High voting in Kashmir: the contrarian Modi factor

How does one explain the sudden high turn-out of voters in the terrorist-hit Kashmir region of India’s troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir? In any other part of the country it would have been attributable to the near mesmerising Narendra Modi factor but not in Kashmir, where political faultlines travel through the disputed Line of Control (LoC) separating India and Pakistan. But for sure, Mr Modi has remained the pivotal figure in the state. It would be untrue to say that he did not influence the voting pattern, though it might have taken a different course from what has happened in other states such as Haryana and Maharashtra in the recent past. The only difference is that some viewed him with hope, others with curiosity and scepticism.

Kashmir has always been a political analyst’s nightmare, as predicting political events in this Himalayan zone is as hazardous as betting on a weather forecast. There has been consistency over the centuries as far as the nature of the weather is concerned, but not on the political front.

The scenario in the J&K Assembly elections 2014 is no different in terms of springing surprises. And the biggest surprise came in the shape of the highest ever voter turnout — this in the immediate aftermath of a ravaging flood that has inundated all of Srinagar city, Kashmir’s summer capital, leaving the populace disillusioned with the entire political spectrum of the state, including the national parties, for not providing support when it was most needed.

Amidst this ignominious political situation lurked fear about the success of the electoral process. From the Election Commission of India down to the lowest component of the state government, everyone mulled over whether conducting elections under such circumstances would be feasible, particularly in view of the deep chasm between the people and the political set-up.

The people of Kashmir have the uncanny knack of turning political events upside down on the basis of emotions, sometimes based on no tangible proof, that flow from a strong desire to safeguard their interests. The high poll percentage has, in a way, reflected this desire and it has a direct link to the Narendra Modi factor.

It all started with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) goal of winning 44-plus seats in a house of 87, thereby creating the impression that the party wedded to Hindutva ideology was angling to form a government on its own in the only Muslim majority state of the country, which was painstakingly made part of the Indian Republic by its first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, with the express view of strengthening the diversity of the nation. En route, Nehru made blunders, faced successes and encountered some failures, but the ultimate goal was achieved.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be given credit for hard-selling his developmental agenda during his election campaign in J&K, although he skipped controversial issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, providing special status to the state. But the overzealous bigots within the Sangh Parivar, which include a component of the BJP, some feel with the tacit backing of BJP big-wigs, were walking a different ideological plank.

Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, particularly the first two, have divergent political ideas, which makes the going tough for political parties. It is even more difficult for the BJP under Mr Modi to maintain its hold, achieved during the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in Jammu and at the same time ensure it gets a foothold in the Muslim majority Kashmir region, which accounts for 46 seats as against 37 in the Jammu region, in order to achieve its target of winning 44-plus seats.

Most of the political parties have been successful in striking a balance between the two regions, simply because they professed no hardcore ideology, although some regional players do occasionally profess ideas based on religion and regionalism. But given its background and the ideological platform, the task was difficult for the BJP.

The manner in which the BJP flip-flopped on Article 370 — adopting different postures during campaigning in the Jammu and Kashmir regions and total silence from Mr Modi when he toured the state to seek votes — sounded an alarm bell in the Kashmir Valley, with the resultant reverse polarisation that led to a high voting percentage.

Strange as it may sound, on the ground it was a live fact that the BJP chose to make the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its parent body that stands for strong Hindu thought, its show window in Kashmir. The RSS pointsman in the BJP and its new-found icon, Mr Ram Madhav, became a public face in the Valley, with strong back up from another top RSS leader, Mr Indresh, who claims influence among Kashmiri Muslims.

Contrary to the claims of these RSS leaders to be wooing Muslim voters, they proved to be anathema in Kashmir. The BJP-RSS experiment of importing Muslim Ulemas from central India to Kashmir to convince the local population of the virtues of the Sangh Parivar and Mr Modi’s real personality and intent seem to have had the opposite effect.

A sample survey of the third phase of polling, which covered some of the most volatile areas in the north of Kashmir, and its comparison with the past, themselves tell a story. An index is the polling recorded in Sopore, the home town of hardcore separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani, which was the worst affected by calls for a boycott in the past. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the polling percentage was a bare 1.03, which rose up to 30 per cent this time around, after standing at 8.09 and 19.95 per cent in the 2002 and 2008 Assembly elections respectively.

The terrorist infested region of Tral, which is perched on the LoC and which witnessed a bloody attack on an army formation a few days before the third phase of polling, came out with a thunderous response to the ballot. As against a few thousand votes polled in the Lok Sabha elections, over 30 per cent voting was recorded in this poll. In the final analysis, the ballot did indeed prove mightier than the bullet

Ultimately, the BJP’s entry into the poll arena wearing an RSS mask had a magical effect on the boycott politics of Kashmir. The mainstream political parties recovered ground they had lost in the aftermath of the floods and the separatist stream, synonymous with poll boycott calls, took refuge in the electoral battle in a bid to prevent the BJP’s entry into the Valley.

— Anil Anand