J&K 2008: Let us not learn the wrong lessons
by Ajay Chrungoo on 05 Feb 2009 2 Comments

The 2008 elections are now over. A power shift has taken place. The PDP-Congress alliance has been replaced in the state by the NC-Congress alliance. The Chief Ministership has reverted back to a Kashmiri for full six years, if the alliance lasts that long. All the major portfolios like home, finance, planning, revenue and power have been retained by the National Conference, signifying the retrieval of the status quo of power. This status quo had marginally changed during the PDP-Congress alliance.

There are attempts to analyse the assembly verdict in Jammu & Kashmir through the traditional ‘secular’ prism and draw inferences which are either false or far-fetched. Wrong assessments will eventually affect the success or failure of the ‘government’ which has been catapulted to power at a critical time when a stand-off between India and Pakistan is building in intensity.

Understanding the failure of Boycott

The turnout of voters in this election, particularly in the Kashmir valley, has been phenomenal, more than 50% on average. It is a big victory for the electoral process in the Kashmir Valley. Many an eminent Kashmir analyst in New Delhi had prophesied that, “the government will be lucky if they get more than 10 percent people to come out and vote.”

Out of all segments of people living in Jammu & Kashmir, only Kashmiri Pandits abstained from voting. Their vote percentage was less than 10% and that too despite the fact that more than 43 Pandit candidates were in the electoral fray and there was also no boycott call.

Both the factions of Hurriyat Conference campaigned for boycott of elections well before the onset of elections. JKLF through its protracted ‘Safar-e-Azadi’ campaign focused eventually on poll boycott at the conclusion of its rallies and interactions across the length and breadth of the Valley. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, had declared with confidence that “there will be 100 percent poll boycott.” Ali Shah Geelani, to enlarge the appeal of ‘boycott slogan,’ even praised JKLF chief Yasin Malik and stated “we want boycott Safar-e-Azadi way.”

Analysts who conclude that the 2008 elections have been a decisive rebuff to separatists essentially underline the ‘boycott call’ as the only indispensable strategy of the separatists. The flexibility and the deftness of the strategic interventions of Separatists in the Valley get overlooked in this formulation. The Separatists’ establishment does give consideration to all such tactics which de-legitimise the democratic process in the state. But they have always valued deepening of its entrenchment in the power structures within the state.

Separatism in the Valley has always considered its reach and sway to influence and control the elected governments in the state as its primary support structure, perhaps as important as the support of Pakistan. De-legitimising elections by labelling them as rigged or coerced process, or by campaigning for boycott, are not simple black and white imperatives which the Separatists pursue. They operate more in the grey area where they engage directly or indirectly in the election process. They influence the election manifesto and party policies of the political formations participating in elections. They influence the selection of candidates; they throw up proxy candidates. The most essential objective which is pursued is not to allow any paradigm shift in state policy and ensure that subversive entrenchment is only deepened, never eroded.

The entire spectrum of separatist strategies has evolved over a period of time. Ali Shah Geelani got himself elected to the state assembly, but relentlessly challenged the Indian constitution and debunked the election process. Jamaat-i-Islami portrayed the National Conference as its ideological rival in Kashmir and squarely blamed it for the accession of Jammu & Kashmir to India. Anti-Jamaat rivalry manifested in the streets when massive anti-Jamaat riots were led by NC cadres.

But this rivalry was not a black and while phenomenon. A symbiotic relationship between the NC and Jamaat, particularly in the electoral sphere, existed right till 2002. Jamaat cadres would mobilise voters for NC,and NC would reciprocate by increasing Jamaat entrenchment in the administration. Jamaat and other separatist formations built the same symbiotic relationship with the newly formed PDP well before 2002, and carried it right through the elections in 2008.

There was, of course, a conflict of interests between separatist formations including Jamaat-i-Islami and PDP which came into the public domain in the last few years. Separatists visualised PDP as a usurper of its agenda. The stand off between PDP and separatist formations would have continued, but the terrorist attack in Mumbai changed the course of events in the Valley. Increased isolation of Pakistan and pressures on separatists’ feeder channels made Jamaat-i-Islami change track. Mufti, as per reports, had been intensely campaigning for their support.

It is difficult to comment as to when exactly Jamaat decided to come out whole hog in support of PDP, but its involvement in the elections started manifesting right after the first phase, and rose to a crescendo in later phases. Top Jamaat leaders were seen openly campaigning for PDP in Kulgam, Shopian, Pulwama. Analysts read too much into the anti-election rhetoric of Ali Shah Geelani, but ignored the traditional line of Jamaat-i-Islami which maintained distance from boycott call and cautioned that in the prevailing political scenario such a stance may prove ‘counter-productive.’ One thing is very clear. The separatist establishment intervened in the election process not to boycott as was their public stance, but actually to increase the turnout of voters.

This assessment does not at all indicate that even if separatists would have campaigned aggressively for boycott, they would have actually succeeded. In that eventuality, voter turnout would have been less, but certainly an improvement over the 2002 elections.

Other factors

The rural-urban divide in the Valley and developmental issues were a dominant consideration for the people.  Sweeping inferences are being drawn by some analysts in Delhi that the growth of PDP in the Valley is primarily a reflection of rural-urban divide, rather than of a communal campaign. But many credible analysts have come out openly to record that PDP campaign had a brazen communal character. Noted columnist Parveen Swami states, “for the PDP, the returns from the incendiary communal campaign it ran this summer, as well as its efforts to reach out to secessionists have been disappointing.”

Immediately after the election results were declared, Dr. Farooq Abdullah openly accepted that the PDP ran a campaign on ‘Islamist agenda’. Many residents of Kulgam area confided in their Pandit friends that Ms. Mehbooba Mufti was openly telling voters to choose between a ‘school or a mosque’. “We are for Mosque. If you choose a Mosque, a school will automatically come. But not the other way.” PDP in its expositions has been identifying with Muslim causes globally, more than NC. It has sought to project ‘Self-rule” as more in consonance with the movement of pan-Islamism rather than of Kashmiri aspirations.

However, underplaying the rural-urban divide as an important influence on the elections will be equally incorrect. Rural-Urban divide has evolved in the Kashmir Valley with the emergence of a large rural middle class over the years, as reflected by the emergence of Mufti Mohd. Sayeed, late Abdul Gani Lone, Jamaat-i-Islami and MuF.

This time PDP made significant inroads into North Kashmir. PDP won six seats there, while the NC has done marginally better by winning seven seats. Central Kashmir, extending between Kangan and Ganderbal with Srinagar as its core, has been virtually swept by the National Conference. However, PDP retained its stranglehold on South Kashmir where it won 12 out of 16 seats. The better performance of PDP is a reflection of the urge of the rural political class to control political power.

This rural-urban rivalry has deepened over the years and now spilled into the public domain. Previously this divide was subdued, but now it has burst into the open and its reverberations can still be heard. Recently, M.G. Hassan Mukhtar, a freelance journalist, wrote in Kashmir Times: “The original citizens of Srinagar treat all villagers as second class irrespective of the language they speak. If a villager goes to moon the urbanities would never digest it and rather pull his legs... In reality the superiority complex (read inferiority complex of foolishness) of urban fellows on the basis of nothing towards villagers is not a good thing.” In Srinagar this bitterness can be gauged by a cursory talk on politics at a vegetable vendors’ shop or a burger shop.

The increased developmental process in rural areas during the PDP-Congress regime has heightened the divide. Mufti used the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna to build extensive road connectivity, particularly in South Kashmir. Any village with a population of 500 or more was connected by a metalled road. A large portion of the 24,000 crore special aid package to Kashmir was spent in rural areas. Creation of development authorities in Gulmarg, Tangmarg Pahalgam, Sonmarg and many other places hastened the developmental process in rural areas which translated into political benefits for Mufti.

Mufti has not only used the fundamentalist card and soft secessionist slogans, but also the rural-urban divide and developmental slogans to stabilise his party. The NC retained its previous number of 28 in the assembly; PDP increased its tally from 18 to 21. In 2008 elections there has been an overall swing of 5 percent in favour of PDP, which has shown a tendency to grow all over the Valley and made a dent in certain areas of Jammu. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah acknowledged this trend openly: “the results definitely gave a fair idea that PDP is making inroads everywhere in Valley. I think we need to take stock of it.”

Jammu results

Belittling the communal contours of PDP’s rise, ‘liberal’ analysts infer a rise of communal stridency in the Jammu region which columnists like Prem Shankar Jha describe as ‘historical,’ as if it is integral to the attitude of people in Jammu. Even a better informed journalist like Parveen Swami does not contest such sweeping generalizations and comments that “despite the apparently dramatic improvement in BJP’s fortunes, which have taken it from just one seat in 2002 to 11 now, Hindu chauvinism hasn’t yielded exceptional pay-offs.” The massive support to the Amarnath agitation in Jammu and heightened consciousness about the systematic and organised discrimination meted out to Jammu is an expression of Hindu chauvinism for ‘liberal’ intellectuals in India. This is perhaps expression of a faulty vision which recognises concessions to Muslim identity politics in J&K as a secular imperative.

In Jammu province, Congress won 13 seats and BJP 11 seats. There was almost a 3 percent negative swing against Congress and a 10 percent swing in favour of the BJP. The latter was the runner-up in 13 seats and number three in 7 constituencies in Jammu region, which means it has now decisively staked its claim for at least 30 constituencies in Jammu. But is the rise of BJP an outcome of communal polarisation in the aftermath of Amarnath agitation? Certain features of the election outcome in Jammu have to be recognised to answer this question.

BJP candidates lost in most of the constituencies where the intensity of Amarnath agitation was high. It suffered defeat in Kathua, Billawar, Samba Vijaypur, Bishnah, Gandhi Nagar, Chhamb, Akhnoor Udhampur, Chenani and Ramban. Mostly Congress candidates won from these constituencies, with one each going to National Conference and JK National Panthers Party.

Congress lost to BJP in constituencies where the Amaranth agitation was weak, like Reasi, Basohli and Bani. The defeat of Shilpi Verma, widow of Kuldeep Verma, martyr of Amarnath agitation, is revealing. Also notable is the fact that Congress candidates who won had a better record as MLA’s or ministers and also supported the Amarnath agitation. Sham Lal Sharma from Akhnoor and Raman Bhalla from Gandhi Nagar are the best examples of this.

Almost all Congress ministers in the previous assembly lost this time, such as Mangat Ram Sharma and Gulchain Singh Charak. They did not come out openly in favour of Amarnath agitation. Even star campaigners of BJP like L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitly, Murli Manohar Joshi, Navjot Singh Sidhu could not succeed in wooing voters against Congress candidates who had performed well as sitting MLAs and unambiguously identified with the sentiment of Jammu.


It may be pertinent to record some observations for the future. Sakina Itoo won from South Kashmir against the tide of Islamists. Mohd. Yusuf Tarigami of CPM defeated his PDP rival for whom Jamaat led a no-holds-barred campaign. Mr. Tarigami, who at every opportunity supported the separatists’ cause and undermined the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, seemed trailing almost to the end of the counting process, only to sail across after a few hundred Pandit votes cast in his favour were counted towards the end.

Kashmiri Pandit votes cast in small numbers showed preference for the NC where the main choice was between NC and PDP. Dr. Shafi of PDP won from Beerwah constituency by a mere 124 votes, which included 80 votes from KP’s. This may be an exception because he was favoured not for his party affiliation and was considered a better person having close relationship with the Pandits of his constituency.

Congress won 3 seats from Kashmir Valley, and did well in 5 more constituencies. It has at least a clear demarcated chunk of 10 assembly seats to work for in the next elections


The 2008 mandate can stabilise the situation if NC plays its cards well. After 2002 elections, the NC adopted a policy line of mirroring or aping the PDP line. It changed its policy on Pakistan and terrorism hoping to steal a march ahead of the PDP. At election time, the fundamentalist establishment and Pakistan made a choice in favour of the PDP, leaving it in the lurch. Will NC ride the same ideological bandwagon?

Congress has survived on the edge. Will it ignore its legislative base as it has done in the past and loose its relevance in Jammu?

BJP enthused by the response of the people during the elections, and hoping to win around 25 seats, threw enough hints that it was ready to join hands with the PDP or NC to come to power. It has shown willing to dispense with its ideological baggage, for which it still has space in Jammu. Will it play the power game or the role of an instrument to bring a fundamental change in power balance in favour of Jammu?

CPM has survived as a sole presence in the present assembly from Kulgam constituency in Kashmir Valley. Jamaat declared it a party of ‘Kuffar’ but people still voted it to power in a stiff battle. Will CPIM still flirt with Muslim communalism and separatism as it has done so far?

The future in J&K is pregnant with possibilities, good and bad.

Dr. Ajay Chrungoo is chairman, Panun Kashmir 


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