Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Kashmir: A first cut analysis of the just-concluded parliamentary elections

National security was catapulted into being the primary election issue for the first time with the car bombing in Pulwama in mid February and its aftermath in an aerial confrontation between India and Pakistan in the Balakot-Naushera episode.
The strong-on-defence plank of the ruling party has at its core the demonstrated decision making credentials of the prime minister, which the surgical strikes of September 2016, the Balakot aerial strike and the anti-satellite test serve to buttress.
However, such self-projection by the ruling party serves to obscure the deterioration of the situation in Kashmir over its tenure, best illustrated by the polling percentages across the Valley.
In the first phase of polling in Kashmir, people stayed away from 172 polling stations in Srinagar constituency that witnessed 15 per cent voting, a fall by half from the figure of about 25 per cent in 2014.
In the Srinagar by-poll earlier in 2017, triggered by the defection of the sitting parliamentarian, the figure was a mere 7 per cent, accompanied by some 8 civilians killed. The by-poll showing had prompted the postponing of a similar by-poll in Anantnag constituency, the vacated seat of Mehbooba Mufti who moved as chief minister in 2016.
This time round, the polls in Anantnag constituency, epicenter of Kashmiri disaffection in south Kashmir, witnessed about 9 per cent turnout. Despite an unprecedented three-phased poll in the constituency, the last day was hallmarked by two grenade attacks.
Although voting percentages were higher in north Kashmir - the figure for Kupwara district being 51 per cent – this owed to the turnout of largely Pahadi people inhabiting the areas along the Line of Control. Baramula district though declared by the police as terrorist free early this year had 25 per cent polling.
The meager figures cast a cloud over the tacitly-held Indian position that the plebiscite - promised to Kashmiris at accession time - has been provisioned by the extension of Indian democracy to the state.
Evidently, Kashmiris are unimpressed. The panchayat polls in December last year had seen the two major regional parties – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party – staying away, resulting in 41 per cent participation, albeit a marked improvement over the municipal polls in October that featured a 4 per cent turnout. 
The low percentages did not quite need the election boycott call by separatists and militants. In the run up to the polls, the government appeared to be leaving no stone unturned for off-putting Kashmiris.
It banned the Jamaat-i-Islami that has a strong-hold in south Kashmir, and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. It lifted the security cover of some 900 people, as it turned out temporarily for some 400 of them. In the event, one BJP politician was shot in south Kashmir.
Using election security preparedness as excuse, its ban till end May on use of the national highway on two das was upheld when challenged by the Supreme Court. It suspended the decade old confidence building measure of trading at the two points with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Full-throated military operations continued, even as it did not let down its guard on the Pakistan front. Midway between the polls, the figure for terrorists killed upped to 69, their number crossing the Pulwama martyrs’ figure with that of Jaish terrorists killed – an outfit to which the Pulwama car bomber belonged – pegged at 25.
Amplified by a media favouring the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) nationalism plank, these hardline actions appeared to be designed to fetch votes nationally. In the Jammu belt, resulting regional polarization, most recently deepened by the riot-like targeting Kashmiris post-Pulwama, has long been an asset for the BJP.
Importantly, for the future - that is to see the state go to polls in autumn - is the BJP president, Amit Shah, showing of the red-rag - included in its manifesto - on ridding the Constitution of Articles 35A and 370. The BJP’s Kashmir pointsman, Ram Madhav, watered this down while on poll visit to Anantnag, arguing for a developmental agenda instead.
The threat can be taken as election time posturing by the BJP, since a return by it to power will only be being sans its hitherto majority, the threat is unlikely materialize.
The good part is that the political consensus on the inviolability of the two Articles between the mainstream regional parties will prompt wider participation in the forthcoming assembly elections to ensure a viable front against any tampering.
An indicator of their sense of purpose is in their coming together briefly in November last year to bid for governing, that in turn had prompted the governor to dissolve the assembly that had been in suspended animation since June.
In short, the message from the parliamentary elections is of Kashmiri alienation, even if the bright side is that with the message having been conveyed, a wider participation can be expected in the assembly elections. The caveat is whether the next government – to be known on 23 May – carries forward the legacy of the last five years or overturns it.