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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 3, New Delhi, January 2, 2021

The Kashmir valley has rejected PM Narendra Modi’s ’Gram Swaraj’ | Bharat Bhushan

Saturday 2 January 2021

by Bharat Bhushan

Prime Minister Modi has described the just-completed third tier local body elections to the District Development Councils (DDCs) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as realisation of Mahatama Gandhi’s vision of “Gram Swaraj”. However, they are hardly likely to satisfy local Kashmiri aspirations for the restoration of basic democratic freedoms or dampen international criticism.

The DDC’s governance mandate is limited to just five subjects– welfare, health, education, finance and public works. The Kashmiri is far too savvy to be taken in by limited municipal ‘democracy’ while larger freedoms, including that of electing legislators are denied. They are aware that if political activists continue to remain in jail, security forces remain widely deployed with no legislative checks or accountability and even the freedom to communicate freely is curtailed, then such “elections” cannot lead to a revival of democracy, leave alone to the restoration of limited autonomy.

Equally misplaced is the reading of the results by a minister of the ruling party as a “resounding slap” on the face of extremists, separatists, terrorists and their patrons or a clear signal that “the politics of appeasement and dynasty rule is fast ending”. The voting, if anything, reflects religious and regional polarisation. The BJP has won 86 per cent of the 56 seats in Hindu dominant districts (where they are more than 90 per cent) and only 2 per cent of the 152 seats in the Muslim majority districts. It has got 34.4 per cent of the votes in Hindu-majority Jammu, but only 3.3 per cent of the vote in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, winning only 3 seats out of 140 there.

Moreover, Delhi’s plans to marginalise the ‘dynastic’ political parties began going awry from the day the mainstream Kashmir parties decided to contest the DDC elections and formed the seven-party Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) demanding restoration of autonomy. Despite expressing reservations about their role in the past, voters have endorsed them overwhelmingly now.

In fact, PAGD not only won handsomely in the Kashmir Valley but also performed well in areas where the religious population is mixed. It has won 57 per cent seats in the Muslim dominated districts, 31 per cent seats in religiously mixed districts and 4 per cent in the entirely Hindu districts. Together, the alliance got the largest number of seats in the Union Territory. The National Conference recorded a win in 25 seats in Jammu region including two seats in Hindu dominated constituencies. The Peoples’ Democratic Party which has seen several desertions from its ranks also did not do badly winning 27 seats in the Valley.

Nor did the Modi government’s hopes that local government elections would produce a new and compliant political elite bear fruit. The 50 independents and the 12 Apni Party Councillors have a fair sprinkling of old politicos who have broken away from existing parties. The mainstream parties in PAGD are centre-stage once again, having gained ground lost in the aftermath of August 5, 2019 when the status of J&K was changed. The voters have accepted them and the parties have been able to ginger up their dormant party organisation after the crackdown of August 2019. Having tasted victory in the DDC polls, the prospect of gaining legislative power will prevent them from boycotting assembly polls whenever they are held. What is more, they are united in their opposition to the Modi government’s Kashmir policy.

The Modi government may then have to push the assembly polls further down the calendar. More than ever, it will now need to skew the rules of the game to ensure BJP victory. One way of doing that is to convict potential opponents on criminal charges thus disqualifying them from political contests a la Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Another important strategy will be to redraw the constituencies (through delimitation) in a way that will change their religious composition to the BJP’s advantage. A delay in assembly elections will also be necessary for its newly elected DDC Councillors to accumulate sufficient social, political and material capital to make a credible bid in the assembly elections. Without these preparations, any hope of a new political dispensation with a Hindu from Jammu installed as chief minister in Srinagar is likely to remain a pipedream.

It is more than likely therefore that the leaders of the constituent parties of the PAGD, especially those who had previous dealings with the BJP in Delhi, will continue to be targeted by the central agencies. The Modi government is unlikely to forgive National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, Peoples’ Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti and Peoples’ Conference Leader Sajjad Lone – once considered ‘reasonable’ leaders but now challenging it.

Amit Shah, Narendra Modi

Internationally, Pakistan and the incoming Joe Biden administration in the US will be a cause for concern. Pakistan has not given up its claims on Kashmir as a lost cause yet. Any claims by India that the Kashmir situation is returning to normal, will only provoke Islamabad to intensify militancy in J&K. That is the only option before Islamabad because all dialogue is frozen with Delhi. It can do this simply by increasing weapons’ supply to the Valley. The arms drop – 11 Arges type HG84 grenades dropped across the border using a drone — at Gurdaspur on December 11 may well be a part of that process.

A major determinant of whether Pakistan chooses to create instability in J&K or not will be the attitude of the Joe Biden administration towards Kashmir after it assumes power on January 20, 2021. If the Biden administration sticks by its campaign declaration on Kashmir and human rights, then the Modi government will find it difficult to get as free a passage on J&K as it did during the more Islamophobe Trump administration.

However, should the US mute criticism of India on J&K for the sake of larger regional strategic considerations, especially vis-à-vis China, then Pakistan is bound to ramp up militancy in J&K. This time around, it may also have the encouragement and support of its ‘blood brother’, China, which has already engaged India militarily in Ladakh, a part of J&K state before August 5, 2019.

(Courtesy: Business Standard)

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