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Statesmanship, not brinkmanship

By Sandeep Bhardwaj

It is a sign of how accustomed India has got to the perennial Kashmir crisis that the municipal elections held in Jammu and Kashmir recently, which saw near-zero voter turnout in the Valley, have generated such limited public discussion. Despite being local body polls, the negligible public participation in them is significant, especially since only four years ago, the State had witnessed the highest voter turnout in 27 years. Last week saw only 35.1% turnout for the entire State, with Kashmiri participation dropping to a low single-digit percentage. Some have blamed this result on pressure from militants. However, it is worth noting that although militants often try to violently disrupt State elections, the boycott has rarely been as successful as this time.

We must recognise that this boycott was essentially a democratic expression of the people who are frustrated not just by the government but by the entire system. To ignore their voice is almost certainly going to lead to disastrous consequences for the State’s already-deteriorating security situation.

Many have argued that the solution would have been to delay the elections. However, this would have also meant denying the people of Jammu their democratic rights as they did want the elections and have participated in them enthusiastically. The true solution of this problem lay in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tempering its political ambition. The resurgent Kashmir militancy was something that the Narendra Modi government inherited. However, instead of solely focussing on stabilising the situation, the BJP also tried to derive maximum political gains from the situation, using its typical take-no-prisoners style of politics. Within the State, it has pursued a blatantly-cynical and communally-coloured coalition politics; outside the State, it has led a campaign to end the “special status” of Jammu and Kashmir. Put together, this maximalist approach has dramatically destabilised the State’s politics, and thereby its security.

The dilemma that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing has been experienced by his predecessors. As the head of the government, they felt it necessary to maintain stability in the State. However, as leaders of large national parties, they also saw Jammu and Kashmir as a fertile political ground which could be used to expand the bases of their parties, even if it was at the cost of stability in the State. The trade-off between these two impulses has been always difficult to negotiate. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with any national party pursuing political gains within Jammu and Kashmir as they do in any other State. Indeed, many argue that it is actually preferable if a sensitive State such as Jammu and Kashmir is ruled by a reliable national party than by regional actors.

However, the problem is that in Jammu and Kashmir, the Central government enjoys enormous and extraordinary powers because of the security situation. This power disparity not only increases the likelihood of its abuse but also generates suspicion of abuse in the minds of the Kashmiri people. In other words, because New Delhi is so powerful in Kashmir, it needs to appear more benign than usual. History shows us that forgetting this essential fact and pursuing a maximalist political approach is fraught with danger and can lead to devastating consequences for national security.

In fact, even the initial birth of the Kashmir insurgency in the late 1980s can be traced back to Indira Gandhi’s decision to adopt such a maximalist approach. In 1975, Mrs. Gandhi had established a historic accord with Sheikh Abdullah, making Kashmir’s accession to India final. Then in a statesman-like move, she had asked the Congress Chief Minister in the State to step down for Abdullah to assume the position in a gesture of solidarity. However, within two years, this desire to put national interest first had evaporated. Routed in the 1977 general election, Mrs. Gandhi became desperate to regain political ground wherever she could find, which included Jammu and Kashmir.

From the late 1970s, the Congress in the State began a steady campaign against the Abdullah government, accusing it of maladministration and corruption. This long-running feud weakened the legitimacy of both parties, thus creating the space for extremism to grow. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, Kashmiri fundamentalists had begun mobilising and the Abdullah-Congress fight allowed them to gain political traction. By the early 1980s, extremists in State politics were becoming prominent enough that even the Central Intelligence Agency took notice. Aware of this fact, Mrs. Gandhi should have taken a conciliatory approach with Abdullah. Instead, she decided that emerging security risks made it all the more important to politically replace him with a Congress government. For the next few years, the Congress continued to attack the Abdullah government, including in 1984, engineering a coup against Farooq Abdullah, Sheikh’s successor.

By the mid-1980s, both sides had been discredited. The Congress was seen as abusing its power for political gains; Abdullah was seen as a weak leader because of his failed attempt to walk the tight-rope between fighting the government of India and still remaining pro-India. The vacuum thus created was filled by extremist groups. The Muslim United Front, an alliance of Islamic right-wing parties, expanded its vote share from a mere 6.4% in 1983 to 32% in 1987, in the Valley. Finally recognising this reality, in 1986 Rajiv Gandhi reached another accord with Abdullah which made both parties allies. However, by now it was too late. From a security standpoint it was necessary for the alliance to retain hold of the State; but in its weakened state, neither Abdullah nor the Congress could be sure that they would win the elections. Thus the stage was set for the infamous 1987 State elections, which were mired in allegations of widespread poll-rigging. Those who felt that the Abdullah-Congress alliance had “robbed” the elections became the first recruits of the incipient insurgency. In trying to reach for maximum goals — security gains and political mileage — the Congress ended up losing both.

Today, the BJP government finds itself in a similar position, where its political strategy is eroding the long-term security of the State. To make matters worse, unlike the Congress in the 1980s, the BJP is actually making political gains. Yet it must desist from this temptation. It must reckon with the profound dissatisfaction that the Kashmiri people have expressed through this recent boycott. Sacrificing its short-term political gains, the BJP should look towards the long-term stability of the State by moderating its own political appetite.