Author : Khalid Shah

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Feb 25, 2020
Is the political deadlock in Kashmir breaking?

More than 200 days after the bifurcation and down-gradation of Jammu and Kashmir to the status of a Union Territory, the green shoots of political activity are starting to appear. The political deadlock imposed by the decisions taken on August 5th, months-long detention of political leaders and an iron fist approach on dissent led to a suspension of politics in the region. Even though the initial signals of a forward movement are visible, will the coming summer see the dawn of a new politics in J&K?

On February 16th, National Conference expressed willingness to fight elections on nearly 12000 panchayat seats if the roadblocks (detention of the top leadership of the party) are removed. The party gave a shock to New Delhi when it decided to boycott the previous municipal and panchayat polls held between October – December 2018. The party cited threats to Article 35A and Article 370 as the reason for boycotting the polls.

Subsequently, Peoples' Democratic Party followed the decision of National Conference to boycott the polls which saw a very low turnout and in 12000 seats not a single person filed the nomination papers. This development came as a big embarrassment to Delhi and was seen as an attempt by the regional satraps to blackmail the all-powerful central government. The boycott call of PDP and NC laid seeds of the mistrust which contributed to the decisions taken unilaterally on august 5th as also the disdain of the Modi government towards the mainstream parties of J&K.

In this context the political posturing of NC holds a great significance because the party seems to put across three signals: one, it has learned from the mistakes of past and may not directly challenge the Centre; two, a signal to its cadre and middle rung leadership that the party is still in the game; three, that despite the decisions of August 5th the party will continue to be a mainstream party and will not take a secessionist turn.

However, in a surprise move, the election commission decided to delay the polls by two weeks, after a meeting with representatives of political parties who demanded the release of all political leaders for free and fair elections. Even though the election authority has justified its decision by claiming inputs from security agencies as the reason for this delay, it is clear that holding the polls on time would cause unfair disadvantage to parties whose leaders are under detention.

That brings us to the question of detentions. The PSA cases against the three former chief ministers of J&K and other senior leaders of pro-India mainstream parties suggest that the political leadership in New Delhi is not willing to release the detainees anytime soon, and this despite widespread domestic and international criticism.

Post-August 5th, the central government has made it implicit that it is in favour of giving a new political leadership a chance to replace the old political elite. Bankrolling the elected members of panchayats to take over the mantle of leadership has failed, as more than 60% of the panchayat seats in Kashmir lie vacant. Secondly, many members of panchayat have been elected unopposed and thus hold very little ground support. Among the elected, very few have been able to demonstrate any public support since August 5th.

This puts the politics in Kashmir in a quandary. The central government may be serious to give the idea of having a new leadership carved from grassroots leaders of the panchayat system a chance. But the idea can only work if all the panchayat seats have elected members. With the rescheduling of the polls, a shadow of uncertainty looms over this idea.

On the other hand, there is a new political group that consists of some former ministers and legislators entering into the fray. Lead by Altaf Bukhari, the former finance minister and the leader of Peoples' Democratic Party, this group has presented a memorandum to the governor for the restoration of the statehood of J&K, domicile rights and other significant demands. So far, the central government has shown little interest in this proposal. This despite the fact that the group is overtly and covertly backed by Bhartiya Janata Party.

To cut the dominance of PDP and NC in the Kashmir valley, Bukhari's group is touted as a third front. In reality, this group is one among many third fronts that the security agencies operating in the J&K have attempted to float.

In the first week of February, a political novice, Junaid Mir, launched Jammu and Kashmir Workers Party, a new political party comprising of a few panchayat leaders and twitter trolls. This party is also seen as a "third front" to challenge PDP and NC. Months before the abrogation of Article 370, former IAS officer Shah Faesal's party was touted as a "third front". Before that Sajjad Lone's Peoples Conference was also considered by the media as a third front. Engineer Rashid, another political loner, now jailed under a terror funding case, was seen as a credible challenger during the parliament elections. He joined hands with Shah Faesal in 2019 to also form a "third front."

The fact is that there have been countless efforts to create a third front to root out the PDP and NC from the valley which has eventually come to the naught. Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the valley, have seen far too many new political fronts emerge after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 – right from Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad to Mufti Sayeed. History bears a testament that the pendulum of power has somehow shifted back to the grand old party in times of grave crisis – National Conference.

Amidst the games of many third fronts, the political deadlock in the region is only prolonging. There has been barely any political activity in the Union Territory. Even in the Jammu region, the politics remain in suspended animation. A month back, with the emergence of Altaf Bukhari on the scene and release of detained leaders, it seemed the deadlock is finally ending.

But the recent decision of rescheduling the panchayat polls only suggests that the impasse will continue. In democracies, it takes years, if not decades to start a new political movement and even a longer time to throw out the old order. The BJP and the RSS should know this well, as they have a first-hand experience of struggling for decades to have a shot at the power. Whether the ruling regime likes it or not, the key to starting the political process in Kashmir lies with the engagement of the much-hated dynasts. This could be done by putting their political future to test through ballot, instead of ending it through long term detentions.

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Khalid Shah

Khalid Shah

Khalid Shah was an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict Pakistan and terrorism.

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