir and the fact that it is an international land and boundary dispute seem to have become the base on which the BJP hopes to build its fortress. This absence of memory and obfuscation of facts work well as an electoral rhetoric to influence jingoistically-charged people, but as an official policy it is disastrous for two reasons.

One, the reality does not change just because one has shut the eyes. Despite the harshest of security measures, the government has not been able to create even an illusion of normalcy in the Kashmir vValley. The incarceration of human rights activists and separatist politicians, a crackdown on terror funding, a clampdown on the media and the marginalisation of Kashmiris from government jobs has only increased the distance between the Indian mainland and the ordinary Kashmiris.

Two, the creation of the UT of Ladakh has brought China out in the open on the side of Pakistan over Kashmir. Worse, it is now in physical occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh. Whenever it deems the time is appropriate, it will push India for a trilateral resolution. With the local population not on its side, India is likely to feel the squeeze both externally and internally.

The unfortunate part of this saga is that the things could have been different. If only Prime Minister Modi had chosen realpolitik and pragmatism over emotion and ideology. In 2019, he had an overwhelming mandate. He could have picked up the bilateral conversation started by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with President Pervez Musharraf, which was continued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. None of them could see it through, partly because they didn’t have the electoral mandate of Modi and partly because Musharraf lost power.

But today there is an opportunity to start the conversation on Kashmir once again–with the Kashmiris and with Pakistan. Both the Pakistan government and the army have given primacy to peace with India. A peaceful resolution of the 75-year-old problem will increase Modi’s stature not only in the region but the world too. Who knows, even the Nobel committee may take notice. Can there be a legacy richer than this?



Call us