The fluid political situation in Srinagar makes it difficult to predict the exact shape of the first genuine non-National Conference government in the state. A small state like Jammu and Kashmir with six Lok Sabha seats is of deep symbolic importance in national politics.
For one, the defeat of the BJP and its affiliates will give food for thought in both Delhi and Nagpur. The Hindus of Jammu, both in the rural and the urban pockets, have resoundingly rejected the saffron party. It has a lone MLA in the new House, and it is the Congress that is celebrating its first major gains in the region in two decades.
The parent body, the RSS, directly brokered deals between the Jammu State Morcha and the BJP. The upsurge of terrorism in Doda over the last few years could not convince the voter that the Hindutva party was a safe bet. Given the close association of the Jammu region with the plains of north India, this may well call into question the view that the salvation of the BJP lies in ideological revival.
The Congress finds the despatch of Ghulam Nabi Azad to the state after a long stint in national politics unified the local unit and geared it for battle. As elsewhere, Sonia Gandhi’s choice of state leaders has helped the revival of fortunes. The re-emergence of a clutch of capable, seasoned and mature regional leaders in the Congress fold is perhaps its single biggest asset as it faces off its main rival. But the deeper message is that the Congress may well have to adapt to yet another coalition at the state level. Few realise that it will now soon be a partner in as many as five coalition governments.
Kerala is the exception where it is a dominant partner. It plays second fiddle in Bihar to Laloo Prasad Yadav’s party. It is a co-equal with a slight edge in the share of power in Mumbai. It is also a partner in Meghalaya. As it mulls over the choices in Srinagar, it has to face a sobering fact. The bulk of its seats come from the Jammu region and its gains in the Valley have been marginal. For the last half century, it is the Valley that has been the nerve centre of the state’s politics.
The Abdullah family, which spearheaded the struggle against the Dogra autocracy, may be fading. But no national party has yet been able to supplant regional forces in the overwhelmingly Muslim Valley region.
The People’s Democratic Party has stepped into the vacuum and the Congress may have no alternative to a deal with it. The latter always prefers the Kerala model where it is the dominant partner. But this may be difficult given the ground realities of Jammu and Kashmir.
Even if it does materialise, it will need great sensitivity to the Valley. A deputy chief ministership for the smaller party could be one option. Another would be to support Mehbooba Mufti as chief minister and signal to the world that in an age of increasing intolerance, the party has given a chance to an elected Muslim woman leader.
There is a grain of truth in Congress claims of the rejection of the NDA by yet another state. Sonia Gandhi’s rally in Srinagar set her apart from all other national leaders and has certainly emboldened her party.
Such a reading may be excessively optimistic. The Congress has reason to celebrate but the choices ahead are not easy. The party is learning to play the role of an Opposition, rather than a mere ruling force of yesteryear.
For the ruling NDA, this marks the nadir of yet another of the BJP’s regional allies. Having started out hoping to dominate and steer the ruling coalition, they are finding their fortune hostage to those of the larger party. Omar Abdullah admitted his party’s preference for the now defunct United Front.
Every regional ally is in trouble. Since 1999, none has been able to retain office in the Assembly elections of the last two years. The list includes the DMK in Chennai and the Akali Dal in Punjab. Even a joint assault on an Opposition failed, as in Bihar. The NDA is a shrinking army, its rationale in New Delhi slowly being chipped away in the states.
The next round of Assembly elections will mostly see straight fights between the two national parties. The Congress hopes Srinagar is a harbinger of better times. Its rival will hope it is an exception, not the rule.