Jammu and Kashmir polls in 1996 were watershed moment for state; mistakes must not be repeated in 2018-19
It is obvious that the risk element in the decision to conduct local polls in Jammu and Kashmir in 2018 was extremely high
When a state faces a security situation that has festered for the better part of 28 years, there is enough to look at in terms of precedence in order to draw lessons. Those who do so and then take calculated risks do come out the better. However, those who examine situations in isolation, thereby ignoring numerous past instances, tend to get it wrong. It may be recalled that when Assembly elections were conducted in Jammu and Kashmir in 1996, preceded by the Lok Sabha polls, it was just seven years after the commencement of the turbulence in Kashmir. The spread to the Jammu region was not yet complete.
It was one of the boldest decisions to conduct those elections in the face of international condemnation — something aimed at India for human rights violations, on the back of a virulent campaign by Pakistan. An overall turnout of 53 percent across the state then, wasn't a bad achievement. Assembly elections were perceived as 'bread and butter' elections where other considerations such as autonomy or azadi were hardly poll issues. Viewed in security terms, 1996 was the time when violence was just tapering with the pipeline of foreign terrorists (FTs) from the Afghan war nearing a 'dry-up' and Pakistani terrorists not yet having made their mark to the extent they did later.
It marked a considerable turn towards the positive with the reintroduction of democracy and an elected government in place. On the back of it, doctrinal changes took place with far greater humanisation of the internal conflict situation and the introduction of greater soft power. Given this achievement, there could have been progressive improvement with the people not fully convinced that they could go alone or with Pakistan; the whole idea of 'Kashmir banega Pakistan' or 'Hum kya chahte? Azadi!' had not convincingly sunk in, which is why the 'bread and butter polls' were not yet unpopular.
It's a different issue that Pakistan, sensing the ground shifting, upped the ante and infiltrated hordes of Pakistani FTs, took the battle into the Jammu region as well. The situation that was coming marginally under control between 1996 and 1999 turned nasty in 1999 with Kargil, leading to the worst year — in 2001, almost 2,100 terrorists were killed (the highest point on the graph of terrorist kills). It's good to keep this bit of history in mind given the dynamic situation that prevails in Jammu and Kashmir from time to time.
Analysing and commenting on the current security situation in the state requires a quick review of the just-completed polls for the municipal bodies in the state, the first part of which ended a few days ago and results were declared on Saturday. However, interest had obviously waned the moment the two mainstream regional parties, the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party withdrew from the fray. A 4.2 percent voting in the Valley brought down the overall polling percentage to 35.1 percent. The extremely low turnout was quite different from the 45 percent turnout in the 2005 municipal polls that had seen as volatile an area such as Handwara cross 80 percent.
National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah recently observed, "(B)y holding elections without trying to address anger on the streets and compounding that by believing that an election without National Conference and PDP would have any meaning, all that the Central government has been able to achieve is the least credible election in the state". How far this is true and how far an incorrect reading of the situation has led to any of what Omar believes is as-yet-unknown.
It is obvious that the risk element in the decision to conduct local polls in 2018 was extremely high. Yet, it wasn't any higher than in 1996 when the experiment to bring democracy was being attempted for the first time since militancy hit the state. What is different in 2018 is that there is a generational change. We have to simply accept that alienation in 2018 is of a much higher order. The citizenry in 1996 believed in fighting the battle against the rest of India, but sincerely believed that the battle was isolated from the existential 'bread and butter' issues that needed to be gained politically.
In other words, there was still a belief in India.
That belief existed in 2005 when poll percentages were still high and in 2011, when the percentages were even higher in the rural bodies' polls. Our collective failure has been the inability to use those trends and take them to the next generation. In all the elections after 1996, there still existed hope among the people; somehow that hope has been destroyed, but not inextricably. Despite the far lower strength of terrorist encounters, these are reported more virally through social media and the soft power effort even if present always gets a backseat. The media channels from Delhi are not helpful at all in the face of the fact that it is the information domain that dominates and influences. Pakistan's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) rubs its hands in glee even as it sits back and watches many in the Indian media do the job for it. The Indian media has to realise that subtlety is the name of the winning game and not brazenness.
With the municipal polls turnout being so low, one cannot hope for anything better in the panchayat polls in the rural areas. Even once the newly-composed panachayats are in place, it will depend on how they are empowered to perform. Pakistan is not going to sit idle as already proven by recent events at the LoC and the hinterland. There are a few things the governor's administration must do through this winter to make an impact and hopefully trigger a change.
First, it must aim to give relatively higher level of administrative comfort to the people in terms of winter management. Second, get the representatives of all three regions to meet more often through the winter; they could be representatives from education, legal, business, women's groups, panchayats and municipal bodies, administrators or any others; it should just be 'meeting of minds'-type events held frequently. Third, an ardent effort towards counselling for youth to self-assess and get better informed on employment opportunities. Fourth, an initiation of religious discourse of a moderate line through visual media and short videos to seed ideas on Kashmir's tolerant past. Fifth, empowerment of local bodies and energising them with financial allotments. Half-yearly and annually achievable targets for each such body should be framed to display how local self-governance makes a difference. Sixth and very important, is to continue working on stabilising the security environment through better management of the Unified Command.
What should definitely not be done is to ignore the National Conference and PDP, the two regional mainstream parties. The governor's administration must continue to consult them as they are assets that only the ill-informed in rest of India will not acknowledge. The local bodies' polls could have gotten away with some reported proxies as Independents, but this cannot extend to the General Election or Assembly polls. Omar is not wrong at least on one thing: Elections must have local credibility, at least to some extent.
Pakistan sensed it may have been going wrong in 1996 and did a course correction. That opportunity should not be presented again in 2018-19.
The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former general officer commanding 15 and 21 Corps
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