The Crucial Churning

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BASHIR ASSAD

In the context of 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the political climate in Jammu & Kashmir is evolving into a more analysed, clearer one, breaking away from the shadows of separatist and boycott politics seen before. We decode the psychological, socio-cultural and essentially the political churning going on here.

THERE is a significant and an interesting churning in Jammu & Kashmir as it goes to elections for the Indian Parliament, being held in seven phases across the country.

The election to the three seats of Anantnag-Rajouri, Srinagar-Budgam and Baramullah-Kupwara constituencies is the first major election being held in Jammu and Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in August 2019. The erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir enjoyed a unique constitutional arrangement with the Union of India for about 73 years by virtue of the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which was annulled by the Indian Parliament in 2019.

The Lok Sabha elections in Kashmir are the first in 30 years, being held in the absence of boycott calls by the separatists and their terrorist arms. The voters are enjoying the right to franchise without any fear and intimidation from terrorists. The election campaign has been drawing much enthusiasm among people who have been pretty eager to cast their votes.

The political parties and leaders held rallies and public meetings across the length and breadth of the Kashmir valley, drawing large crowds. The response to the campaigning in South Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam was overwhelming where political parties held rallies in large numbers. South Kashmir, by the way, has remained a hotbed for the separatist and boycott politics. The Pulwama district, particularly, witnessed a huge participation in election rallies and all the three major contestants – the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Apni Party– organised huge rallies in the district.

However, the narrative of the major political forces in the valley of Kashmir and south to Pirpanjal range in the Jammu region remains almost the same – of grievances – as it was before the abrogation of the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 2019. The politics of grievances was the central theme of the election campaign of the regional political forces.

At the same time, the transition of the Kashmir society from its anti-democratic position to the pro-democratic one is the new reality. That said, the politics of grievances could, at best, be described as emotional gestures of disaffection, frustration and insecurities (socio-politico-economic) which developed into anti-democratic outcomes in the past. Post abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the political narrative in the Kashmir valley is pro-democratic, though grievances, as suggested, has been the central theme of the election campaigning.

In this article, we intend to decode the psychological, socio-cultural and political drivers of the emotional indicators dominating the political landscape currently.

The political disaffection and the emergence of the age of anger and the socio-political context in which it operated in Kashmir for more than 30 years, appears to have shifted sharply from anti-democratic expression to a pro-democratic one. This is hugely reflected in the mood of the majority in Kashmir.

The participation in electoral democracy was unprecedented. The politics of boycott of the electoral democracy has vanished and there is enthusiasm among the voters. The younger generation, particularly, has been jubilant at being a part of the representative democracy.

The politics of grievances is the outcome of fuelling and funnelling of negative emotions. The political elites could channelise the negative emotions as most of them could not challenge the tide for the fear of losing public support.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has changed a lot and the streets are quite peaceful as the Indian state has been focussed on improving law and order in Kashmir. However, the political representation, essentially defined by populism and polarisation, holds back the emotional alignment of the Kashmiri people with their mainland counterparts. The rise of unorthodox political ideologies in parliamentary democracies is again grievance-centric where the political discourse too is grievance-centric. As for Kashmir, the politics here was fundamentally grievance-oriented. The outcome was anti-democratic expression of the popular sentiment. But of late, the tide has turned against the anti-democratic expression and the shift is visible.

There is an undercurrent of democratic transition in Jammu and Kashmir and people are struggling to realise fruits of democracy and shared opportunity as the region has been without an elected government since June 2018. Desirability of democratisation is ever rising, for, strengthening the fragile democratic institutions and evolution of democratic culture could help reverse the 30 years of regression here. Trapped in a downward spiral of poverty, unemployment and economic insecurity, transitioning, it is hoped, will move gradually towards a substantive democratic culture in Jammu and Kashmir and hopefully characterised not only by a majority rule through free and fair elections, but also by a strong minority and civil rights protection. Kashmir has only witnessed democratic purgatory of what experts call “competitive authoritarianism”  – hybrid regimes with elements of both democracy and authoritarianism.

The churning is also about the increased intellectual interest in and commitment to democracy. Intellectuals have expressed more interest in supporting democracy than ever before. In the previous democratic purgatory, intellectuals remained indifferent or even hostile to liberal democracy. After suffering horrendous persecutions, witnessing the deaths of friends and colleagues, and experiencing a palpable reduction of forms of sociability during 33 years of violence, intellectuals became convinced of the desirability of democracy. This change is especially marked in South Kashmir which was highly infested and violent in the past. Along with the renewed normative commitment to democracy, has come greater interest in democratic processes. Kashmir’s millennials are, particularly, taking keen interest in democratic processes and political developments in the country. The younger generation aspires for a competitive election which must form the basis for acquiring political office.

There must be competitive popular elections for the legislature and subsequent formation of the local government. Fraud and coercion may not determine the outcome of democratic elections and above all, restoration of a democratic system of governance that will necessarily provide guarantees of traditional civil liberties for all.

We need to draw an honest and careful comparison between political liberalisation and democratisation. This is necessary because Kashmir has just emerged out of the violence and political turmoil of three decades. The aspirations are complex and need a careful analysis. The younger generation yearns for democratisation. Liberalisation implies an easing of repression and extension of civil liberties whereas transition to democracy essentially has much broader connotations. For the people of Jammu and Kashmir, restoration of democracy implies democratic system with democratic spirit and change of regime in the right context.

The churning being witnessed in Kashmir is not merely for the exercise of electoral franchise; it is for the rule of law and an all inclusive socio-economic development with equality, peace and tranquillity.

The churning is not merely because of the events of 2019 when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was annulled. The transition, as emphasised earlier, has its genesis in the futility and fatality of the anti-democratic movement of last the three decades. The distinction I am trying to draw is essential; it calls attention to the democratic values rather than change of rule and ruler. The history of electoral democracy in Kashmir in itself is a typical case study. Change of political regimes in the last 70 years never lead to a democratic transition.

After the events of October 1947, Jammu and Kashmir delved into an unstable democratic system marked by massive electoral malpractices and collapse of democracy after the inception of a violent separatist movement. A successful transition to democracy is usually characterised by constant vicissitudes: attempts by extremists to destabilise the regimes and efforts by the centralists to use the threats of the extremists to bolster their own situation. The emergence of the political dynasts on the political horizon of Kashmir essentially took the imposed silence that hovered over civil society as a sign of support or at least acquiescence. This fact helps explain drastic miscalculations committed by the political elites of Kashmir. In 2002 when Dr. Farooq Abdullah, the then Chief Minister, went to the elections, he had no sense of being defeated. In 2008 when Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and his daughter embarked upon electoral transition, they had no idea of being defeated.

Jammu & Kashmir faces a foundational challenge of making transition to democracy and instituting democratic culture first marred by the electoral frauds of 50 years followed by violent terrorism for more than 30 years. The incubation period of the last four years post abrogation of Article 370, has greatly helped in revisiting the thought process. The parliamentary elections are just a warm-up exercise for the Assembly elections expected to be held in September this year.

Understanding the complex political landscape requires examining the evolving dynamics of power, aspirations, and potential flashpoints. Public discourse analysis and scholarship on the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir promise to be of pivotal importance.

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