The significantly high voter turnout in the recently concluded seven-phase elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly has become the leitmotif around which all analysis of this event is being structured. This is not entirely misplaced given the large-scale public demonstrations favouring azaadi, or independence, in the Kashmir Valley in the middle of the year posed a question mark on the advisability of holding elections in the State. Even New Delhi had appeared to have doubts about convening elections so soon after the Amarnath agitations had exposed regional and religious fault lines in the State. The separatists, on their part, had seemed to strengthen sufficiently by that agitation to overcome their own divisions and unite again under a single All Parties Hurriyat Conference and had given out a call to boycott these elections.
Under these circumstances, the fact that over 55% of the voters in the Kashmir Valley cast their ballots indicates the significance of the event. It is true that most of these votes came from the rural areas while urban centres like Srinagar, which are the core centres of separatist politics, saw a low 20% voter turnout. But even here the trend has been unmistakable. In the 2002 elections, just over 30,000 people had voted in the eight segments of Srinagar, while this election saw more than 1,11,000 voters exercising their franchise. Factors like the lack of terrorist violence and very tight security arrangements played their part in increasing voter turnout, but the political message given by the people of Kashmir needs careful study and response.
Surprised as they were, the government of India and commentators in Delhi were quick to label this high voter participation a defeat for the demand for azaadi by the majority of the valley’s population. While there is no doubt that the extent of voter participation has been a rebuff to the separatist politicians who called for a poll boycott, it would be wrong for the government to assume that popular support for azaadi has evaporated. It will also be morally wrong to reduce the electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir to scoring points in the geopolitical struggle with Pakistan.
A little more than two decades ago, in 1987, the people of Kashmir had similarly reposed trust in the democratic process only to see the State rig the polls so that the National Conference and the Congress were able to steal the elections from under their nose. It is a well-known fact that most of the separatist and militant leaders emerged out of that “stolen election”. Now that the same parties, the National Conference and the Indian National Congress, are set to form the government in Srinagar, one can only hope that these parties have learnt their lessons from 1987.
The popular participation in these elections should surely be a lesson to the separatist Hurriyat. It has been repeatedly shown in different countries and contexts that the most favoured of causes loses support unless it is willing to be hammered by the people on the anvil of elections. But participation in even imperfect elections is superior to a poll boycott. The Hurriyat, which styles itself as a national liberation movement, should perhaps learn from the experience of the nationalist movement in British India which participated in elections even though they were far from representative and the British were not promising independence. The separatists are weakened, but precisely for this reason it is time to reach out to them for a political agreement. Azaadi is a political slogan which embodies varied aspirations of the people to decide the trajectory of their own lives. It is important to remember that the demand for azaadi as full sovereignty became widespread only after the rigged 1987 elections. The voter participation in the present elections is supposed to have been for “development” and the demands for bijli, paani and sadak (electricity, water and roads). Given the abysmal track record of the State in economic and social development of Jammu and Kashmir, it may well be that the demand for azaadi has always reflected in part the lack of economic and social development. If this is even partly correct, then the demands for development and for azaadi are not as unrelated as they are being made out to be. After all, the People’s Democratic Party, which is supposed to be closest to the separatist position among the mainstream political parties, has been the biggest gainer in terms of votes and seats.
In the Jammu region too, the Amarnath agitation, which threatened to unite the regional and religious cleavages into a potent divisive factor, seems to have had a muted impact. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pitched its platform exclusively on the religious-regional identity fault line, has not been successful. The BJP winning 11 out of 37 seats in the Jammu region should be seen in the context of their having won eight seats in the 1996 elections, one in 2002, and obtaining a lead in 13 assembly segments in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections with 34% of the popular vote. What is also significant is that the BJP has drawn a blank in all the cores of the Amarnath agitation outside Jammu city.
Just when all doors seemed closed in the aftermath of the Amarnath land dispute, the 40 lakh people of Jammu and Kashmir who have voted in the elections have given the government of India another opportunity to search for a political solution to the Kashmir issue. If this opportunity is squandered, the Indian State will be turning the political victory of 2008 into another defeat.
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This is the text of an editorial I drafted on the elections the State Legislature in the Indian Administered part of Jammu and Kashmir, which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly in its 3, January, 2009 edition.