A strong pro-democracy message from Kashmir (Comment)

January 3rd, 2009 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyAt a time of gloom in India, the poll outcome in Kashmir has been like a ray of sunlight breaking through the dark clouds. One reason for the high hopes generated by the contest was the large turnout of voters, which was nothing other than a slap in the face of the separatists.The latter had gained a fresh lease of life during the Amarnath land transfer row when they organised large demonstrations and shouted pro-independence and pro-Pakistan slogans.

It was feared, therefore, that their election boycott call would receive a better response in the valley than in the past. As a result, there was even speculation of the poll being postponed on the plea of wintry conditions.

But the politicians and the bureaucrats evidently could not gauge the popular mood. There might have been unease in the valley about entrusting an official organisation with providing the necessary facilities to Hindu pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine, thereby depriving the local Muslims of their traditional role in this regard.

But such adverse sentiments against the official move did not mean that the voters would not exercise their franchise. On the other hand, they turned out in large numbers - the percentage was above 60 - to send out what can only be regarded as a strong pro-democracy message.

Not surprisingly, the beneficiaries from the land transfer row have been in accordance with the unfortunate Hindu-Muslim and Jammu-valley polarisation which took place during the agitation.

So, while the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gained in the Hindu-majority Jammu region to raise its tally of seats in the assembly from one to 11, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with its “soft” separatist image and base in the Muslim-dominated valley, has also raised its number of seats from 16 to 21.

However, their gains do not provide anything more substantial than a boost to their morale since the government will be formed by the two middle-of-the-road parties - the National Conference (NC) and the Congress.

Herein lies the maturity of the voters who were clearly not swayed by the fiery rhetoric of either the BJP or the separatists (including the “soft” ones) to fall entirely in their trap. They ensured that the moderates would not lose any ground to the firebrands. Notwithstanding the drop in their percentages of votes, the National Conference and the Congress remained a potent force, much to the PDP’s distress which was apparently hoping for another stint in power in alliance with the Congress.

The agitation can be seen in retrospect, therefore, as a blessing in disguise, for it helped the two centrist parties - the pan-Indian Congress and the secular-minded National Conference, famous for its “dynasty” of Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir - to come together after a long gap.

It is Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson, Omar, who will now be the third chief minister from the family, after his father, Farooq Abdullah, and his grandfather. The 38-year-old Omar’s accession is another matter of satisfaction because he marks the arrival of GenNext in the state’s politics.

As always, the rise of a personable young man with an evidently modern mind is cause for at least two cheers. Since Omar is also a personal friend of another 38-year-old, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi “dynasty”, the fallout from the elections will not be confined to Kashmir alone.

If the Congress and the National Conference can rebuild their partnership, which goes back (notwithstanding intermittent rocky periods) to the days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah, then India as a whole will benefit if only because both the parties tend to shun extremism of either the parochial or religious variety.

Since development is the new buzzword in Indian politics with even a Marxist leader of Kerala praising Narendra Modi’s Gujarat model of industrialisation, it is not surprising that Omar Abdullah has said that his first priority will be on the bijli-sadak-pani factor to eradicate the state’s power, road and drinking water problems and improve employment opportunities. That he is banking on the private sector to provide jobs is a sign that he does not have the socialist hangover of an earlier generation.

But his real mettle will be tested by the challenge posed by the secessionists in conjunction with the insurgents sneaking in from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It is also undeniable that a sense of alienation persists in the valley mainly because of the intimidating presence of gun-toting security forces.

What is more, the current tense relations between India and Pakistan rule out the possibility of any immediate measures to further ease travel and trade restrictions to fulfil Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s promise of gradually making the international border irrelevant.

The new government will also have to ensure that the longstanding grievances of the Jammu region about being discriminated against vis-à-vis the valley is suitably addressed, especially now when a stronger BJP is likely to raise a hue and cry about this sense of division, which it has always tried to exploit.

Questions have been raised about Omar Abdullah’s youth and inexperience, but anyone who heard his impassioned speech during the trust vote in parliament on the nuclear deal last July would know about the earnestness of his convictions. If he can control his impetuosity, perhaps with a word of advice from his father, Farooq Abdullah, who has replaced him as the party president, the state is bound to have a bright future.

(3.1.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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