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27 November, 2018

Missed chance in Kashmir
B RP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi can take credit for bringing his Bharatiya Janata Party to power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir for the first time, albeit as the junior partner of a coalition, but his term appears set to close as one of missed opportunities.

The Peoples Democratic Party’s alliance with the BJP after the Assembly elections of 2014 was dictated by the composition of the 87-member house.

Despite calls by hardline members of the All-Party Hurriyat Leaders Conference to boycott the elections, there was a record turnout of 65 per cent voters when polling was held in the harsh winter months.

The PDP emerged as the largest party in the Assembly with 28 seats. The BJP bagged 25 seats, the National Conference 15 and the Congress 12. Three small parties picked up four seats and Independents three.

The BJP’s best ever performance was the result of a big sweep in the Jammu province, aided by the party’s sensational victory in the parliamentary elections a few months earlier under Modi’s leadership.  Jammu has a 62.5% Hindu population.

Mutual animosities prevented the PDP, the NC and the Congress from coming together to form the government. After two months of talks with the PDP on government formation, BJP President Amit Shah announced that the ideological differences had been ironed out.

The alliance between the two parties was actually a marriage of convenience. It was made possible by putting in cold storage two contentious issues: the BJP’s lifelong opposition to Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status and the PDP’s demand for withdrawal of  the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which provides impunity to security personnel deployed in disturbed areas.

On PDP founder and Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death in 2016, doubts arose about the coalition’s future and the state came under Governor’s rule. However, within three months, a new government with his daughter and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti as the Chief Minister took office.

Political stability in the state is inevitably mixed up with India-Pakistan relations. Modi’s tête-à-tête with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawas Sharif had raised hopes of an improvement in relations between the two countries but they faded fast in the absence of any follow-up measures. There has been no initiative from either side to resume the dialogue process since Prime Minister Imran Khan came to office.

Differing perceptions on the handling of security issues cast a shadow on the PDP-BJP coalition after militant leader Burhan Wani was killed in an operation and security personnel faced rain of stones in the valley.

At Mehbooba Mufti’s instance the Centre agreed to a temporary halt in security operations for Ramadan but it did not evoke a response from the other side.

When two BJP members of her Cabinet openly joined their party’s efforts to save the persons accused in the kidnap, gang-rape and murder of a young girl in Jammu’s Kathua district, Mehbooba Mufti was able to get the party to replace them. Soon, however, the BJP pulled out of the government, bringing it down, and the state came under Governor’s rule again.

The Assembly was in suspended animation, and there were reports that the BJP was trying to float an alternative government with Peoples Conference leader Sajad Lone as the Chief Minister. Since Lone’s party had only two members, the BJP needed to poach a large number of MLAs from the PDP and other parties to cobble up a majority in the house.

Mehbooba Mufti, NC  leader Omar Abdullah and the Congress leaders did not feel quite confident about their party men’s ability to resist inducements. That prompted them to forget animosities and come together to form a new government.

Governor Sat Pal Malik foiled their plan by dissolving the Assembly as soon as he received a letter faxed by Mehbooba Mufti advancing a claim to form the government with the support of 56 members.

Malik and BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav offered specious arguments to justify dissolution of the house without giving Mehbooba Mufti an opportunity to prove her claim of majority support on the floor of the house.

Conveniently forgetting the PDP-BJP partnership which lasted three and a half years, Malik cited ideological differences among the coalition partners as the reason for his action.

Madhav said in a tweet that the three parties probably had “instructions from across the border”. When Omar Abdullah challenged him to prove the charge, he beat a hasty retreat.

There is a bright side to the current situation. Dissolution of the Assembly makes fresh elections inevitable. That will give the people an opportunity to express their will. There is, however, no knowing when elections will take place and whether the verdict will be any different this time. --Gulf Today, November 27, 2018

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