Despite a high turnout in the elections – perhaps the highest in 28 years – India’s Jammu and Kashmir state does not have a government. Eighteen days after the results of the state assembly elections were announced, Governor’s Rule was imposed in the state and NN Vohra took over the reins of the administration.
In the 87-member house, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) emerged as the largest party with 28 seats, followed by BJP with 25. The National Conference won 15 seats, the Congress 12 and others won seven. The political parties have not been able to cobble up an alliance to form a government. Omar Abdullah – who headed the National Conference-Congress coalition for six years – declined to continue as caretaker chief minister, which he could have until January 18 when the term of the assembly would end. Governor’s Rule was the only option.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir are disappointed. They had voted for change, were looking forward to better governance, and particularly in Kashmir they were hoping for a speedy rehabilitation of flood victims. Kashmir saw severe floods in September that affected nearly a million people, who needed a proper government to address their needs.
But the fractured mandate has temporarily blocked the road to formation of a government. Not only were the seats divided among many parties, the clear division on the communal lines also played a significant role in this delay. Jammu voted for BJP, and that marked the beginning of the end of a fragile unity of a state that is diverse in nature. In contrast, Kashmiris voted for the PDP, the National Conference, and Congress. Regional aspirations must have played a role in Kashmir, but not religion. Even as people were outraged by the Congress-led government’s hanging of Afzal Guru – sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament – the Sopore constituency where he hailed from ironically returned a Congress candidate to the assembly. The Ladakh region, which has four seats, chose the Congress, although by default. Three of the four candidates (one independent candidate won from Zanskar) were elected purely because of their personal influence, and not because of their party.
“Our lives, property, faith and culture will be in danger”
The National Conference and the Congress offered support to the PDP, to keep the BJP away. This could have been possible with the support of a few independents. There were reports that the BJP and the National Conference had a failed round of negotiations in Delhi two days after the results were declared. Both the parties deny the reports.
The PDP is facing a dilemma. On the one hand, they have maintained that they cannot trust the National Conference and allying with the Congress, according to a PDP insider, was “against the mandate of people”, but on other they will have to walk on a razor’s edge to deal with the BJP.
Ideologically, the PDP and the BJP are poles apart. BJP’s integrationist agenda for Kashmir is diametrically opposite to PDP’s self-rule agenda. But they still opened up back-channel communication, and even exchanged papers, for forming an alliance. PDP’s patron and an old horse of Kashmir politics Mufti Mohammad Sayeed considered an alliance with the BJP, especially because he wanted to take along the Jammu region, which has voted overwhelmingly for BJP. “There would be a vacuum if we would go with the National Conference or the PDP, because there would be no participation in the government from Jammu, and no elected member from the Hindu dominated belt in the cabinet,” a senior PDP leader explained. “So the motive was to seek more time to find a middle path.”
But Omar Abdullah’s decision to call it a day half way prompted NN Vohra to recommend Governor’s Rule. The talks between the PDP and the BJP have not been called off, and the BJP has not refused to discuss some crucial points on Mufti’s agenda: a resumption of dialogue with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists, keeping Article 370 of the Indian constitution – which gives a special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir – off the table, strengthening cross-LoC confidence building measures, and the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain areas of the state. Insiders say that structured dialogue could begin any time. But the rumor is that the BJP may drag the process further, with the elections in Delhi scheduled for next month.
Other parties are upping the ante against the PDP, and the separatists have joined the chorus. Their standard response to elections has always been that they are a futile exercise. But with the BJP poised to come in power, even the hardest of the hardliners, Syed Ali Geelani, issued a literal warning to PDP. “If the state is handed over to people having fascist ideologies, then a do-or-die situation will be created for our nation, because our lives, property, faith and our culture will be in danger,” he said, adding that the Muslim identity was at stake. These are the most testing times in Mufti’s 50-year career.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the state is in a chaotic situation and the administration is being manned by bureaucrats. The successful elections – which had always been a challenge in Jammu and Kashmir – had rekindled hopes for a stable government. Now, the Kashmir commoner is angry that the political parties could not put their rivalry behind and work together to to give them a government they deserved. As the Governor’s Rule continues, there are concerns what happened in Delhi is not repeated in Jammu and Kashmir. No one wants a reelection in the state.
The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Srinagar