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Omar’s Report Card
Passed with flying colours
Promises he failed to keep
One of the most eagerly awaited of 2014’s assembly polls, in Jammu & Kashmir, gained added piquancy with the BJP’s declared target of winning 44 seats (an absolute majority in the assembly, with 87 seats) and the probability of its installing a Hindu CM in the Muslim-majority state. The BJP’s plan for J&K has created unease in the state, where the legitimacy of elections is as contested as the land itself.
In the thick of it all is party president Amit Shah. Backed by cadres from the RSS, the architect of the BJP’s stunning success in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha polls is trying his best to turn the newly-minted slogan ‘Dilli hui hamari, ab Kashmir ki bari’ (we’ve won Delhi, it’s now Kashmir’s turn) into reality. The tenure of the current assembly ends on January 19, 2015, and polls are expected this October or November.
BJP leaders are lavishing attention on Jammu, where the party won 11 of 37 seats in the 2008 assembly polls (their best performance in the state). They aim at a tally of 25 seats this time. But in the Kashmir Valley, with its 46 seats, the party is on unsure ground. And conscious of Kashmiri Muslims’ deep antipathy for the saffron brigade, the BJP is largely banking on the migrant Kashmiri Pandit community who are eligible to vote in the assembly polls. Party leaders and RSS workers have launched a massive campaign to woo the Pandits. Door-to-door enrolment is under way in Jammu, Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon, where most Pandits have resettled after their migration from the Valley in 1990.
Although the BJP has asked its handful of supporters in the Valley to give it ‘five lotuses’ (five seats), it’s mainly eyeing the three assembly seats of Habba Kadal, Amira Kadal and Sopore. Habba Kadal, a sensitive area in downtown Srinagar, has over 24,000 migrant votes in its roster. Average voting in the constituency hasn’t exceeded 2,000 in the last three assembly elections. The BJP believes that a mobilisation of just 5,000 migrant votes would seal the seat for them, as Muslim voters have stayed away in the past in response to separatists’ call to boycott polls.
Similarly, Amira Kadal and Sopore constituencies have over 12,000 and 6,000 migrant votes, respectively. The BJP says a seat or two from the Valley and two out of four from Ladakh is enough to change J&K’s political paradigm. Moti Kaul, president of the All India Kashmiri Samaj, who recently joined the BJP in Shah’s presence, claims there’re around 4,00,000 eligible Pandit voters across the country, but only 1,26,000 are registered. Efforts are on to enrol the rest, and at least 30,000 new voters have been registered for the elections.
“A jingoistic venture in Kashmir will further alienate Kashmiris. The BJP itself would help achieve azadi for Kashmiris.”
Kashmiri journalist Yusuf Jameel says the BJP will also encourage people to join the fray as independents and rope in smaller regional and ethnic groups to ensure a division of anti-BJP votes. Unconfirmed reports say that the party leadership has roped in former separatists like Sajjad Lone and independent MLA Sheikh Abdul Rashid. “The BJP would also try,” says Jameel, “to cash in on the election boycott call from separatists. If Kashmiri Muslims obey the boycott call, or even otherwise, the Pandits would be the BJP’s best bet.”
Indeed, if the BJP is able to dictate who forms the next government, it will be the most significant political development in J&K’s turbulent political history. But Jameel and others aren’t willing to concede that the BJP would even approach its ambitious target. It’s practically impossible if elections are free and fair, says Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor at the Central University of Kashmir, “but given the fact that elections in Kashmir are always manipulated, as conceded by (L.K.) Advani in his autobiography, BJP’s dream can become a reality.”
Hussain has a word of caution for policymakers in New Delhi. He says the “jingoistic ventures” on Kashmir, upon which the BJP under Modi is embarking, will further alienate Kashmiris and might be ranked, along with the Gujarat riots, as one of Modi’s biggest mistakes. So if the BJP comes to power in Kashmir, Hussain says, Kashmiris wouldn’t have to go a long way towards achieving their dream of azadi. “The BJP would do that.”
Views such as these, about the potentially extreme consequences of the BJP’s probable success, find an echo in conversations across the Valley and in newspaper editorials. Strange irregularities further increase a sense of foreboding. A huge controversy erupted recently when it became known that thousands of EVM machines for the polls were to be brought in from Gujarat, and that teams of electoral officers and scores of vehicles were dispatched for the purpose. Amidst howls of opposition protests, the Election Commission cancelled the plan.
Shakeel Qalandar, a businessman and member of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, says the ‘Mission 44+’ seems to be “one of the sinister designs of the BJP to achieve its so-called assimilation of Kashmir with a Hindu union to erase our cultural, political and social identity”.
An editorial in the daily Greater Kashmir said the probability of the BJP of forming a government in J&K was remote, “yet any such plan that would seek to resort to unprincipled political engineering would have serious consequences for the peace and tranquility of this already-troubled state.”
Kashmir’s other minorities, like the Sikh community, which largely stayed put in the Valley despite the gruesome Chittisinghpora massacre, have misgivings too. Jagmohan Singh Raina, a prominent Sikh leader and chairman of the All Parties Sikh Coordination Committee, says, “Of course, we’re worried.... I wonder whether the BJP really believes that Kashmir is an integral part of India, because they’re out to burn Kashmir by polarising the people along religious lines. They appear desperate to break the fragile socio-political fabric of the state.”
Raina draws attention to the BJP president’s August 25 address in Jammu. “The BJP government will help get justice for Jammu, as the various governments have meted out step-motherly treatment to the region,” Shah had said. Raina wonders what the BJP would achieve by pitting Jammu against the Kashmir Valley.
In fact, by invoking the death of Syama Prasad Mookerji, the Jana Sangh founder and one of the earliest detractors of Article 370, in a Jammu jail in 1953, Shah dropped enough hints that the party wanted to repeal the umbilical cord connecting J&K with the Indian Union. “Kashmir is always remembered with the slogan ‘Jahan hue balidaan Mookerjee, woh Kashmir hamara hai’,” he had said. “I have got this chance to pay a real tribute to our great leader by installing a BJP government in the assembly elections and the entire party will tirelessly work for this mission.”
Shah also asserted that an elected BJP government in J&K would “send the right signal to the world”, a remark seen by P.G. Rasool, an astute political commentator in Kashmir, as a bid by the BJP to reorient global positioning on the Kashmir issue. “They’re probably eyeing support of the global Zionist lobby, particularly with the Modi government seemingly altering India’s traditional pro-Palestine stance during the recent Gaza crisis,” says Rasool. “Thus the ‘Mission 44+’ would not only communalise Kashmir but spark new debates too.”
So much for the anxieties bred by the BJP’s Kashmir plan. On the other hand, all Kashmiris harbour a deep anger for the ruling National Conference and its bete noire, the PDP, perceived as New Delhi’s agents in Kashmir.
Many politically conscious Kashmiris say that to outsmart each other, both parties go the extra mile to do New Delhi’s bidding. As senior journalist Hilal Mir put it caustically, “I am all for an RSS-ised chief minister for J&K. A Dogra or a Pandit chief minister, who surely will not be confused, unlike a Kashmiri Muslim, about where his interests lie, might also give us a cue where we should be headed.” Mir says that while the PDP, led by former J&K chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, call the Abdullahs Delhi’s puppets and the compliment is returned by the other side, “the truth is that both the families have irreparably harmed Kashmiris’ interests to please Delhi”.
There’s some truth in what he says. When Omar—young scion of the Abdullahs, who have helmed J&K for much of the past 68 years—took over in January 2009, he had promised to undo the mistakes committed by his father, three-time CM Farooq Abdullah. Among other things, Omar was gung-ho about the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gives sweeping powers to the army in J&K (see box). It wouldn’t be, however, an exaggeration to say that Omar failed or reneged on most of the other promises made in his 2008 election manifesto. A cursory look at his government’s six-year report card (the J&K assembly has a six-year tenure) speaks of endemic corruption, zero administrative accountability and a similar conviction rate in corruption cases. Unsurprisingly, J&K has earned the unenviable epithet, “second-most corrupt state after Bihar”.
Another failure of Omar was over the promise of restoring the pre-1953 autonomous status to J&K that the state enjoyed under Article 370, but was systemically eroded by New Delhi. ‘Autonomy plus’, he had promised, would be his government’s political mantra, but then he subsequently welcomed the report of the Justice Saghir-led working group on Centre-state relations, itself a dilution of the NC’s version of autonomy. Omar later set up a committee to study the Saghir report but it dribbled into insignificance—the panel was given repeated extensions after the NC’s coalition ally Congress opposed his plans.
Though Omar’s office ignored Outlook’s requests for an interview, when a New Delhi daily asked him about his failed promises he had said, “I have been consistently saying that no matter how much money is thrown at this (Kashmir) problem, how many economic measures we take, it will not be resolved unless we resolve it politically. If there is a breakdown of electricity, people come out on the streets...shouting slogans of azadi. I tried my level best, but there are lots of things that were outside my control.”
Compounding Omar’s woes is former coalition partner Congress. The latter not only rejected any pre-poll alliance with NC, but many of its leaders from Jammu are now spewing venom of a certain sort to outdo the BJP on its Hindutva agenda. Recently, senior Congress leader and state government minister Sham Lal Sharma recently said that “there is nothing in the constitution that prevents a Hindu from becoming the chief minister. The next chief minister should be a Hindu. There is nobody to take care of the interests of the Jammu region”.
“I am all for a RSS-ised Pandit or Dogra CM who won’t be confused, unlike a Kashmiri Muslim, about where his true interests lie.”
The Abdullahs and the Muftis don’t see eye to eye, but they’re equally wary of the BJP’s Kashmir march. While Omar has announced he will retire from politics if the party gets a majority in the assembly polls, the PDP says their election slogans are fraught with immense possibilities of disruption and turmoil. “We are a drop in the ocean of the Indian state, the only Muslim-majority province. What are you trying to do by setting out to smother or snatch its identity politically and constitutionally? After all, the renewed debate over Article 370 and the admission of a petition against it in the Supreme Court is not a matter of accident,” PDP spokesman Naeem Akhtar had said in an interview. “The only way the BJP can hope to fulfil its fantasy is by leaving the state violently riven.”
Lastly and crucially, on the other extreme of Kashmir’s political landscape are the separatist leaders, whose meetings with the Pakistani envoy in New Delhi prompted the Modi government to call off the foreign secretary talks with Islamabad. They say they’re game for anything in the wake of fast-moving developments after Modi catapulted to power in Delhi. Says jklf chief Yasin Malik, “The people of India have chosen Modi as prime minister. Now that he has decided to take a hardline approach (on Kashmir), we are ready to face that and we will strengthen our movement.”
Hardliner Syed Ali Geelani, the aging patriarch of the Kashmiri movement, has already launched a silent election boycott campaign in the Valley. His supporters are going from door-to-door “to make people aware about the impact of elections on the Kashmir issue”. Three-time MLA Geelani, who is under house arrest for the past six months, says, “If the pro-India parties can ask people to vote, we also have a right to appeal them to stay away from elections. Authorities are frustrated by our successful election boycott campaign during parliamentary elections and that is why they have put so many restrictions on us.”
Geelani’s estranged colleague in the erstwhile united Hurriyat Conference, Abdul Gani Bhat, likens the BJP’s ‘Mission 44+’ to a reverie. “Let them enjoy their daydreams,” he told Outlook. When asked about the many Kashmiris who have voted despite election boycott calls, he retorts, “Certainly, they’ve voted and for whatever reasons, but I am sure a Kashmiri would never vote for fascists.”
The barrage of argumentative artillery, fed by distaste and scorn, ranged against the BJP in Kashmir does form public opinion, but the party and its tenacious, canny leaders can’t just be wished away. As demonstrated in April-May this year, it has developed an amazing knack of turning reveries into reality.
By Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar