India’s Jammu and Kashmir
Modi’s northern lights
The Hindu-nationalist prime minister campaigns in a mostly Muslim state
Handwara: ONCE a separatist, now a politician, Sajjad Lone says that pragmatism is gaining in popularity in the disputed and sometimes strife-torn Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. One example is that he stands a chance, just possibly, of being the next person to run the state, made up of the Hindu-majority, lowland region of Jammu and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley in the mountains—with Muslims predominating overall. The third of five stages in a rolling state-assembly election took place this week.
The whole thing wraps up on December 20th. A change of government is all but certain. Results may also reveal a profound realignment of loyalties.
From his garden in Handwara in North Kashmir, bathed in winter sunshine, Mr Lone says that Kashmiris “have become realistic in what is achievable” in terms of breaking away from India. He notes that those militants who call for boycotts and try to enforce them with violence are losing the battle. “I was in that camp, I know,” he says. He is probably right, despite four attacks on December 5th, soon after he spoke, by fighters who crossed over from Pakistani territory and killed 21 people. Voters seem undeterred. Turnout at the polls has been high, at around 60-70%. And by voting, say Kashmiris, they are not giving up dreams of independence, just seeking better government.
One big change would be if voters broke an old duopoly of political families, each with links to Congress, the national party currently in opposition in Delhi. The historically stronger family is the Abdullah dynasty and its National Conference. It will be walloped this month. Omar Abdullah, its genial third-generation incarnation as chief minister, has proved out of touch, his government mostly beyond his control. Violent clashes between youths and police each summer from 2008 to 2010 left him looking powerless; in 2010 alone police killed over 110 youngsters. Worsening corruption only deepened the public’s dismay at Mr Abdullah.
Then in September the chief minister spectacularly failed to show leadership as sudden floods hit Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. Officials had allowed people to build in the Jhelum river’s flood channels, while badly maintained canal banks collapsed. Parts of the town remained under two storeys of water for nearly three weeks. Thousands of people have been displaced and many homes ruined. A muddy high-tide mark still runs around the walls of whole districts. Official recovery efforts were derisory, though the army gave out water and rescued some people. Mr Abdullah said the central government had held back recovery funds, but most Kashmiris pin the blame on him.
The other family, the Muftis, and their People’s Democratic Party, is looking better placed. One party candidate, Haseeb Drabu, an ex-banker who has a chance of becoming state finance minister, predicts a narrow victory for his party, which insists it is less corrupt, and emphasises development. It does not call for secession but for self-rule within India. Yet journalists and some businessmen in Srinagar say that the two family parties are much alike in that they do the bidding of the central government in Delhi, divvy up the spoils of office, and slide into corruption.
By himself, Mr Lone will not end the duopoly. At best his grouping will win one or two of the 87 constituencies. Yet his fortunes are tied to the surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Previously not a serious actor in the state, the BJP has run a lavish campaign. It talks of winning “44-plus” seats, and for a Hindu-nationalist party it is striking that it has found 32 Muslim candidates—though its best chances lie among 26 Hindu-dominated seats in Jammu. After huge success nationally in the spring, victories in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana in October, and polls pointing to its winning in concurrent state elections in Jharkhand, no one writes off Mr Modi.
The BJP’s strength is emboldening voters to ignore militants’ calls not to go to the polls. Some three-way contests, notably in Srinagar, will be tight. Kashmiri Pandits, a community of Hindu Brahmins who were forced out in the 1990s but who can vote as if they were living at their old addresses, will boost the party. An opponent grumbles that the BJP “spends money like water” on newspaper ads, posters and volunteers. In a rare appearance for a prime minister in Kashmir, Mr Modi told a Srinagar crowd on December 8th that jobs and prosperity were what he was about. He targets the many young voters, fed up that years of protests have held back the economy and harmed job prospects. Some hope for a flood of public funds from Delhi should the BJP win. Certainly, it has been canny in seeking allies. Mr Lone, who calls the prime minister a “man of humility”, would be the BJP’s figurehead in Kashmir, even though not a party member.
Our interactive map demonstrates how the territorial claims of India, Pakistan and China would change the shape of South Asia
His party’s higher profile is already a victory for Mr Modi. Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Muslims, says he worries the party is spreading communal discord, as voters in Jammu form a Hindu bloc and as Shia-Sunni rivalry grows in parts of Kashmir. He warns that Mr Modi promotes the “fundamental” idea that India must be a predominantly Hindu country. A common fear is that the BJP plans to settle hundreds of thousands of retired soldiers in the valley, or to build segregated colonies to house returning Pandits.
For now, however, the BJP’s priority appears to be to push aside Congress as the decisive outside party in Kashmir—and to become acceptable to Kashmiris in future elections. A journalist in Srinagar says the BJP is winning “the perception war” over Congress. Even ending up as a substantial opposition party in Kashmir may help the BJP show Muslim voters in other states, for example, in Bihar, West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh, that it is no bogeyman for Muslims. Kashmir, then, could prove a gateway to wider appeal in other parts of India.