In the rest of India, the jockeying for power that precedes seat adjustment between coalition partners before a general election evokes little more than tolerant amusement. This is the time when the bargaining power of party cadres in relation to the leaders is at its peak. For if they do not toil mightily to bring out the vote, the leaders will have to kiss goodbye to their aspirations. This is therefore the time when their years of devoted service are acknowledged, and their wishes accommodated. The inevitable outcome is that every coalition partner starts by pitching its demand for seats at a maximum. Everyone knows this, so no one takes the initial demands very seriously. But in Kashmir, this elaborate foreplay is seriously harming the national interest.
For the past four weeks, the Congress has been on a collision course with its partner in the ruling alliance, the People's Democratic Party of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti. The bone of contention is the Congress' insistence that the PDP make way for its candidate in the Baramulla constituency, and give him support from outside. The PDP has pointed out, times without number, that this won't ensure a Congress win, because in the present delicate state of Kashmiri sentiment, the PDP's votes cannot be transferred to a 'national' party, least of all the Congress. As a result, ceding the seat to the Congress could mean gifting it to the National Conference.
The Congress, however, remained unimpressed and insisted on fielding a veteran politician named Ghulam Rasool Kar in Baramulla. The PDP therefore stuck to its guns but agreed to make the Baramulla contest a 'friendly' one, that is, not allow it to wreck the alliance. The PDP's stand is not based on stubbornness or greed. Since it is purely a local party, it makes very little difference to it whether it has two or three seats in Parliament. But it knows that if it acquiesces in such an arrangement (being a Congress prop), it will sign its own death warrant in the Valley. It will commit the exact mistake Farooq Abdullah made in 1987 when he led the NC into a shotgun marriage with the Congress. This immediately caused the Kashmiri nationalist vote, which had turned out for the NC in huge numbers in 1977 and 1983, to desert the party. Overnight a new Muslim United Front was created, and this took away most of the nationalist vote. Fear that it would capture a majority of the Valley seats made Farooq rig the results in some seats. That was the beginning of the end of his party and the start of the insurgency that erupted in 1989.
The Mufti does not want to go down that road, not only because it will mean the end of his much smaller and newer party, but also because by disappointing those willing to give democracy a try, it will strengthen the possibility of a return to violence in the Valley. But the Congress state unit has no such inhibitions. Taking advantage of Kar's ill health, the deputy leader of the party, one Gani Vakil, has announced that the Congress intends to contest all the three seats in the Valley.
The move is absurd because, after the way the Congress deserted the PDP over the women's property bill and prevented it from being passed by a two-thirds majority in the upper house of the state legislature, it is being viewed with undisguised hostility by the majority of the Kashmiris. Its candidates, with the possible exception of Kar, therefore stand to lose their deposits. So why is the Congress high command standing by and doing nothing?
Most Kashmiris are convinced this is the opening gambit of a Congress attempt to dump the PDP and jump into bed with the much larger NC. For, if the Congress contests all three constituencies in the Valley, the contest won't be 'friendly'.The will then have to pull out of the alliance, and this will "leave the Congress with no option, in the interests of stability" but to join hands with the NC.
For Kashmiri separatists, this will be the proof they need that Kashmir has no future within the Indian union. For it will show that even electronic voting machines and Vajpayee's promises do not mean much. There are a hundred ways in which Kashmiri democracy can be subverted, and so long as these exist, opportunistic politicians and rogue bureaucrats in Delhi will not be able to resist the temptation to use them.
For other reasons too, the Congress gambit could not have come at a worse time. The NDA government has systematically prevented the Mufti from implementing his promise to release political detainees and militants whose time in jail exceeds the maximum punishment for the crimes they stand accused of. Only a handful of such people have been released so far and these have been the least consequential detainees. The Mufti government has also not been able to disband the dreaded Special Operations Group of the Kashmir police. Partly as a result of this, custodial deaths and disappearances have continued at more or less the same pace as before.
To cap that, the NDAopposed—and the Congress betrayed—the PDP's effort to close a gap in Article 370 by passing the women's property bill. Small wonder that a respected columnist like Nissar Bhat, of Greater Kashmir, has reminded his readers of the earlier rejection of the Autonomy Bill by the Centre, and concluded that "a policy aimed at systematic erosion of the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian Constitution (has been)...the 'real' political agenda India has always had on Kashmir".
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