A credible democratic exercise has just concluded in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Media is agog with rumours on government formation based more on arithmetic than any analysis on how the outcome could be best utilised to strengthen the peace process and to resolve the conflict in this sensitive state.
It is significant that in the 2014 assembly elections in J&K, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made tremendous electoral gains at the cost of the ruling coalition partners, the National Conference (NC) and the Congress party. The huge margin of victory of some BJP candidates in Jammu province is clearly suggestive of a wave which could not cross the Pir Panchal. It is also creditable that 65 per cent of the voters exercised their franchise – the highest ever in an election in the past 25 years in J&K. The poll percentage in the assembly elections held after the turmoil had prevented elections in early 90s was 54 in 1996, 43 in 2002 and 61 in 2008. These statistics are surely indicative of important political trends but do they open a new window to the peace process and conflict resolution?
The biggest positive towards peace in this electoral exercise lay in the credible manner in which it was carried out. This has to been seen in the backdrop that the rigged assembly election of 1987 is widely cited as one of the important causes of the conflict. The complexity of the elections in the conflict area has totally changed with the voters’ faith in the elections progressively increasing since 1996. The Indian democracy has been a victor and this will not go unnoticed in the strife-torn state as well as to the international community.
The allegiance to the Indian state in Jammu and Ladakh is almost total. Therefore, the variation in the vote per cent in these areas is incidental to the peace process. However, defying the separatists’ boycott call in the Kashmir valley and coming out to vote in large numbers in militancy-affected areas as well as constituencies with sizeable separatist influence is a big increment to the peace process. Sopore constituency – which the separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has represented three times – has elected a Congress candidate and polled 30 per cent votes as against 20 in 2008 and 8 in 2002. This segment polled a mere 1.03 per cent in the recent Lok Sabha polls. Similarly, the eight constituencies in Srinagar city, most of which have, under the separatists’ influence, been boycotting elections, have shown a sizeable turnout. True, some of it may be to neutralise the impact of postal ballots of the migrant voters. It is significant that the higher voter turnout in these has benefitted the PDP that has wrested five seats from the NC in the city.
Constituencies in south Kashmir still affected by residual militancy, such as Tral, Shopian, Pulwama and Pampore, registered a healthy voter turnout. Each of these seats have been won by PDP candidates.
The most important dividend of the elections comes from north Kashmir, where the People’s Conference, led by former separatist leader Sajad Gani Lone, won seats from Handwara and Kupwara. Though separatists have been participating earlier as proxy candidates, this is the first time that they have won seats under a party banner. They have realised the futility of violence and politics of agitations. The ballot has won over the bullet. This is a shot in the arm of the peace process.
Indo-Pak relations have nose-dived in 2014. There have been over 560 ceasefire violations – by far the highest after the ceasefire came into operation in 2003. The new year has begun with a series of ceasefire violations and a war of words. The boat incident off the coast of Gujarat and intercepts pointing fingers at Pakistani authorities show desperation across the border. Therefore, there is little chance of resumption of talks between the two neighbours any time soon.
The nature of electoral verdict with a clear divide along the two regions will not allow any significant forward movement on addressing the internal dimension, particularly the relationship between the Indian Union and the state, even within the limits of the Constitution. Any acceptable political solution will be difficult to reach with the two dominant political entities representing diametrically opposite views on issues like dialogue with Pakistan, autonomy, self-rule, Article 370, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
In the absence of any possibility of resolving the internal dimension of the conflict politically or early resumption of talks with Pakistan, the peace process may have to be restricted for some time to an agenda of development and slow but definite ongoing process of ‘integration’ of the state of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India. Any attempt at ‘assimilation’ will be resisted and will be highly counterproductive. The process of isolating separatists has begun but their weakening influence must not be taken for granted. The electorate has chosen their representatives by putting their lot with Indian democracy after defying the gun and separatists. Those mandated are the best equipped to totally isolate the separatists. This must not be lost sight of if the gains of the democratic exercise are to be taken forward to bring peace in the state.