Rarely before in recent history have political trends in Kashmir changed course so rapidly. If a month ago it seemed that the elections to the Assembly would simply be a walkover for the National Conference, today even activists of the NC admit that they would be happy if they secured a simple majority.
In the last Assembly, the NC had a two-thirds majority. The scent of power, faint as it still is, has roused the opposition from its slumber, while the real possibility of defeat has begun to demoralise the NC cadre. And even some of those within the Hurriyat Conference, the umbrella separatist alliance that boycotted the election, have begun to privately admit that non- participation may turn out to be a historical mistake.
Even by the end of August it had seemed that the National Conference would be the only real player for the 46 seats in the Kashmir Valley, while the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress would fight it out for most of the 37 seats in Jammu province. It was clear that the seven-member Hurriyat executive committee would not take part in the elections, even while the Kashmir Committee, headed by Ram Jethmalani, made a last-ditch attempt to secure their participation. Even the Third Front, a collection of second-rung Hurriyat leaders, that had initially signalled their intention of participating to New Delhi’s interlocutors, backed out.
They had sought a period of Governor’s rule before the election, and the announcement of a political package for the state: demands which were clearly not conceded. Under the circumstances, the NC seemed unbeatable.
Four factors turned the tide. First, and most important, was the decision by a group of “rebels” from the People’s Conference to contest the election. Most of these rebels
were known to be close and loyal to Abdul Ghani Lone, who was assassinated earlier this year.
And even while the current leadership of the PC, consisting essentially of Lone’s sons, Sajjad and Bilal, formally distanced itself from the rebels, it was clear that it was not put off by the rebels’ decision to contest. Their entry electrified not just their local constituencies, but had a huge impact on the mood in the Valley. The elections, it became clear from that moment onwards, were no longer going to be a cakewalk for the NC.
Second was the manner in which diplomats from the US and many of the European Union states backed the elections. In meeting after meeting, separatists were told by American emissaries they believed the elections would be a first step towards a permanent resolution, and a decision not to contest could lead to political marginalisation.
While Western “persuasion” may not have had much of an impact on the main body of separatists, it did have an influence on public opinion in the state, especially in the Valley, which began to take the elections more seriously than it would otherwise have.
Third, and often not realised by outside analysts, was the degree of anti-NC feeling in the Valley. While there had been some appreciation of the anti-incumbency factor, it was generally believed that the opposition could hardly stand up to the NC’s huge network of workers spread all over the state, strengthened by the political patronage extended over the last six years. This was a fallacy. Voting has been highest wherever there is a serious contest against the incumbent NC candidate, and the anti-ruling party mood is so strong that both Omar Abdullah, in Ganderbal, and his uncle Mustafa Kamal, in Gulmarg, are faced with a serious challenge in their constituencies.
Finally, the main opposition parties, even without serious coordination, managed to have a tactical arrangement in a number of constituencies in the Valley, so as not to divide the anti-NC vote. This is especially true of Mufti Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party and the Congress, led in the state by Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Be that as it may, the NC is still the favourite to form the next government. Out of 46 seats in the Valley, the opposition parties have managed to put up serious candidates only in about 20 constituencies.
In Jammu, of course, the NC is unlikely to get more than 10 seats. However, even with about 35 seats, the NC will still be the single largest party, and it will, if past experience is good evidence, “secure” the support of independents and some of the smaller parties to reach the magical figure of 44.
Political analysts are even speculating about the “never-before” possibility of an NC-BJP alliance in the state. But if the NC follows its president, Omar Abdullah’s advice and sits in opposition, in the absence of winning a majority on its own, the elections could lead to political change few could have anticipated even a few weeks ago.