February-March  2004 
Year 10    No.96

Cover Story

A non-event in J&K

As the rest of India gears up for the parliamentary elections 2004, a disillusioned and tired electorate in Jammu and Kashmir awaits the polls with disinterest

BY Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

While the ‘India shining’ campaign is the illusory issue of the poll campaign in the rest of the coun-
try, it is clear that there is no space for Jammu and Kashmir on the election agenda. There is no common agenda that this region shares with the rest of the country or even between the various regions and sub-regions of this plural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic state, on which these elections could be fought. Hence, as far as the people go, there is no real agenda in place. For the political parties, elections have been reduced to wrestling with the nitty-gritty of awarding election tickets.

In a state where violence and anarchy rule and where human rights have been so blatantly violated, one would imagine that peace would be a good poll agenda. In a state where corruption is so rampant and unemployment has assumed menacing proportions, where backward far-flung areas, especially in the hilly regions, remain neglected and unattended as the alienation experienced for several decades grows deeper with each year, there is no dearth of problems and issues facing the people. These, logically, should be the issues for the polls.

But this is wishful thinking. For a voter, this agenda has been used as opportunistic bait in previous elections after which they were relegated to memory. Therefore, what stares us in the face as we approach the Lok Sabha polls 2004 is total disinterest and complete disenchantment in a majority of voters in Jammu and Kashmir.
Disillusionment with successive governments, both at the Centre and in the state, is a major reason. Another is that parliamentary polls traditionally fail to evoke the kind of response assembly elections would, where a change of power could be associated with a change in policies and where local issues, which are certainly closer to the heart, find more generous space. The lack of concern also stems from J&K’s marginal share of six seats in the Lok Sabha.

Despite the single vote (by Saifuddin Soz during the no-confidence motion in 1999) that led to the fall of the Vajpayee government, victorious parliamentarians from the state are hardly seen as major players in policy making vis-à-vis J&K or associated with bringing any change for the people of the state.
The disillusionment is greater in Kashmir where wounds fester. Wounds that run deeper today, following the tall promises and poor performance of the coalition government in power in J&K after 15 months of its rule. This represents a sea change in the local climate as compared to the assembly polls 2002 when, in comparison to previous years, people had voted with enthusiasm for political change and against the lack of development and growing unemployment. Issues had largely been bread and butter issues. Peace and the political future of the state were obviously not on the mind of the voter at the time even as many persons interpreted the 2002 vote as a verdict in favour of India. Growing alienation has still not mellowed the sentiments of the people in favour of Independence.

In 2002, people from the Valley voted against the National Conference mainly on issues of basic daily needs. Not on issues of peace and their political future.

In the Lok Sabha polls 2004, even bread and butter issues have taken a back seat. The PDP led coalition, which has been unable to contain corruption in administration, arrest unemployment or even minimise human rights violations as promised, has failed miserably. This has led to disenchantment.

As for the Jammu region and despite its diversity, the disinterest matches the disenchantment of the Valley. In the last few years, the two parliamentary seats have alternatively gone to either the BJP or the Congress. Things have not changed much. For the voter in the urban areas, it is their larger affiliations to either the Congress or the BJP, not issues that will determine where they cast their vote. The rural areas stand divided.

For the people on the borders, the plight of the displaced and farmers may be an issue that determines electoral choice. For the people in the hill districts of Rajouri-Poonch, a major bone of contention would be the Pahari versus Gujjar issue against the backdrop of the state government supporting a resolution for scheduled status to Paharis, which is likely to affect the fate of Gujjars who have already benefited under the reserved category. In all probability, the polls in the entire Jammu region may eventually turn out to be a caste war between the failed heavyweights of already discredited parties.
Elections in Ladakh may generate a more enthusiastic contest as the traditional animosity between Leh and Kargil impacts the polls. As in the last assembly polls, Leh is likely to vote in favour of the Union Territory demand, based on issues of development. During the last elections, the political parties in Leh, represented mostly by Buddhists (the largest ethnic community in the area), sank their differences and came together under the banner of the Ladakh Union Territory Front (LUTF). There are chances of weaning away Kargilites on similar sentiments. But if that does not happen, a vote in Muslim majority Kargil may necessarily mean a vote against Leh domination.

So, while poll talk dominates the rest of the country, J&K braces up coolly for a non-event. Elections here will manifest only as political aggression or media hype. For the people, they are a ritual that needs to be undergone.

(Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times).

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