Tantalisingly hung, the newly-elected Jammu and Kashmir Assembly will be lucky to last its entire term of six years. In a sense, this is unfortunate because the State – India’s most troubled and volatile – is poised for a new beginning and a clearer verdict would have helped. The biggest surprise is the valley did not deliver a one-way mandate but divided its favours between the People’s Democratic Party, the National Conference and the Congress. In contrast, Jammu, at least the Hindu voters of Jammu, put their faith rather strongly in the BJP.
It could be argued that something similar had happened in 1983, when the Congress swept Jammu – Indira Gandhi was in the midst of her ‘Hindu phase’ – and Farooq Abdullah and the NC took home the support of the Valley. That was a different era. Mr Abdullah’s father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, had died only a few months earlier and the son was a beneficiary of the widespread regard for the ‘Lion of Kashmir’.
This year, the Kashmiri Muslim in the valley has voted with other imperatives. Omar Abdullah, the outgoing Chief Minister, has lost in one of two constituencies he was seeking election from, but the NC has not been reduced to a single-digit non-entity. The PDP is the single-largest party in the State but it is a good 10 seats behind the 37-40 number it was hoping to get. Veteran PDP MLAs have lost, indicating a constituency-level anti-incumbency that was not overwhelmed by any larger pan-valley mood. Far from choosing emotionally or out of fear of a BJP victory -as some commentators have reckoned -have valley voters made rational, bread-and-butter choices based on local issues?
In Jammu, however, a BJP fever has raged in the Hindu areas. Of the Hindu-majority constituencies in the State, the BJP has won all but two and the Congress none. This is very unlike the 2002 election. It makes it difficult to sell a PDP-Congress alliance as a Muslim-Hindu or valley-Jammu partnership. The Congress is a marginal player among the Hindus in Jammu. Sensing this, the PDP, which had tied up with the Congress after a hung verdict in 2002 and shared the chief ministry over a six-year term, is wary of joining hands with the Congress and would prefer the BJP.
However, there is only a small chance that a coalition of the two largest parties – the PDP and the BJP – will materialise. In the short run, such a grand alliance may deliver a stable Government. The alternative – Mufti Mohammad Sayeed of the PDP becoming Chief Minister by stitching together a deal with the Congress and independent legislators – is not as neat but perhaps politically more sustainable.
There are two reasons for this. First, a joint venture with a pro-valley party, particularly one that sees ‘soft separatism’ as its positioning, could hurt the BJP in Jammu and elsewhere. Second, an alliance with the BJP could limit the PDP in the valley and create potential for a political force further to its Right – and still closer to the separatists – that would attempt to outflank it. This is what happened in the mid-1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah pushed the Congress and the NC into an alliance that only sowed the seeds for hard-line politics and finally militancy in the valley.
It is true a PDP-BJP Jugalbandi would throw up tempting possibilities -including a Hindu Chief Minister from Jammu for half the term – but it could be too much of a gamble for the Union Government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to contemplate. This is especially so because the security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is going to change in 2015 and the fallout for Kashmir is uncertain.
Having said that, the mandate Jammu has given the BJP makes it inevitable for Mr Modi’s party to deliver on the grievances of the region and the demands for autonomy. For years, Jammu has felt that the noise and politics of the Valley have reduced it to second-class status. The absence of census and demographic data and delimitation of constituencies has meant Jammu has fewer seats in the State Assembly and in Parliament than it deserves. The BJP and the Modi Government will be expected to address at least some of these concerns. At the minimum, the urges for a regional council in Jammu, with a reasonable budget and robust administrative freedom, can no longer be ignored.