This Article is From Dec 09, 2014

What Kashmir Election Means for Modi

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

While fingers must remain crossed till the final vote, and while the fear of disruption and terror attacks still remains, the high turnout in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly election has been an important success for the Narendra Modi government.

Prime Minister Modi's immediate predecessors, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, had delivered largely free and fair assembly elections in the state. As such, it was important for Modi's legacy that he did so as well.

The challenge came early in his term, within months of Modi taking office. This was in contrast to Vajpayee, who had several years to prepare for his Jammu and Kashmir initiative, of which the 2002 election was an important milestone. In 2008, Singh was almost at the end of his first term when the logistical and political conundrums of an assembly election in India's northernmost state confronted him.

Vajpayee and Modi are very different people, with very different political experiences leading up to the Prime Ministry. Yet, if there is one area in which Modi has constantly referred and alluded to Vajpayee's ideas, it is in the case of Jammu and Kashmir. He did so during the Lok Sabha election campaign, repeating the call at the Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium in Srinagar on December 8 for an accord based on "Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat" - Humanity, Kashmiri identity/inclusiveness, and Democracy.

True, this is easier said than done. Yet, like Vajpayee, Modi offers hope of a rationalisation of separatist sentiment - though not of brutal terrorism - within the democratic process and of an honest conversation between Delhi and the Valley, and the Valley and Jammu and Ladakh.

If predictions are correct, the BJP should do very well in the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) should finish first in the Muslim-dominated Valley. Some have seen this as a replay of the 1983 election, where Indira Gandhi exploited Hindu sentiment to sweep Jammu and Farooq Abdullah and the National Conference won handsomely in the Valley - leading to a hostile relationship between the two parties and communities.

It is not necessary that history must repeat itself so neatly and with the same tragedies that came in the wake of the 1983 election. The BJP is likely to make a dent in the Valley and may even pick up a couple of seats. On the other hand, the demography of Jammu has also undergone a change, and frankly, the PDP has a bigger constituency there than many realise.

Finally, unlike the 1980s, when the immaturity of a young Farooq Abdullah and of Rajiv Gandhi and his groupies in Delhi disrupted the fine balance in Jammu and Kashmir, there is hope that the leadership of the PDP and the Modi government will show greater maturity and statesmanship.

In his speech in Srinagar, Modi referred to both the dangers of terrorism as well as the need for the army to recognise excesses, as and when these were committed. In a sense, he was talking of moving beyond the 1990s, a very troubled period in the state, particularly in the Valley, the legacy of which is still with us.

The early 1990s saw Kashmir as the theatre of a pan-Islamic jihad. Mercenaries and religious warriors, emboldened by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, rushed in. India fought back and fought hard, without any international sympathy and support, with the likes of Robin Raphel - the former American official, now under investigation for alleged Pakistani intelligence links - openly advocating secession.

India retained control of the Valley, but did so at a price. For those Kashmiris who grew up in that period - many of whom have come of age now as politicians, writers, opinion formers - the gun became the symbol of the Indian state's presence in the Valley. For Kashmiri Pandits, exiled from their traditional homes and driven out by those who had been their neighbours for centuries, the wounds were that much worse. For the rest of India, Kashmir became a problem; only years later did Vajpayee attempt to reimagine it as an opportunity.

Now Modi has donned that cloak, or that pheran perhaps, that Vajpayee stitched in 2002. After the election, he has to build on the hopes of today's voters - of all stakeholders, whether Muslims in the Valley, who deserve their dignity; the Kashmiri Pandits, who have waited two decades for justice; or the people of Jammu, who merit their voice not being drowned out by the noise from the Valley.

It's a huge task. If Modi can manage it, he'll have history at his feet.

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