Divorces can get very ugly. That does not augur well for fresh elections in Jammu and Kashmir. For, in case elections have to be held, it will be in the backdrop of the break-up of the PDP-BJP coalition, which came together after the 2014 assembly elections.
Every party would have to try extra hard to maintain the sort of mature and sober campaign discourse that has been the norm in each of the four rounds assembly elections in the troubled state over the past two decades. Both the PDP and the BJP will be on the defensive. Each would be under pressure to take up divisive issues in order to defend its role in government during 2015.
Unfortunately, the 'Agenda of Alliance' which both parties agreed but did not implement is an explosive basket of potentially divisive issues. These have the potential to polarize the state even more than it was in the 1983 assembly elections – along Jammu versus Kashmir and Hindu versus Muslim lines then.
It is far too easy to forget history, even recent history, but it was the Centre’s gross mishandling of Kashmir between the 1983 and 1987 elections that was largely responsible for the start of militancy in 1988. Farooq Abdullah’s party was split in 1984, and his brother-in-law installed with Congress support. `Curfew raj’ followed amid popular protests. Then came Governor’s rule.
That ended with a shotgun alliance in 1986: Abdullah was forced to accept Congress support. Mid-term elections in 1987 were ham-handedly rigged. Election workers like Yasin Malik and Hamid Sheikh were beaten and arrested. They became militant commanders. Yousuf Shah, who was the candidate for Amira Kadal constituency, now heads Hizbul Mujahideen, having taken the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin.
Three decades on, even just the Centre’s delays in releasing funds would be a potent issue in the Valley. In the charged situation there, starving the state of funds could be very easily interpreted as oppressive, even as communally motivated. In the backdrop of 2014’s devastating floods, the issue is particularly emotive.
This could become a far more emotional issue if campaign speeches were to bring up the late chief minister Mufti Sayeed’s repeated appeals for the release of promised funds, even from his death-bed. That could easily dovetail with his having to beg for funds in the preceding period, and the dismissive remark of Prime Minister Modi in a public speech in Srinagar that he did not need advice on Kashmir from anyone – just after Sayeed had made some points in his speech.
The issue of handing over control of power projects located in the state to the state is another highly charged issue. There has been a lot of propaganda about the 'loot of the state’s water resources by colonizing India'. The economics of transferring control – not to speak of its implications in other states – make if most unlikely. Yet, it was mutually agreed in the Agenda of Alliance, and then publicly refused by the Central government.
Particularly in light of extraordinary sensitivities in that state, one is forced to wonder at the degree of seriousness with which the two sides spent two months to hammer out that agreement. It is over the implementation of that agreement that PDP President Mehbooba Mufti is now asking for assurances. The Centre is unwilling.
To argue that the agreement, negotiated by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, did not bind the Central government is lame. In Kashmir, such an argument will boost belief in a long record of double-faced treachery by India’s leaders, a discourse that has been vigorously promoted over several decades.
For its part, the BJP will find it difficult to face sections of its supporters in the Jammu region, if elections were to be held soon. The Agenda of Alliance promised to provide long-sought relief to those (Hindus and Sikhs) who took refuge there during the partition riots, from parts of the state and of Punjab which are now under Pakistan’s control. The RSS has played on their sentiments and resentments for decades.
If the party chooses to bring up issues like Mufti Sayeed thanking Pakistan for allowing the smooth conduct of elections, or the release of Masarat Alam soon after his government took office, such rhetoric would inadvertently boost secessionist sentiment in the Valley.
Valley politicians could in turn take up issues like arson attacks over the beef ban issue in the Udhampur area, in one of which a teenaged truck cleaner was burnt to death. Indeed, the entire beef ban issue could very easily spring up.
Such are the sensitivities of such issues that they can be extremely polarizing. The entire political establishment would have to walk on eggshells to prevent an election campaign from becoming dangerously divisive.
Trends that indicate the increasing popularity of militants are another reason to worry. In the Valley, disappointments with the entire democratic process could make people more responsive to boycott calls. So far, there has been a consistent increase in voter turnout in each successive round of assembly elections since 1996.
After the repeated rigging of elections, culminating in 1987, people have generally gained confidence in the efficacy of democratic processes over the past two decades. It would be tragic if the gains of that hard-won process are lost.