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Let’s not get it wrong again

It’s an undeniably complex situation and Omar Abdullah is probably about to begin the toughest phase of his political life, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2009 21:28 IST

This was perhaps the most important election to take place in Jammu and Kashmir since 1957 when the first Assembly was voted in. If 2002 restored the credibility of the vote, 2008 underlined the willingness of the Kashmiri people to engage with the political process as long as two conditions are met: no militant threats and no coercion to vote.

And perhaps, never before had the pundits, the pollsters and even the state’s politicians, got it so wrong in the run-up to any election. Most of us believed that the Amarnath controversy had not just split the state widen open, it emboldened the separatists like never before. Protests were embl-ematic of the anger and alienation on both sides of the Pir Panjal. Mainstream parties in the Valley worried about electioneering in an environment of rage and pushed New Delhi to postpone polls. Pro-azaadi writers claimed Kashmir’s moment of truth was now marked on the calendar; nationalist liberals reached the same conclusion for the opposite reason.

The Valley was India’s albatross, they argued and it was time to let go. But amid the naysayers, the Prime Minister held his own, insistent that the polls must be held on schedule. The turnout — the highest in 20 years even in urban centres of discontentment like Srinagar — told its own story. The PM was right; we were all wrong. But now as the analysis stocks up and the expert editorials pour in, here’s the irony: we might just be in danger of getting it wrong all over again.

The postmortems have lurched between the extreme positions of triumphalism and denial. If pithy phrases like ‘a vote for India’ define the naïve excitement of one camp, utterly falsified rhetoric of ‘vote under military siege’ marks the aggressive cover-up of the other. There are those in New Delhi who are now making flamboyant and incorrect claims that separatism was always an exaggerated sentiment. Equally, there are those in the separatist camp, who remain ostrich heads, unwilling or unable to read the new writing on the wall. The truth, sadly, is too complex to be squeezed into the confines of snappy, four-word headlines. And there are a few different truths that we all need to grapple with and understand, as the state seeks a new start.

There is no question that the elections have been a huge blow to the separatists. Their boycott call was a failure. Some legitimate questions may have been raised over whether a confident democracy needs to lock away dissenters in prison or behind the four walls of their homes. But it’s more than clear that even if the Hurriyat leaders were out and about, their call to stay away from elections found no resonance with the people. Many of them have conceded a need to “introspect.” Sajjad Lone, whose party controversially fielded proxy candidates in 2002 in a tentative experiment with elections, went to so far as to say, it was time for them to “lead, follow, or get out”.

But if the separatists have been hit hard, is that enough of a basis to declare the demise of separatism? An alternative narrative has now been created to position the elections as a mere mechanism for governance. People are voting — or so goes this argument — for bijli, sadak, paani issues — and not on the larger Kashmir issue.

Young bloggers affiliated to separatist groups have congratulated the charismatic new Chief Minister for being the “best administrator” the state could hope for. In others words, this narrative distinguishes between people’s daily problems and issues of identity. Yet, this too is a vastly over-simplified construct. In fact, perhaps never before has any election campaign welded together development with identity politics. Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP made the contentious slogan of ‘self-rule’ its election centrepiece. The PDP — whose politics is often indistinguishable from that of the separatists — is out of power today but not before increasing both its vote and seat share. It has possibly managed to stave off anti-incumbency because of its provocative politics. The National Conference doesn’t play as radical an identity card as its rival, but restoring Kashmir’s historical autonomy has long been part of its manifesto. And Omar Abdullah’s passionate speech on the Amarnath controversy in Parliament is widely seen to be a defining moment of his political life. Both Valley parties have also agreed on issues like porous borders, trade across the line of control, reduced troop presence and the release of political prisoners. It’s the first time that the Assembly will not have a single Kashmiri Pandit. But in Jammu, identity politics and a sense of regional discrimination have driven the surge of the BJP.

There is a real concern that with the PDP and BJP both in Opposition the discourse in the Assembly will be more polarised than ever before and could play out along clear religious faultlines. In other words, this election is not just about the broken drain and more teachers for the village school. If anything, the fractured verdict is a symbol of the multiple and competing identities and ideologies within the state.

And finally, there is the Pakistan conundrum. If the high turnout was partly because there was no militant violence, did Islamabad agree to turning off the tap? If so, where and how does that reconcile with the attacks in Bombay?

It’s an undeniably complex situation and Omar Abdullah is probably about to begin the toughest phase of his political life. He is plainspeaking, efficient, reasonable and dynamic. With age and charisma on his side, he could be the harbinger of real change in a state that’s crying out for it. But, if he is to succeed, the rest of India needs to see these elections as an opportunity to strengthen the peace process rather than a verdict for status quo.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.