Mani-Talk: J&K's Best Hope is PDP, Omar and Congress Together

Published: December 29, 2014 11:32 IST
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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

Adolescent maidens in Elizabethan England would pluck daisies from the fields and peel the petals one by one, alternately reciting, "He loves me; he loves me not"! The curious election results from the state of Jammu and Kashmir have left politicians indulging in much the same exercise as they try to work out which of several possible combinations is the most attractive and feasible.

The obvious combination in purely arithmetical terms is the BJP going with the PDP. Together, they would have some 53 seats in a House of 87, thus ensuring an apparently stable majority. I stress the word "apparently" for hidden behind the bare figures is the incompatibility of programmes and purposes and the cleavage along religious and regional lines.

All the 25 seats the BJP has won are in Jammu. In Kashmir, the BJP lost its deposit in 35 of the 36 seats it contested. The PDP did secure two seats in Jammu, but 26 of its 28 seats are from the Valley. The virulent rhetoric of the election campaign showed the wide distance between the two parties in their respective approaches to the governance of J&K.

The BJP then and earlier accused the PDP of being "soft" on militancy and inclined to be understanding of the protestors who are collectively labeled "stone-throwers". The BJP loves to project itself in Jammu and the rest of India as the most muscular of Indian parties, determined to firmly and unrelentingly stamp out militancy and infiltration at any price. If the BJP were to go "soft" while in the J&K government, it would be castigated by the RSS and the Sangh Parivar and lose much of its appeal in Jammu and the rest of the country; if the PDP were to take a hard and cold line, it would instantly lose much of its new-found support in the Valley.

Similarly, on the continued application in the Valley of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the PDP insists on the progressive reduction and eventual removal of the Act, while the BJP reacts with alarm to any suggestion of dilution or elimination. AFSPA cannot be strengthened and weakened at the same time. Yet, Jammu, as a whole, demands the implementation of the Act be strengthened, while Kashmir, without a shadow of doubt, has voted definitively against AFSPA.

On Article 370, which confers a special status on J&K in that no Central law can apply to the State unless and until the State Assembly votes in favour of it, as well as enables the State to have a Constitution of its own (with special powers to the Governor that no other Governor enjoys), the BJP has for years been insistent that it is Article 370, above all, that has stood in the way of the full integration of the State with the Union of India. The PDP, in line with all other political formations of the Valley, is adamant that Article 370 is the bulwark that enables the State to maintain its separate identity. It also allows the Kashmiri parties to campaign on the their right to "self-rule" (PDP) or "full autonomy" (National Conference). The Congress, for its part, is pledged to "the sky is the limit" as far as autonomy is concerned and all parties in Parliament (other than the BJP and Shiv Sena) are in favour of the retention of Article 370. The State government of Jammu & Kashmir cannot both have and not have Article 370. The BJP have, therefore, sought to appease their ranks and their opponents by saying that they want a debate on 370 and will abide by the verdict. They little seem to realize that a debate that throws the issue seriously into question will itself inflame passions in the Valley.

In any case, the debate has been on ever since the founder of the Jan Sangh, Syama Prosad Mookherjee, broke from the Nehru government, of which he was a Minister, to demand, among other things, the abrogation of J&K's special status. (In fact, he died in Srinagar while protesting Sheikh Abdullah's government). So, what is there new to debate? And where will the debate take place? In the J&K Assembly? God forbid - for the current political divide between the regions will then become a powder-keg. And any Kashmiri political party that agreed to formally allow the State's special status to be questioned would be left with the mark of Cain on its forehead - doomed to suspicion of "fifth-columnism" forever.

Then there is the question of "development" - a point being underlined by the BJP in a vain attempt to keep attention away from more fundamental questions raised by "ghar wapasi" and other such divisive religion-based issues. The BJP economic agenda is founded on bringing not only foreign direct investment into the State but also on encouraging domestic investment from outside the State. This immediately raises the question of land, that, under State law dating back nearly a century, is reserved for State residents and cannot be bought or sold by outsiders. This poses no problem for public sector enterprises, but when the BJP's Central Government emphasizes big business private enterprise as the road to economic Valhalla, and at the same time threatens to dilute the Land Acquisition Act that they themselves voted for but a year ago, any thinking Kashmiri is bound to wonder whether, in the name of "development", the real aim is not to expropriate Kashmiri land and render the aam Kashmiri deprived of the very rights that Sheikh Abdullah fought the Maharajah over in the 1920s and that led to his being hailed as the Sher-e-Kashmir.

These are not minor differences of policy that can be ironed out in a hypocritically-drafted Common Minimum Programme. These are fundamental differences that go to the root of J&K's existence as a special and separate entity.  A BJP-PDP coalition will, therefore, be opposed tooth and nail by many, perhaps most, PDP legislators - whatever Muzaffar Hussain Baig (the PDP's leading advocate of such an alliance) might have to say. Even if such a coalition were to be opportunistically cobbled together, it just cannot last. Thus, what arithmetically constitutes a "stable" government would, politically, be a bundle of contradictions, bound to collapse sooner than later under the weight of its own internal incompatibilities.

That leaves open the option of a BJP-NC coalition. Along with Sajjad Lone's two-member People's Conference and a couple of independents, a bare majority can be forged. But the discredited National Conference would find itself further discredited within minutes of such a coalition being formed. The argument that both Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah have been members of BJP governments in the past will not wash because they were with the BJP when a moderate like Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the helm. Now we have at the head of the BJP central government a fanatic RSS pracharak who has spent a life-time preaching all the things that have so totally alienated the Valley from the saffron forces, reinforced by his refusal to rein in the Yogi Adityanaths and Giriraj Singhs and Sadhvi Jyotis that adorn his Parliamentary ranks and the Togadias and Singhals who articulate what he clearly thinks.

Omar's NC will be seen as sliming its way back to power through the back-door after losing the confidence of the people of the State - and that too in the company of the very elements whom the Kashmiris have demonstrated in these elections are anathema to them. Moreover, for the same reasons as those adumbrated above in respect of a PDP-BJP coalition, any NC-BJP coalition would be riddled with the same contradictions and denigrated as amounting to sleeping with the enemy.

A third alternative might be a PDP-Congress coalition with the outside or inside support of a few independents. While mathematically possible at a pinch, the coalition would be fragile and little able to withstand the stresses and strains of ruling for six long years (In Jammu and Kashmir, elections are held once in six years; for the rest of the country, every five years: that distinction would go if Article 370 were abrogated). The PDP would have the advantage in such a coalition of explaining to its followers that the Congress has secured representation in this election in all three regions of the State - Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh - but that might prove frail compensation for a government that survives on a hair's breadth.

That leaves the fourth option of a coalition between the PDP and the NC, an impossibility at first sight but, on taking a second look, entirely feasible to keep Jammu and Kashmir together and safe from the malignant designs of the BJP, united in the aims that unite the people of the Valley, ready and able to pursue "autonomy" above all. If, moreover, the Congress were to render outside (or inside) support to such a coalition, the coalition would be stable, constructive, purposive and representative of all three regions of the State. Will the parties have the wisdom to follow this last course? We will know very shortly.

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