Elections in Jammu and Kashmir are, as we know, much more than a democratic ritual. In the popular imagination, they have been powerful symbols: Of faith and betrayal; of resistance and accommodation; of hope and disillusionment; of confidence and uncertainty.
The 2014 election, the most credible and inclusive since 1977 (when Sheikh Abdullah took on a united national and state opposition and proved his popularity), is a vote for hope and change even while it may have ostensibly produced a fractured and polarised verdict. The real challenge, in the coming months, will be to meet the aspirations of the first-time voters, the young men and women of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the three distinct parts of the state, who have reposed their faith in democracy in such large numbers. Indeed, the elections have provided a rare opportunity to build a truly peaceful and prosperous Jammu and Kashmir. This will, of course, demand a strong partnership between the state and the Centre, no matter what shape the new coalition government may take in the coming days.
While the politics of coalition formation may apparently seem messy, the most-likely next chief minister, the People’s Democratic Party’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (a former chief minister and a Union home minister) is not just one of the wisest political leaders in the state, he is also adept at managing even the most adversarial of partners. As a vice-chancellor to the University of Jammu, during his tenure as chief minister, I witnessed the manner in which Mufti Sahib was able to weave a coalition of the unlikely (including the ‘Jammu nationalist’ Panthers Party, the Congress, the CPI(M), parts of the Kashmiri ‘separatist’ People’s Conference) into a coherent government that had clear direction and meant business, while maintaining the most cordial and constructive relations with the BJP government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the national level. A former Congress leader, Mufti also understands how to balance sub-regional, regional and national aspirations. The greatest disservice that the nation and the Congress did to him and the state was to ask him to step down in 2005, three years after being chief minister in the most bizarre power-sharing arrangement. There can be, of course, no question of that happening during this tenure.
(Amitabh Mattoo is CEO, Australia India Institute, and professor, international relations, University of Melbourne. The views expressed by the author are personal)
Fortunately also, the leaders of the two main national parties with a presence in J&K, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP and the president of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi, understand that the national stakes in the stability of the state are far greater than any partisan agenda. They will need to communicate this clearly to their more opportunistic and feisty state leaders for there can be no bigger mission than the chance to build a new future for the people of the state.
Remember that democracy has had shaky roots in the state. Through the 1950s and the 1960s, stage-managed elections in Jammu were seen as a betrayal of the ‘trust’ of 1947. The 1977 elections, the fairest the state had witnessed since Independence, became a leitmotif of faith and accommodation. The 1987 election, neither free nor fair, paved the way for militancy in the state. Confidence in the democratic process was restored to a considerable extent when for the first time the electorate was able to dislodge the then ruling party in 2002 during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s government. But gone are the days when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to, in the 1950s, reportedly advise the then wazir-i-azam of the state, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, to concede a few seats to his opponents if only to make the election credible in the public perception.
Today, most of the voters of Jammu and Kashmir genuinely believe that elections are free and fair and that they can make a difference. But, they are not under the illusion that elections can sort out the larger ‘Kashmir issue’. They know that the quest for ‘resolution of the Kashmir issue’ cannot be allowed to hold them hostage to dysfunctional governance. Make no mistake, this is a vote that seeks global standards of governance, world-class infrastructure, and new opportunities of education and employment as more and more residents of the state are connected with the world if only through cyber space.
The residents of the state have lived through the traumas of six years of probably the most dysfunctional coalition government in the checkered history of the state. They have seen Srinagar devastated by the floods in September, with no signs of a government for days, and because every rule of urban planning had been violated. They have experienced the gross insensitivity of a local police that killed scores of unarmed teenagers in 2010. They have seen the undermining of all educational standards and the absence of opportunities for employment. They have witnessed the erosion of their forests and the systematic destruction of the environment. They experience, on a daily basis, the lack of basic public services with power outages, contaminated drinking water and septicemic hospitals. They have seen the systematic collusion between self-serving bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. They are unwilling to accept this anymore.
The voters in Jammu may have voted for the BJP, the ones in Kashmir for the PDP and in Ladakh for the Congress, but the plea, the demand, the cry is for a government that cares and that can deliver. It is on the basis of recognising this common aspiration that a common minimum coalition manifesto be formulated. The real long-term importance of the 2014 elections will lie therefore in the manner in which New Delhi and the state government respond to the aspirations of the people and to the multiple challenges that exist within the state. Indeed, the election may have produced a deeply polarised verdict, but paradoxically, in this fractured verdict lies hope, and the possibilities of not just reconciliation within the state but also the chance, finally, of fulfilling the aspirations of all the three regions: Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.