The National Conference’s defeat in the elections to the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly will not come as a surprise to those who were following the campaign over the last few weeks. It had become clear that if the Election Commission ensured that the elections were free and fair, and if adult citizens of the state came out and voted, the National Conference would find it difficult to get a majority. In fact, both things happened. There is almost a total consensus in the state that the elections of 2002 were probably the fairest since 1977. Allegations of malpractice or abuse of power were promptly investigated and action taken by the commission to the satisfaction of most complainants. Not even one major political party has charged that the elections were anything but fair. While the voter turnout in most places did not exceed 50 per cent, this figure is considerably larger than in many of the previous elections.
Several factors contributed to popular enthusiasm for the polls. Most important was the decision by a group of separatists to contest the polls. Their entry electrified not just their local constituencies, but had a huge impact on the mood in the Kashmir valley. It must also be recognized that the manner in which diplomats from the United States of America and the European Union backed the elections helped make the polls more inclusive. Western “persuasion” did have an influence on public opinion in the state, which began to take the elections more seriously than might have otherwise been the case. The degree of anti-National Conference feeling also motivated the voters. While there had been some appreciation of the anti-incumbency factor, it was generally believed that the opposition could hardly stand up to the National Conference’s huge network of workers spread all over the state, strengthened by the political patronage extended over the last six years. This proved to be a fallacy. Voting has been highest wherever there is a serious contest against the incumbent National Conference candidate.
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-National Conference vote. This is especially true of Mr Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party and the Congress, led in the state by Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, which made the biggest gains in the election and are likely to form a coalition government. It would be a mistake, however, to view the successful conducting of elections as an end to the troubles in Kashmir. Pakistan-inspired violence has escalated in recent weeks. The challenge is for the new state, in cooperation with the Centre, to translate the hope provided by the elections into a sustained climate of peace and stability. This will require a clear break from the opportunism and ad-hocism which have defined the politics of Kashmir. The state and the Centre must begin a comprehensive dialogue on all the problems of Jammu and Kashmir, and include even those who may not have participated in the elections.