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ANOTHER POLL IN KASHMIR'

Jammu and Kashmir may be heading for another election. If a government is not formed in the state, the next election may be as early as the coming April. If a coalition government is formed somehow, it would probably not last long because of its internal contradictions. Even then there would be another election in the state.

Any combination of parties in Jammu and Kashmir would be unstable. In a house of 87, a majority of 44 is proving to be difficult to muster. As it is the Congress (with its 20 seats) has not been able to come to an understanding with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (16 seats). Even if the Congress tries to form a minority government with the help of the independents and others (22 seats minus the BJP), it would be difficult for it to keep its flock together for long.

A coalition of the National Conference (28 seats) and the Congress seems unlikely at the present moment. Any combination which does not involve the Congress gobbling up the smaller parties by splitting them is bound to be unstable. Therefore, whichever way one looks, as of now another election seems likely.

However, neither the inability of the Congress and the PDP to form a government nor the prospect of another election should be a cause for concern. The political process unleashed in Jammu and Kashmir should be allowed to work itself out. This may take some time but so be it.

It would seem that both the Congress and the PDP may have drawn the wrong conclusions from the elections. The Congress thinks that people, especially in the Jammu region, have reposed their faith in the party. The fact of the matter is that the Congress victory in Jammu is the result of an overwhelmingly negative vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. There are also those who would argue that Ghulam Nabi Azad , who was sent as the state Congress chief, may in fact have led to the Congress losing a few seats in Jammu. The point, however, is that the Congress clearly has not received a positive mandate.

Its choice of a candidate for the chief minister’s job is also poor. Ghulam Nabi Azad is a rootless Kashmiri. In the heyday of the Congress, he used to contest from the safe constituency of Vashim in Maharashtra. Nearly two decades ago, he is believed to have contested the Kishtwar assembly seat and received less than a few hundred votes.

Ghulam Nabi Azad was sent to Jammu and Kashmir not for his competence but as a punishment for mismanaging the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections for the Congress. It is an open secret that the party was unhappy with the questionable practices adopted by him as general secretary in charge of the state in the distribution of tickets. Sonia Gandhi wanted him out of Delhi.

Ghulam Nabi Azad resisted being sent into “exile”, feigned illness and did not go to Jammu and Kashmir till he was pushed. He refused to contest the assembly election and openly declared (before the election results were out) that he would not be a candidate for the post of chief minister.

The intransigence of the PDP in not giving up its claim to the chief minister’s post has to do with three important factors. There is a perception in Kashmir that even if in the last five decades people have neither seen greater autonomy nor development, at least they had a chief minister from the valley. Now a free and fair election is all set to deny them even that right. Second, the PDP feels that its president, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, has spent nearly four decades opposing the Abdullah clan and having defeated Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference in Kashmir, he should not be asked to make way for someone else as chief minister. And last, the PDP fears that its regional agenda might get subsumed under the broadly nationalist agenda of the Congress if it were to accept playing second fiddle to it.

The Congress on its part is suspicious of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s call for unconditional talks with the militants, dismantling of the special operations group (comprising surrendered militants armed by the state) and views the proposal to set up an accountability commission to go into the state’s affairs since 1996 as an attempt at witch-hunting against the Abdullahs. Most important, it fears that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s constant refrain that the next chief minister has to be from the valley and not from Jammu would deepen the demand of the Hindutva forces for the trifurcation of the state.

Like the Congress, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed also seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from the elections results. He thinks that the election verdict is for azadi. But perhaps what the people of Jammu and Kashmir want more is good governance, economic development, employment opportunities and a corruption-free interaction with the state. Of course, along with this they also want dignity, respect and a greater degree of freedom to run their own affairs.

Despite this, however, it might be better to have Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at the helm in Jammu and Kashmir. His ability to deal with the militants would be much better than that of any Congress chief minister, especially Ghulam Nabi Azad. He has been the home minister of the country and is sensitive to the issues of federalism and autonomy. He may also be able to deal with the growing alienation of Jammu and Ladakh better. As someone from the valley, he would have to prove his credentials as the chief minister of the entire state with the people of all regions.

However, it is immaterial now whether a government is formed in Jammu and Kashmir after this election or not. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir have benefited India in more ways than one already. The elections have been broadly accepted by the world as free and fair. Except for a few constituencies in the Kashmir valley, the voter turnout was respectable and the results show that people voted without fear — after all, the incumbent dynasty of the Abdullahs was shown the door unceremoniously.

After the elections, the public discourse in Jammu and Kashmir has shifted from militancy and azadi to internal politics and the agenda of various political parties. The people are debating the stand being taken by various politicians, the negotiations for forming a government and making their own assessment of the emerging situation. It is this debate and discussion which would lead to a further opening up of the political space in the state.

As of now, whatever is happening in Kashmir should be seen only as an important stage in the development of democratic governance in the state — a semi-final, rather than the final match. This process would culminate in another free and fair election if a government cannot be formed through the mandate thrown up by the first one. Perhaps the people would then turn out in larger numbers to vote. They might even give the PDP a proper majority or, who knows, they might reject it for its intransigence in forming a government. A second free and fair election would also go a long way in assuring the people of Jammu and Kashmir that New Delhi really wants them to decide their own fate.

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