by Dr. Rajkumar SIngh 17 April 2019
Earlier to the current 17th Loksabha elections due in April-May 2019 the general elections to the 16th Lok Sabha was held in April – May 2014, proved a watershed in the political history of independent India. For the first time a non- Congress political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was able to get an absolute majority on its own in Parliament. The obtained victory was unprecedented as it had given the opportunity to BJP to form government without dependening on allies. Narendra Damodardas Modi was first named a year ago by BJP as its chief election campaigner and later as the Prime Ministerial nominee who took the oath of office on the evening of 26 May 2014. In comparison to his earlier pro- Hindu image, during the election campaign and on becoming Prime Minister of the country, Modi was said to have totally changed himself into a moderate. His approach towards politics and political ideology reminded his vision of a secular India as he declared in a Chintan Baithak at Jaipur in 2004, ‘I do not treat citizens as minority or majority. I treat them as equal citizens of a modern state with equal rights and equal opportunities.’ In the changed atmosphere world powers, one by one, turned towards him and all expressed their wish to re-engage with an India, which is, energised, rooted, and self confident.
With the coming of new government in India in May 2014 people at large expressed mixed reaction to the Problem of Jammu and Kashmir. Congratulating Narendra Modi for his Party’s landslide victory in Lok Sabha polls, Peoples Democratic Party patriarch Mufti Mohammad Sayeed hoped that the new BJP goverment would take tangible steps in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem. In a statement issued in Srinagar the PDP leader expected that the Modi government would pursue an agenda which would be politically – inclusive and developmentally – intensive. Earlier the BJP has all along been calling for greater integration of Jammu and Kashmir with rest of India. Party’s manifesto issued on the eve of 16th Lok Sabha election also mentioned the abrogation of Article 370 after discussion, return of Kashmiri Pandits and working on their resettlement, equal and rapid development of all the three regions of the State – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, good governance, better infrastructure, educational opportunities for people of Valley as its target in coming years. In August 2014 Narendra Modi paid a visit to Jammu and Kashmir, although he refrained from touching any political issue facing the State and said that his government intended to win hearts of people through development. However, it should be remembered here that Kashmir is not an economic issue but a political problem requiring a political solution as both separatist and mainstream politicians have been saying all along. Elsewhere, his development plank may have instant takers but in a place like Kashmir, he would not be able to strike a chord with people by ignoring their political alienation. As campaigning gets underway in India’s general election, culminating in the counting of votes on 23 May 2019, this essay looks at how the Kashmir conflict may feature in the contest.
It’s a commonplace of Indian general elections that Kashmir is never a campaign issue. There are no votes to be won by talking about India’s most persistent internal conflict – and so the nationwide political parties largely ignore it, just as for many years Northern Ireland barely featured in British election campaigns. India’s air attack on 26 February 2019 on what it says was a base of a Kashmir-facing jihadi group at Balakot in Pakistan has, on the face of it, brought the Kashmir issue to centre stage. But has it?. Balakot was, says the Indian military, used by the armed group Jaish-se- Mohammed which had claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack on a military convoy at Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir . At least forty Indian paramilitary troops were killed in the Pulwama attack – the heaviest loss of life in a single incident suffered by India’s armed forces in thirty years of separatist insurgency in Kashmir.
Generally, in conflict, there is a fog of confusion about the nature of the Indian strike on Balakot and the extent of the damage and casualties inflicted. But there is no doubt that India staged an air attack on Pakistani territory – the first Indian violation of Pakistani air space since 1971. Pakistan responded the following day with an air force operation which led to a dogfight over the skies of Kashmir – Pakistan shot down at least one Indian military plane and captured its pilot; India says it brought down a Pakistani plane which crashed on the other side of the line of control which, in effect, partitions Kashmir. So India’s general election takes place in the shadow of the most serious military confrontation between India and Pakistan since the Kargil conflict of twenty years ago.
In the context, Pakistan’s prompt release of the captured Indian air force pilot helped to ease tensions, and the wave of patriotism and jingoism evident in the Indian media has in part abated. But the perception that India’s nationalist-minded prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been resolute in responding to threats to India’s security – abandoning the policy of ‘strategic restraint’ which the country has pursued for decades – is likely to be to his political advantage. The governing BJP has disowned a prominent figure within its own ranks who said that the attack on Pakistan would boost its electoral fortunes – but that BJP insider was only saying aloud what many Indian politicians have been talking about privately. This apart, the Kashmir Valley, the heartland of Kashmiri culture and the focus of the dispute, accounts for just three of the 543 constituencies in the Lok Sabha and Kashmiri votes don’t determine who governs in Delhi.
Despite all these,at the juncture, it is very difficult to assess political opinion in the Kashmir Valley – a corner of Hindu-majority India which is 98 per cent Muslim – but most observers believe that Kashmiris, by and large, do not see themselves as Indian and resent the overwhelming military presence in the Kashmir Valley and the blight it places on their lives. Many – even most, like to see an independent Kashmir rather than become part of Pakistan, which has been fighting in one fashion or another to get hold of all of Kashmir ever since independence in 1947.
In comparison last year was the most violent in Kashmir for a decade – with an estimated 500 or more lives lost. Kashmiri militant groups, which once had been almost wiped out, are recruiting again – though in small numbers. The Indian army has adopted a tougher approach to rooting out armed militants. And in South Kashmir in particular, the level of popular disaffection – reflected in the mass gatherings for funeral prayers for killed militants and in the thousands who take to the streets to frustrate Indian army operations against armed separatists – is probably as high as it has ever been. While the Indian government continues to view Kashmir more as a security than a political concern, the situation is unlikely to improve. Tough security measures can succeed in limiting armed militancy but they don’t win hearts and minds.
At the moment there is no doubt in the fact that the Indian government’s response within Kashmir to the latest flare-up in tension with Pakistan has angered many in Kashmir. Security cover has been withdrawn from several moderate separatist leaders, even though they are at a real risk of attack by more hardline groups. The state’s governor – there is currently no elected state government – has pulled official advertising from two well-regarded English-language daily papers in Kashmir, an important source of revenue for them, apparently as a punishment for being too sympathetic to separatism. And most controversially, a longstanding socio-religious group, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned and several hundred of its members arrested – the group is seen as sympathetic to separatism but has denied any links to armed groups.
But like earlier, none of these measures are likely to focus in stages of India’s election campaign – and it is unlikely that they will be in the ahead. Nor is there a prospect of much discussion of the targeting in the wake of the Pulwama outrage of Kashmiris living in other parts of India, which will prompt several hundred Kashmiri students to hurriedly return home. Thus, it is hoped that the election campaign for the 17 Loksabha will run around traditional/long -pending issues, facing the country for decades.