The Kashmir elections have reshaped the language and agenda of all parties

In a state caught up in militancy and separatism for more than two decades, the intensely competitive and participatory 2014 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election provides a very interesting picture.

Particularly interesting is the situation in Kashmir, where electoral politics remained completely de-legitimised throughout the 1990s. Here, despite the mass devastation caused by the recent floods, the political environment has been surcharged with aggressive electoral campaigning. A reasonably high voter turnout has been recorded in north and south Kashmir, and even in central Kashmir, where the separatists’ call for a boycott was taken quite seriously till the last election, there has been a significant increase in the polling percentages.

Electoral politics, as one can reflect after the completion of the process, has become quite entrenched.

Ripples of change

Much of what is being seen today is a reflection of the change Kashmir’s political landscape underwent in the 2002 Assembly election, when the newly emerged People’s Democratic Party challenged the exclusive hold of the National Conference over Kashmir’s power politics and, in the process, invigorated the democratic space. What added to the vibrancy of the democratic space was the self-imposed restriction that the political parties placed on their role.

Rather than challenging the relevance of separatists and their role vis-a-vis conflict-related politics, the parties carved their role in the domain of governance alone. This created a clear distinction between the “politics of governance” that the parties pursued and the “politics related with ultimate resolution of conflict” that the separatists represented. It is because of this distinction that despite the separatist upsurge in the 2008-2010 period, there has been genuine participation of people in the current election.

Apart from this, the highpoint of the Assembly election has been the increased intensity of the electoral competition. Although every election since 2002 has been highly competitive with NC, PDP and Congress staking their claims for power, and others like the BJP and Panthers Party making a dent in the electoral outcome, what has made a difference to the nature of the competition this time is the entry of People’s Conference in Kashmir and the redefined stakes of the BJP.

Parties spread out

Led by Sajjad Lone, a prominent separatist, the People’s Conference had made its presence felt earlier when it fielded proxy candidates in north Kashmir in the 2002 Assembly election and when Lone contested the Parliamentary elections in 2009. However, this is the first time that the People’s Conference has come out in a big way not only in north Kashmir but also in other parts of the Kashmir region.

Also, though the BJP has been occupying a significant space in the regional politics of Jammu, it never seriously ventured into the electoral politics of other regions. Its success in the parliamentary elections – where it won both the seats of Jammu region and the only seat of Ladakh region (though by a wafer thin majority) – heightened its electoral ambitions to forming a government in the state.

To increase its prospects, the party sought to enter the Kashmir politics in a major way – not only by counting on the separatists’ poll boycott and the support of Kashmiri Pandits in certain constituencies where they are registered voters, but also by exploring the possibilities of alliances with certain Kashmir-based political parties and candidates.

Dropping old formulas

The BJP’s serious bid to enter the political space in Kashmir region impacted electoral politics in a variety of ways. First, it had the effect of counter mobilisation of voters in Kashmir region. The feeling that this party could benefit from the poll boycott generated a debate about the boycott’s futility and led to appeals to separatists to tone down their boycott call.

Moreover, the serious stakes in Kashmir led the BJP to go beyond its conventional political agenda. Being a Jammu-based party, its electoral campaign was usually emotionally charged not just with the demand for the abolition of Article 370 but also with the issue of regional imbalance. Antagonism against “Kashmir-based” politics was an inherent feature of its past campaigns. However, in the present election, seeking the support of Kashmiris, the party focused mainly on issues of development and governance. It was only during the election’s last phase, when Kashmir had already voted, that the party became aggressive about raising the issue of the “neglect” of Jammu region.

Not only the BJP, all parties, including the Congress, NC and PDP, placed stakes in all three regions, avoiding emphasis on identity issues. What became a peculiar feature of this election, therefore, was the retreat of identity politics. Unlike earlier elections, when parties sought to use one region against the other and one community against the other, the focus changed to development and governance.

Most peculiar was the case of the PDP, which till the 2008 Assembly election had projected itself as a “pro-Kashmir” party and sought to play the regional sentiment to the maximum. This time, it talked about building bridges between the regions and offered itself as the party that could do justice to all the regions. The compulsions of the electoral mathematics, it seems, has forced the parties to accept the plurality of the state.