Economic development is held to be synonymous with the provision of infrastructure, especially roads, hospitals and educational institutions. Job creation is crucial.
Is there a case to be made between the performance of a government and the chances of it being returned to power when elections are held in the case of Jammu and Kashmir? The State’s unsettled nature and the rapidity with which political conditions change, especially in the Valley, often lead observers to conclude that the link between performances in the government and at the hustings are tenuous. The arguments admittedly are often motivated and designed to bring out a certain conclusion as “inescapable” — unless the “Kashmir issue” is resolved, nothing will work. There are traditionally two ways to look at this: one is to argue that this is at least partly true and the other is to say that this is true only in part.
For the first few decades after the State’s accession to India, the politics of the State was dominated by Sheikh Abdullah — whether in power or out of it. One reason was of course that he represented the aspirations of the people (at least those who resided in the Valley). But another very important reason was the comprehensive land reforms carried out by his government in the late 40’s and early 50’s which contributed to his continued popularity as well as his party years later. Indeed, the Sheikh’s greatest electoral victory came in 1977 after he had allegedly sacrificed the aspirations of the people of the State with the Indira-Sheikh Accord in 1975. The NC won a landslide victory in the Assembly Elections taking around 60% of the votes cast in the Valley and repeated it in near identical fashion in 1983. Its credibility took a beating when it entered into an alliance with the Congress in 1986 and allegedly rigged the 1987 Assembly Elections and its fortunes were adversely affected during militancy.
But apart from land reforms, governance in Jammu and Kashmir traditionally has been abysmal. There were some periods of good governance i.e. the Jagmohan interregnum, but serious governance did not enter the government’s lexicon till Mufti Mohd. Sayeed came to power after the 2002 polls when the National Conference (NC) lost its majority in the Assembly. That the NC government did not do much where development is concerned and the fact that it had allied with the BJP cost it dearly in the Valley. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Congress coalition that came to power was arguably the first government to have public and widespread discussions on governance issues.
Given the moratorium in place with respect to State government employment since 2000 put in place by the previous government, increasing government employment to earn popularity was ruled out. Thus the coalition started to focus on governance issues, including putting the anarchic government finances in order. The power reforms and an industrial policy aimed at drawing investment started during this period. Infrastructure by way of new roads started to get a boost during this period. Thus, colonies in Jammu at least, where power was metered, would experience scheduled power cuts of a short duration.
That this emphasis on economic growth and governance would come from the PDP-NC coalition is not surprising. They did not have NC’s inheritance of political struggle and land reforms. Thus they would be a credible alternative only if among the things they could deliver (what the NC did not) was governance and growth. When Ghulam Nabi Azad took over in 2005, he continued the same policies and added one more policy. The moratorium on the State government freeze on hiring more government employees being over, he started to fill government posts unmindful of its long term financial consequences. But, otherwise the emphasis on governance and “development” defined as increased roads and other amenities continued. Its impact electorally was felt in the 2008 Poonch Assembly by-poll when the Congress wrenched that seat from the NC after 35 years.
Just before the 2008 Amarnath land controversy broke out, the Congress was sitting pretty fancying its chances of being returned to power as the State enjoyed a long peaceful period with tourism recovering, industry growing and infrastructure improving in Jammu, Ladakh and also making inroads in the Valley. However, the Amarnath land row put an end to that hope.
The 2009 polls witnessed a bitter divorce between the two parties that valued governance and bought in an NC-Congress coalition headed by Omar Abdullah, whose initial years were marked by continued unrest in the Valley. Although peace was restored, the new coalition showed no interest in governance and important initiatives like power reforms were allowed to go to seed. While elections to the Panchayats were held, they remained unempowered and unsupported financially. Significantly, although the polls to the Panchayats were not fought on party lines, the NC was seen to have done very poorly in Kashmir. And in 2014, nature proved to be unkind when the Valley faced the worst floods of the century. In the face of nature’s fury, the State simply collapsed and it was left to the military and civil society to rescue itself.
The defeat of the NC-Congress coalition in the 2014 Assembly polls was therefore at least in part due to governance issues and of course the added impetus received by the local Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) due to a vigorous campaign by Prime Minister Modi. The PDP-BJP coalition that took over was seen to be an unlikely coalition given the wide divergence of views on the future of the State. But, when it came to governance and views on private enterprise, their similarities led to high expectations where performance was concerned. To cut a long story short, these hopes were rudely and completely belied. Thus, when the coalition collapsed in June 2018, apart from a poor security environment, there was an undoubted decline in all the parameters of governance (compared to 2008). But when it came to centrally sponsored schemes, especially in infrastructure — roads and bridges — care was taken to see that these were publicised and the timeline for the completion was adhered to.
How then, do economic issues affect elections in the State? Given the situation that the State finds itself, economic development is held to be synonymous with the provision of infrastructure, especially roads, hospitals and educational institutions. Given that the private sector job creation cannot take place in an uncertain environment, the State as a source of jobs is still very crucial.
What does this portend to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? The polls to the local bodies and Panchayats were muddied by boycotts despite the fact that the polls to the Panchayats were technically non-partisan. Additionally, it must be kept in mind that Lok Sabha and Assembly polls are fought on different issues. The Lok Sabha seats in Jammu are likely to be fought keeping in mind national issues. Economics and governance will also enter the fray but their impact is uncertain because it is yet not known how much the BJP party machinery has been able to play up schemes like AAYUSH. In the Valley, the only party that had the semblance of a governance card till it re-assumed power in 2014 was the PDP. It no longer has this card now. Its autonomy card is also in tatters. Thus in a battle that is being fought over issues like autonomy, governance issues in the Valley have receded.
However, it is likely that governance issues will make a comeback when Assembly polls are held, as the Valley polity is now competitive as compared to the 1980s. It will be keenly fought over by the NC, mindful of the fact that its legacies have an expiry date, the PDP has damaged its own governance card and the JKPC which, although part of the PDP-BJP coalition, still appears to retain its credibility and bring in new ideas of governance to the table.
To sum up, governance issues do influence voters even in Jammu and Kashmir. Today, even though good performance is not necessarily rewarded, poor performances are often punished, especially if alternatives are available.
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Dipankar Sengupta is Professor of Economics at the University of Jammu. His areas of interest include international political economy competitiveness and entrepreneurship.Read More +