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Home / Columns / A vacuum can be dangerous, J-K needs a govt for India's sake

A vacuum can be dangerous, J-K needs a govt for India's sake

The free and fair elections of 2014 in Jammu and Kashmir can give birth to new beginnings but only if this chance is not obliterated by the narrowness of power-seeking, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Jan 03, 2015, 12:22 IST

In all the frenzied speculation over whether ideological antagonists like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Narendra Modi can suddenly turn allies, it is easy to forget how arduous and bloody the journey for Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) has been to even get to this point.

This is not like any other state where political machinations, unstable coalitions, frequent elections or even a spell of governor's rule all come with the turf. It may be tempting to see the electoral impasse in the state as a sign of the 'new normal', but it would be disastrously delusional to do so. In a state where prior to 2002 the vote was often manipulated or coerced, the price tag on democracy is now so high that J-K simply cannot afford not to have an elected government. To make the 2014 election possible, lives have been lost, provocations from Pakistan defied, boycott politics challenged and serious career-altering risks taken by erstwhile separatists who have gambled with their embrace of mainstream politics.

Above all let's not forget the voter turnout. The willingness of the people to engage with the electoral process in significantly greater numbers than before presents an opportunity to place new building blocks on the edifice of hope and design a fresh architecture of peace. For all this to end in governor's rule would be not just miserably underwhelming; it would be dangerously undermining of a high-stakes democracy project that is at the heart of healing a wounded state.

As a long-time Kashmir watcher, it's not that I believe that elections are a prescription for all the historical ailments of the state. In fact it is illusory to mix up issues of every-day governance - which remains why a lot of people vote - with a larger political conclusion. But the fact that democracy has provided a constitutional framework for the soft separatism of parties like the PDP and its slogan of 'self-rule' is a much more imaginative way to marginalise the hardline 'azaadi' camp than diktats from Delhi. These elections were not an end in themselves but they were certainly a chance at a new start. To see them end in a non-government is to take J-K back to the drawing board. This critical moment in the state's history calls for statesmanship over self-interest.

The Mufti's innovative idea of leading a grand 'national' government in J-K - one supported by both the Congress and the BJP - in the larger interests of India may well be utopian and abstractly academic. But idealism is not a disqualification in itself and the proposal is worth dissecting for the spirit of what drives it. Implicit in the invocation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee by his daughter Mehbooba is the argument that the state needs consensus to counter conflict and bi-partisanship to defeat the bullet.

In real terms that politically accommodate how both regions, Jammu and the Valley, have voted, the only logical outcome is a joining of hands between the BJP and the PDP. The National Conference's offer of support to the PDP, while dramatic and with strong street support in the Valley, excludes Jammu entirely. It was perhaps more a googly designed to knock out a joint-innings between the Mufti and Modi. So unless Omar Abdullah decides to back a BJP-led government, which is unlikely, the only reasonably representative political formation left is the unlikely combination of the BJP and the PDP.

Yes, its arithmetic seemingly defies chemistry. What could possibly be the meeting ground between the ultra-nationalism of the BJP and the sub-nationalism of the Mufti's party? How would they agree on Article 370, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, dialogue with Pakistan and inflammable issues like the delimitation of constituencies? The questions are fair and both parties would need to be moderating influences on each other, softening the other's angularities with a common minimum programme that agrees to set aside contentious issues for the present. Ideological labels may prevent these compromises from being stated too explicitly. But the recent past is a ready reckoner to understand that this is possible. We forget now that without being a formal ally of the BJP, the Mufti not just shared the stage with Vajpayee during the former PM's historical Srinagar rally of 2003; his party even helped mobilise people to attend it. With the Mufti at the helm in the state and the NDA in power at the Centre there was a synchronicity in the peace process. The meeting between the separatists and LK Advani was the highest level contact between the Hurriyat and any government in Delhi. Again, it was in the NDA years that intelligence agencies initiated the first and only overt round of talks with a faction of the Hizbul Mujahedeen, the Valley's homegrown terror group. Public memory is short but the Vajpayee years permitted the Mufti to explore what he called his 'healing touch' unhindered.

So while the decision to ally with the BJP in India's only Muslim-majority state is politically fraught with risk for any Valley-based party, especially at this moment when Hindutva rabble-rousers have dominated headlines more than development slogans; to leave a political power vacuum in a state where peace is always tenuous is far more dangerous.

There is every reason for Modi - who promised in Srinagar to build on Vajpayee's Kashmir legacy - to reach out to the Mufti and offer support that rises above competitive and regional politics. We must learn from the past. Let us not forget that the rigged elections of 1987 transformed candidate Mohammad Yusuf Shah into Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based commander of the state's main terror group. The transparently fair elections of 2014 can give birth to new leaders and new beginnings but only if this opportunity is not obliterated by the narrowness of power-seeking. For India's sake, Jammu and Kashmir needs a government.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal)

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