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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 27 February 2024

Potent weapon

The antidote for the Opposition lies in first understanding the potency of issues around J&K in the relevant states and then being prepared to build an effective counter-strategy

Luv Puri Published 03.11.23, 06:36 AM
A poster by the Bharatiya Janata Party celebrating the abrogation of Article 370.

A poster by the Bharatiya Janata Party celebrating the abrogation of Article 370. File picture.

As the countdown starts for the 2024 general elections to the world’s most populous nation, all eyes will be on the agenda items that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are going to take to the electorate. There is no doubt that the party’s agenda will expand as compared to those of the 2014 and the 2019 Lok Sabha electoral campaigns considering the fact that the BJP has been in power for 10 years. But it is unlikely that the party will make a complete break from its foundational issues.

The BJP’s foundational issues are the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code and, third, the abrogation of Article 370, which granted special status to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir. On the third issue, the Supreme Court has reserved the judgment after exhaustive hearings in September 2023. The impact of J&K, a relatively smaller unit with a population of nearly 14 million with five Lok Sabha seats, on the overall Indian political landscape, particularly in the Hindi-speaking states with considerable electoral clout, is less understood. This is because the impact is subtle but definitive. In this connection, there is a need to unpack its disproportionate impact and the dynamics underpinning the same.

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J&K’s resonance for the BJP’s cadre and as an electoral agenda comes from a historical perspective. The BJP and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was largely dismissed as a North Indian urban phenomenon, initially derived their support and cadre from specific caste groups, particularly first and second-generation Partition migrants settled in Delhi and the states around it. The initial traction for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh as a political entity, founded on October 21, 1951, came from uprooted and Partition-impacted Hindu families that migrated from present-day Pakistan. Because of their higher human capital base in terms of education, the intellectual moorings of the BJP were provided by them. Some names like K.R. Malkani, L.K. Advani and M.L. Sodhi come to mind in this regard. They were instrumental in giving a political and an economic direction to a young party. The opposition to the constitutional provision of Muslim-majority J&K enjoying a special status, with its own flag, Constitution and other protections, a region where outsiders could not buy land, came naturally to the BJP and, earlier, to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh that are rooted to adherence to uniformity. The arrest of the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, on May 11, 1953, while crossing the Punjab border into J&K without a required permit, a provision that existed then for non-J&K domiciles, and his subsequent death in Srinagar as a detainee on June 23, 1953, have remained part of the BJP’s combative narrative on J&K.

The opposition to Article 370 had its resonance in the Hindi-speaking states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. The reasons are numerous: a history of inter-religious tensions, particularly around the time of Partition, being the foremost factor. The special status for Muslim-majority J&K was seen by some as a historically-flawed concession. These states alone account for 28% of the total Lok Sabha seats. As it happened in 2019, the BJP hopes to repeat its high electoral success rate in these states. That is why the abrogation of Article 370 will continue to be one of the issues in the upcoming elections. The Congress and the Opposition’s narratives on this issue are ambivalent. They have failed to convey, or perhaps it is simply difficult to convincingly argue, that asymmetrical federalism provides various states customised constitutional provisions and, in some respect, J&K was no exception.

Compared with many Western democracies, such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom, the Constitution of India is less federal. However, in the context of the Global South, it accommodates a degree of asymmetrical federalism. This is illustrated in parts XXI and XXII of the Indian Constitution whose Article 371 grants some states temporary and special provisions. There are customised provisions for Maharashtra (Vidarbha and Marathwada) in addition to Articles 371A (Nagaland), 371B (Assam), 371C (Manipur), 371D and E (Andhra Pradesh), 371F (Sikkim), 371G (Mizoram), 371H (Arunachal Pradesh) and 371I (Goa). In fact, special powers had also been given to Gujarat, the home state of the prime minister. But these nuances are difficult to explain to the electorate in binary terms.

Another potent issue linked with J&K is national security that has often surfaced at critical moments. Directly or indirectly, J&K played a critical role in bringing the BJP back to power at the Centre twice. In 1999, infiltration by Pakistani troops in the Kargil sector, part of the erstwhile state of J&K, a daredevil offensive by the Indian army, coupled with the intervention by the then US president, Bill Clinton, led to the withdrawal of the Pakistani army from the Indian side of the Line of Control. This swayed the national mood in favour of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance in which the BJP was the leading alliance partner in the elections held a few months after the Kargil war ended. Consequently, the BJP ruled India for the first time for a full term of six years. In the same vein, a number of independent surveys have indicated that the Pulwama suicide attack on the jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force on February 14, 2019 was instrumental in creating a decisive wave that resulted in the party winning 303 seats. This was surprising as some of the Hindi-speaking states, in their respective assembly elections just a few months ago, had voted for the Congress. This proves that in a state of real or perceived security threat, the national mood, particularly in the electorally significant Hindi-speaking states, favours the right-wing incumbent.

To sum up, the impact of historical forces, which are a legacy of Partition, and binary discussion of federalism in India make the issues around J&K one of the potent instruments selectively invoked by the BJP. The antidote for the Opposition lies in first understanding the potency of issues around J&K in the relevant states and then being prepared to build an effective counter-strategy.

Luv Puri is the author of Across the LoC

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